Nic Lemyre on Guiding Cross Country Canada Forward

Jason AlbertJune 19, 2018
Nic Lemyre (Photo: Norges Idrettshøgskole/Norwegian Sports Academy/)

Cross Country Canada has reset. In this nascent Olympic cycle, there’s been an organizational seismic wave as the country’s national governing body (NGB) for nordic sport, Cross Country Canada (CCC) implements change

In a post-Olympic afterglow, it’s common for NGBs to reassess, reprioritize and refinance. As part of its reboot, CCC hired Nic Lemyre as a high performance and development advisor. (Former high performance director Tom Holland recently retired.)  

For the past 21 years, Lemyre has resided and worked in Norway, most recently as a professor of sport psychology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH) in Oslo. He also currently serves as the head of the department of coaching and psychology at NIH. Lemyre is originally from Montreal, graduated from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, and was a member of the original elite training group of athletes based out of Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec.

After a year training and racing post-collegiately in the mid ’90s, Lemyre was perplexed by this common and recurring question among nordic skiers: why are the Norwegians so fast? So he traveled to Norway to investigate. 

“I was really curious about how come Norway was dominating so much in cross-country skiing,” Lemyre, 45, said on the phone last week from Canmore, Alberta. “They had so many guys that were going so fast. I thought I could take a trip there and see with my own eyes. So it was not an academic reason, it was really a curiosity related to what they were doing that could explain why they were so good at skiing.”

Lemyre’s original six-month trip ballooned in duration as he earned both a masters and doctorate in sport psychology from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Along the way, he had opportunities to answer his initial question about Norway’s recurrent cross-country success. He, too, eventually played a part in those achievements as a sport-psychology consultant for the Norwegian women’s biathlon team and men’s cross-country team.

“I started working for the men’s team when Trond Nystad took over,” Lemyre explained. “I had known Trond when racing against him at NCAA’s. He was racing for Vermont and I was racing for St. Lawrence, so we would compete every weekend throughout the whole winter. And him being a foreigner and me being a foreigner, we would hang out, Trond and I and some other foreign guys. It was just really fun to meet Trond again 20 years later during a very different stage of our lives and we all got along really well, not just socially but also professionally.”

A former U.S. Ski Team head coach, Nystad began guiding Norway’s cross-country team starting in 2011.

“When Trond took over, Petter Northug was pretty much the only guy winning races on the men’s side and he had been doing that for many years,” Lemyre said. “Trond structured the team in a way and a year later all the guys that were on the national team had podium finishes. And everybody contributed in a significant way to the excellence of the team. So that was a very interesting period to work with them.”

Lemyre’s tasks with CCC are centered on championship and Olympic medals for both able-bodied and para-nordic skiing. As his job title denotes, he’ll advise Canada on how to develop athletes into high-performance skiers on that medal path. With his knowledge base of both Norway’s and Canada’s nordic-skiing communities, Lemyre is positioned to adopt Norwegian methodologies when it suits Canada, yet build a program that capitalizes on what is unique to Canada.

To illustrate how the systems differ, Lemyre described the vast number of young skiers vying for limited race bibs within the Oslo “neighborhood” ski clubs. He spoke of a five-week-long, Oslo-based race series for eight to 11 year olds.

“There are 1400 places and all the places are registered within 24 hours on the internet,” Lemyre said of the depth of skiers within a single slice of Norway. “We have to block it at 1400 because we would not have time to race all the kids between the time they need to get there after school and before they have to go to bed. That number is the most amount of kids we can have on two-kilometer track between, I think, it starts at 5:15 p.m. and goes until 8:15 p.m. So the kids are starting two by two every 15 second for three hours. These are only the neighborhood races.”

Lemyre also consulted for the Norwegian men’s national hockey team. His experience working with that team reinforced the importance of capitalizing on Norway’s strength: a less-physical style of play. In 2011, Norway, a relatively small country when it comes to hockey, placed sixth overall at the men’s World Championships.     

“For a small nation like Norway to do that well at the World Championships it was a great performance from the team,” Lemyre recalled. “And one thing I noticed from how they were preparing and performing at the World Championships was they tried to do it their way. They did not try to meet the Canadians or the Swedes or the Americans and try to play their game and play better than them because that would not have worked. I think at the Olympics in Vancouver, our team had almost a 20-kilo deficit in terms of weight with the Canadian players. Had they been playing as physically as the Canadians, it would have been very hard for them to hold out a 60-minute game.”

His time with Norway’s hockey program will serve as a corollary for fortifying cross-country skiing in Canada. Lemyre said his commitment to developing solutions to cross-country ski development will involve building on Canada’s intrinsic strengths. He’ll simultaneously import piecemeal from Norway’s development paradigm which emphasizes a data-driven approach.

“I think it is important to find a Canadian solution and then try to be fast on skis sort of the Canadian way,” Lemyre said. “If we try to do it the Norwegian way, they will always have numbers on their side and they will always have the advantage that the whole country breathes and eats and sleeps cross-country skiing. It is important for us to import what is importable from Norway, but also find a solution that is truly Canadian.”

