It all started as a running joke. Amanda Ammar wasn’t actually a ninja, people just thought she was.
Two seasons ago, the 2006 Olympian and former Canadian National Ski Team member decided to return to competitive nordic skiing after a year-and-a-half hiatus. She did so cautiously, balancing training with a secretarial job at the Rocky Mountain Rehab and Sports Medicine Clinic in Canmore, Alberta.
“I want to get to a certain level again, but I can’t force it,” she said at the time. “I just have to do what I love doing.”
That meant working out at odd hours with her boyfriend and coach, Chris Butler.
“My first year back I was working every day,” Ammar said on the phone last week of her 2011/2012 season. “Me and Chris, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re just gonna do ninja training and keep it fun.’ ”
That winter, she grabbed four NorAm podiums. Friends were supportive, but they didn’t quite understand. When did she train? They never saw her.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a ninja,’ ” the 27-year-old said.
That season, Ammar’s friend Anna Schappert made her a headband with a lightning bolt. She asked for another one – with a ninja – and raced in it last season, ultimately capturing the overall NorAm title.
The appeal of Ammar’s independent and unorthodox method quickly caught on in Canmore. Friends Alana Thomas and Zoe Roy, formerly of training centres and clubs, joined her at Western Canadian Championships in Grande Prairie, Alberta. There, Ammar and Thomas each won a race and placed second in another, and Roy finished fourth twice at the three-day mini tour.
Not bad for a band of ninjas.
The three made the bond more concrete this spring, naming themselves “Team Ninja” and vowing to work hard while always having fun. It wasn’t long before they added a fourth member: Chandra Crawford, who decided to train independently of the Canadian World Cup Team in April.
According to Ammar, Crawford asked her if she could join. The 29-year-old Olympic gold medalist had her own training plan and coach, Peter Larsson, but wanted some training partners.
“I said, ‘Yes, but we have some big ground rules,’ ” Ammar said. “We have no bullsh*t on this team. We’re gonna have a ton of fun, be competitive, get together and have really good workouts.”
Among the rules, as listed on Thomas’s blog: “You must swear to always have fun,” and “only be competitive at the appropriate times.”
“You don’t need to win lunch,” said Thomas, who left the Alberta World Cup Academy early last winter in her first season with the national training centre.
Like Roy, who raced for the University of Utah before pursuing a professional career with Rocky Mountain Racers last season, Thomas said the team structure wasn’t the right fit. With her own coach, Team Hardwood’s Jack Sasseville, writing her training plan out of Toronto, Thomas said the Ninjas’ work-hard-play-harder approach makes the arrangement work.
“We’re all on the same page,” she said. “We’re all focused on skiing for at least one more year and skiing at a high level but we also need more flexibility. We each have our own coach so our training plans aren’t identical; we’re not going out holding hands every day.”
Earlier this week, Thomas rollerskied with two other Canmore-based women, Brittany Webster and Rebecca Reid. There are times when her workout doesn’t jive with her teammates’ or anyone else’s, and she said that’s OK.
“It’s kind of nice to go by yourself a few days a week,” Thomas said.
So what makes the four independent skiers a team?
“We genuinely want each other to succeed,” Thomas explained.
If one of them makes the Olympics next year, Ammar, Thomas and Roy all said they’d be ecstatic for that person.
“I don’t think you could really ask for better Canadian girls to train with,” said Roy, who’s in the process of finding a coach. In the meantime, she’s enjoying training with close friends.
On Saturday, all four will compete in the 5 Peaks Trail Run at the Canmore Nordic Centre. They recently trained together at their first training camp in Bend, Ore., staying at Roy’s mom’s house to cut down on expenses. They’ve planned camps in Osoyoos, British Columbia, and potentially St. George, Utah, where they also have places to stay.
“Being independent doesn’t mean it’s going to be more expensive by any means,” Ammar said. “A lot of ways you’re going to spend less money. … Non-carded athletes have team fees and a lot of those fees don’t cover travel, so they’re paying rent and team fees on top of it. We’re doing camps in places we have hookups.”
“You just make it work,” she added. “Chandra’s so used to being on the national team. I said to her, ‘Dude, this is the great thing bout not being on a team. We don’t need to have camps all the time!’ Canmore is awesome. We have a sick setup.”
And she’s thrilled her approach is affecting others.
“For so long, I was on a structured program,” Ammar said. She moved to Canmore for her last year of high school, spent three years on the junior national team and three more on the senior squad.
“It’s hard to work and do all that other stuff,” she added. “I think I just got too focused on one thing, and once I stepped back and I wasn’t skiing at all, I realized that if you have the right boss and setup like we have, you can have a life. I just had to see it for myself.
“For me, just to go to work, it’s just something else other than skiing and it makes me appreciate skiing even more,” she added. “Mentally I think that all of us need that.”
In addition to working at the clinic, Ammar has her own cleaning business. Thomas is the retail and event manager for Crawford’s company, Fast and Female, and works at the OutSide Bike & Ski shop. Roy splits her time between working at a coffee shop and the Paintbox Lodge, where she babysits for Sara Renner and Thomas Grandi in exchange for rent.
As busy as they are, they’re still training full time.
“We’re not just out here messing around,” Ammar said. “We have fun every day, but we’re working hard. We want to keep it how sport should be; sport should be fun.”
According to Roy, the community’s already noticed.
“It’s kind of funny how much it has grown,” she said. “We’ll hear people talking about it, like, ‘There are the Ninjas!’ We’ve got some really nice emails that, ‘You girls are inspiring to our kids on this junior team.’ … Those things make me happy.”