Strength. Balance. Agility. Jesse Cockney had all of those qualities as a child growing up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories — just like most Inuit kids — according to his father, Angus. But what he could do with that talent was what Angus hoped to nurture.
Since he had put his son on skis at age 3, Angus reflected in an email that he “knew then that [Jess] had incredible potential to succeed.”
And so the Cockneys moved to Canmore, Alberta, when Jess was 7. That included Jess’s mother, Trish, and his sister, Marika. According to Angus, a former competitive skier and junior national champion in 1973, ’74 and ’75 (who spent two months skiing to the North Pole in 1989), the move was about giving Jess “a better opportunity to succeed as it had the right environment with the Nordic Centre and a community full of support with like-minded kids and parents. In other words, we wanted him around a healthy environment.”
It was an easy transition, Angus explained. Canmore was more conducive to training with milder temperatures than Yellowknife and a wealth of experienced coaches and athletes.
More than two decades later, Jess credited his dad for helping him reach the highest level of cross-country skiing. A two-time Olympian, Cockney, now 28, has spent 11 years on Canada’s senior national team and two more on the junior national team. He achieved a sixth-place finish in a classic sprint at U23 World Championships in 2011, as well as four individual top-10 finishes on the World Cup.
“The big reason that I have cross-country skied at this level and really understood at an early age what it meant to pursue racing at a high level was definitely because of Dad,” Cockney said on the phone in April. “He took skiing to a high level as a junior and didn’t carry on after his junior career but stayed really involved with the sport and with racing, too.”
He emphasized how special it was to share moments like shuffling on skis at a young age with his dad to seeing him on the side of a World Cup course, calling out splits and taking pictures.
“It’s pretty fun to be able to share that time together, because skiing means so much to both of us,” Cockney said. “I’m quite happy that my career has worked out as well as it has and that Dad has been able to be there for so many of the good days with it, too.”
After six years of traveling across Europe on the World Cup circuit (as well as to places like Sochi, Russia, and PyeongChang, South Korea, for the Olympics), Cockney retired from professional skiing this spring. It was a decision that had been on his mind for the better part of the last two seasons, he explained. Toward the end of the PyeongChang Olympics in February, he felt what he described as a mental “decompression” and a natural ending to his career, which solidified his decision.
“I know how much mental energy it takes to commit towards the training year and the travel for the racing season,” Cockney said. “I had a blast doing that for so many years and I just didn’t think that I was going to be sharp enough or motivated enough. I’m just happy to have such a great season as a final year with the Olympic team and being together with so many of my teammates from over the years at those Games. It just feels like the time is right and I’m excited to do something else.”
While currently renovating his home in Canmore with his girlfriend Annika Hicks (as well as his dad, skier Bob Thompson, and another friend) and assistant coaching at Foothills Nordic, Cockney plans to start classes at the University of Calgary this fall. He was accepted into the university’s political-science program this spring.
Hicks, who previously trained out of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) in Canmore, will also be studying full time at the University of Calgary. She is halfway through her studies there toward a science/kinesiology degree in exercise and health physiology. Like Cockney, she explained in an email that she’s been “on the fence” about continuing with skiing for the last two years.
“I wanted to stop skiing on my terms and with a healthy relationship with the sport,” Hicks, 26, wrote. “I have no regrets and am happy to have that closure. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to ski race for so long.”
In her career, she started 15 World Cup races, competed at two U23 World Championships and 2011 Junior Worlds, tallied at least three podiums at Canadian senior nationals (including two second-place results at 2018 nationals in March), and ended this season as the second-ranked Canadian woman overall on the NorAm circuit.
Cockney also finished the second on the overall NorAm aggregate points list. After winning both the freestyle sprint and 15 k freestyle pursuit at this year’s nationals, he also was also awarded the Malcolm Hunter award — a trophy his dad made — as the aggregate male winner at nationals.
“It was a great way to end the season and end the career,” Cockney said. “I’d never won the nationals aggregate before so that was a big thing for me to do … To get that in my last stab at it was pretty sweet.”
Angus pointed out that his son’s aggregate win was also special because of where it took place.
“It was in Thunder Bay [Ontario] where Canada lost my good friend/foe in the late great Reijo Puiras,” Angus wrote. “He too was passionate for cross country and especially made time for and congratulated Jess whenever he could. And, Jess was presented the Malcolm Hunter trophy; a trophy I created and Malcolm was my former coach who brought me to victory in the stormy ice-cold 1975 Canada Winter Games. Therefore, it was very befitting for Jess to go out that way. He came back and told me, ‘Dad, I won the trophy you made.’ ”
Looking back, Angus explained that his proudest moment of Jess was was when his son consciously chose to pursue cross-country skiing at age 11.
“I believe he would have made the National Hockey League if he wanted to but I’m glad he picked the greatest sport in the world,” he wrote. “For Jess, I’m proud on how he has become well respected as a person in the community and abroad. Of course too, he showed he belonged on the world’s stage with a number of top ten finishes on the World Cup circuit but was especially proud of him as the second qualifier here in Canmore in 2012 sprints. He certainly had the community a buzz. As a Father/Son duo though, I’m proud too on how we are the only Father/Son duo to win our respective Canada Winter Games; 1975 and 2009.”
Cockney had a number of standout moments at the World Cup level, the first of which came at home in Canmore in December 2012, when he placed ninth in a World Cup skate sprint. Then, late in the 2015/2016 season in Quebec City, he raced to 10th in the Ski Tour Canada’s skate-sprint World Cup stage. The next winter, he notched two more individual top-10 results: first in a classic sprint at the 2017 World Cup in PyeongChang and then in another skate sprint in Quebec City.
Those top 10’s effectively earned him a spot on Canada’s 2018 Olympic team as well as its 2017/2018 World Cup A-team.