“It is important for us to import what is importable from Norway, but also find a solution that is truly Canadian.” — Nic Lemyre, CCC high performance and development advisor

Lemyre’s approach appears to be binary. There are the athletes and the infrastructure to support those athletes. Although stating he had not yet discussed this with his colleagues at CCC, Lemyre said one hypothesis to test is trying to recruit cross-country athletes from different sports. This “crossover” hypothesis might help identify potential elite skiers in a system lacking the raw skier numbers of a Norway.  

According to Lemyre, his center’s research at NIH discovered that adolescent athletes do not need endurance training to make them faster skiers later in their careers.

“What we see is that there is very little physiological adaptation to endurance training before kids turn 13,” he said. “To have a focus on skill development and play until they reach that age is really important. Endurance is something that you can gain really quickly later in life. We could also emphasize the fact that you can be a cross-country skier in the winter to keep yourself active and develop skills and in the summer you can play soccer or do mountain biking or something else, so that we welcome you in the cross-country skiing family even though you have other sport interests. … We want cross-country skiing to be the most inclusive sport in Canada.”

Lemyre again referenced hockey to differentiate how CCC can build its roster of high-performing skiers. In Canada, he said that only ice hockey can claim a near monopoly of untapped youth talent like cross-country skiing in Norway. He described a system in Canada where the default season for aspiring hockey players is 12 months long. According to Lemyre, a stigma exists for families pulling their children out of full-time hockey training to play another sport on the side.   

“There is a strong feeling with the parents if they pull out their kids from ice hockey in the summer so they play soccer then the kid will suffer when they try to come back into the structure in the fall,” he said. “Because often the coaches will interpret that as the kid being less motivated or the kid investing less in their development, so they will often make the kid, call it, ‘pay’ for them not playing hockey in the summer. I think if we can be wise in cross-country skiing and actually use the research to our advantage and encourage our kids to be multi-sport athletes down the road, we will likely have even better athletes. And one thing’s for sure, we will not have used up their motivation because they will have had the opportunity to do a lot of things while they were developing.”

The other piece of Lemyre’s development model will focus on the importance of training infrastructure. He’ll highlight the locations and facilities where athletes can form high-level training groups and learn from one another within Canada. 

“I find the Americans have been doing that really well with the last generation of skiers you have at a high level,” Lemyre said. “[The Americans] focused on what you could develop within the country with the strengths they already had. You have athletes use the infrastructure already in place. The athletes are good at training in American places during the offseason and organizing training tasks where athletes can train with the best in the U.S. and learn from them and share knowledge. So we are inspired by that.”

Lemyre acknowledged that he is advising CCC during a period of change and perceived instability. When he took over the Department of Coaching and Philosophy and Psychology at NIH, he explained it was also a time of change and disruption. When he began leading the department, he was tasked with modifying the direction of research and restructuring the organization. Having led that research group for the last eight years, which includes over 30 staff members and a multi-million dollar budget, Lemyre notes he is acclimated to the challenges of organizational development.     

“I understand that all the bricks aren’t in place yet [at CCC] and there are people that have left the organization that were very knowledgeable and had a lot of experience,” Lemyre said. “Some of them live here in Canmore and I happen to know some of them, so there is the human side of the situation where it’s never fun to know that somebody you know and appreciate a lot has had to make that change to their professional life. But as an organization, I think sometimes you need to regroup and downsize to know what you really have and what you need. … This is a temporary situation. It’s always hard to do those changes. But I would say in terms of our sport, it makes sense to make these big changes and restructuring when you are starting an Olympic cycle.”

Along with his new role with CCC, FasterSkier asked Lemyre whether he’d be taking on a similar role with Biathlon Canada. As of press time, Biathlon Canada neither confirmed nor directly commented on an official partnership with Lemyre.

“Biathlon Canada is in the final process of restructuring different staffing positions and official statements will be released soon,” Biathlon Canada’s National Team Head Coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an email.

According to Lemyre, collaboration between the two NGBs was likely.

“There’s a strong interest in Canada in having more overlap at the high level between cross-country skiing and biathlon and both sports have a lot of commonalities and it makes sense to share knowledge, to share experience and to share competence,” Lemyre said when asked about a Biathlon Canada partnership. “I haven’t been part of CCC for a very long time. I still need time to get a good overview of what we have and how we can best collaborate, but there is definitely a strong interest from both sides to have more collaboration in the future and to share more resources. We don’t really know what it’s going to look like in the end, but there’s definitely strong interest on both sides to make this collaboration a success.”

Lemyre is currently in Canada but will return to Oslo with his wife and three children in August to continue his head of department duties at NIH.

“I will be doing my advisory job remotely from the month of August,” he said. “For sure it is a compromise, but that is what we could organize.”

Despite being based in Norway, Lemyre said he will be working closely with CCC’s CEO Shane Pearsall and collaborating with Canada’s provincial training centers.

“We also wish to have me do some operational things with the national teams,” Lemyre said. “Our thoughts are that during the competition season, I will have opportunities to meet up with the national-team athletes and staff on site in Europe and during championships as well. … I’ve officially been in this position for less than a week so I think maybe if we talk again in a few weeks or a month or two then definitely I’ll have a lot more insight in terms of what kind of resources we have and where we’re going and how we’re going to build it.”

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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