“The time in Canmore, for sure, was such a special race for me,” Cockney reflected of his career-best World Cup result. “That was really big because it went well and my family was all there and it was just really a great surprise kind of day.”
Another race he’ll never forget was the 50 k mass start at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a race he had never expected to enter.
“Just the way that people got sick and things don’t work out for other teammates, I was able to start it, and I was just so happy to be able to race that massive race at the Olympics,” he said. “That’s just such a big deal for me in my career, to have raced it and finished it.”
He recalled his time with the AWCA and transitioning from the NorAm to international racing with peers like Kevin Sandau, Michael Somppi, Chris Hamilton, Graeme Killick, Graham Nishikawa, Brent McMurtry, Drew Goldsack, and Phil Widmer.
“So many fun Phil battles,” Cockney reflected. “Now that that group is still there with Bob Thompson making his way — it’s great to see that group is still getting stronger with that tail end of younger guys in that group. … Probably my biggest highlight is the relationships that I’ve been able to foster and have come from skiing, for sure, is the people and the time that we’ve shared together.”
Besides his dad and his fellow competitors, he credited his high-school training group, the Banff Ski Runners, and its coach Anders Lenes, as well as Mike Cavaliere as major influences.
“We had so many good guys my same age, and really the time with friends was actually just time training so it was the perfect atmosphere for a couple of us to take it really far,” Cockney said of the Banff team.
“My coach right after Anders, Mike Cavaliere, definitely had a really big impact in fostering that next level of belief for me, from going from a good skier in Western Canada to trying to be the best that I could be in Canada,” he continued. “And then setting goals to reach potential in the international scene, too, with time together at World Juniors and Under 23’s and early in my World Cup and my first Olympics we were still working together.”
Asked what it was like growing up on the national team and how the sport has shaped him, Cockney was introspective.
“I’m definitely softer spoken or maybe more considerate at this point,” he said. “Really what I’ve gotten to understand is respecting everybody’s hard work in sport and understanding what someone’s going through; we don’t really get it all the time.
“I’m a little bit more — I’d just say not as brash or just a little bit more reserved,” he continued. “I learned some hard lessons from being just a little bit too mouthy or a little bit too, maybe even arrogant. The time in sport has really shaped a lot of who I am, probably more than I realize. I’m super appreciative of the people who’ve been a part of that, just being such great people, and how they carry themselves, [and] emulating that where I can in life.”
A longtime member of Canada’s senior development team, Cockney was promoted to World Cup B-team status in recent years and spent his last season as an A-team member. So while funding has become tighter within Cross Country Canada (CCC) since 2014, Cockney said he had the unique experience of increased financial support in the last couple years.
“I started supporting myself for World Cup opportunities in 2014 and paying out of pocket for the whole thing, and then by this year I was getting more support from the whole team,” he explained. “My seasons have been consecutively getting more and more financially feasible, so I’m lucky it was trending in that direction and I was able to be a little bit better financially as the years went by.”
With further budget cuts for CCC expected, Cockney said his retirement wasn’t motivated by the prospects of self-funding. He is one of four men from last year’s Canadian World Cup Team who have decided to retire (the other three being Devon Kershaw, Knute Johnsgaard and Graeme Killick.) Alex Harvey and Len Valjas are the lone returners to the 2018/2019 World Cup A-team.
“Alex and Lenny and Graeme and I, we’ve been going to nationals together since I think, like, 2004,” Cockney reflected. “So it’s been a really long time together and more and more time with Devon at the top level of the sport. I was roommates with Knute for a while last year so we really felt like we’re a tight-knit group of guys and it was fun. They’re not just teammates, they’re friends that are now going to be part of our life for the rest of our time out of sport.”
The next steps
In mid-April, Cockney said his permanent break from racing hadn’t really sunk in yet. A month later, he was coaching Foothills Nordic athletes at a training camp in Penticton.
Asked what piece of advice he’d give up-and-coming skiers, he said it was “cheesy”, but simply to be true to oneself.
“At the end of the day, it’s your name on the results and you’ve got to be able to be the one driving the train and figuring things out,” he said. “It’s a brutally honest sport, and we’re judged with a clock. It’s your name next to that time, so be true to yourself and enjoy the process so much. … In cross-country skiing, the process is 95 percent of the sport, and 5 percent of it is competing… Just having a real love for the training, the relationships, the places that you go, that’s the biggest thing.”
And as he parts ways with CCC, he stressed the importance of club programs in the development pipeline as they helped cultivate his career (Cockney grew up skiing with Foothills Nordic).
“The club systems were really strong in Canada and could provide athletes with a lot of support through different points in their career, and I think we’ve really put a big focus on the training centres, taking up the mantle with that,” Cockney said. “If clubs were able to be more supportive, be more things to athletes at different points in their career, I think that you would start to see an improvement in just the health of the sport across the country. The more places people can ski at a high level, or whatever level they feel they want to, without moving, without uprooting themselves, I think that’s the best thing. It’s not always feasible for someone to pick up and move to a training centre and change their life. If there’s a club in town that they can pursue their goals in sport, then that’s the best way to get people sticking with the sport.”
As for his future endeavors and adventures, Cockney predicted that he probably wouldn’t rollerski for fun. Rather, he was looking forward to mountain biking in the Bow Valley, going fishing and enjoying “a few more outdoor pursuits that are for myself” and a slower pace. “I think that will be good for me,” he said.
“[I’m] definitely keen to get going with something else in life,” he said. “It’s been an absolutely amazing time in sport for me and I achieved pretty much everything that I would’ve wanted to in a career and I had a great time doing it … but it’s going to be a challenge, for sure, because it’s been so long since I was doing school consistently. … Just looking forward to a new challenge.”
— Gerry Furseth contributed
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.