By Michael Sun
Racing in front of her friends and family in her home province of Quebec made cross country skier Zoë Williams’ first World Cup an experience to remember.
Williams was selected alongside fellow-Nakkertok skier Katherine Stewart-Jones to compete at the Quebec City-held event after their club won its 10th consecutive aggregate national title at the Canadian Ski Championships that it hosted. At the national championships, Stewart-Jones had two 3rd place finishes, a 2nd place finish and one 5th place finish, while Williams finished 9th overall amongst junior women and 17th amongst senior women. Williams also won the team’s women sprint, with her partner Hannah Shields.
At the World Cup that was held just a week after nationals, Williams finished in 66th in her division. For her, the competition also marked the end of seven years of working with outgoing Nakkertok head coach Kieran Jones. Williams said it was “a wonderful end.” Camille Cheskey, who is from Waterloo but joins Nakkertok from the National Team Development Centre, has since been named the 10-time reigning national champs’ head coach.
Growing up, Williams never thought she would reach the levels of skiing that she has. She remembers skiing at a young age in North Bay before moving to Cantley, Que. when she was eight years old. In discussing the World Cup, Williams called it an exciting experience and likened the large crowds to those she remembers during her childhood competitions.
“One of my biggest goals is just honestly to have fun,” Williams said. “At times, when you’re working hard to meet these product orientated results or goals, I think you need to forget about that … (I) really try and reconnect with my younger self and why I’m doing this.”
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“Part of that fun was the sensation. Skiing in a way is the closest I can get to flying without leaving the ground,” she described.
About three years ago, Williams started struggling with body image issues and Relative Energy Deficiency in sport (RED-S). She had always been pretty lean, she said, and became encouraged when she lost five pounds at the national championships three years ago. Then as she continued training during that summer, she gained 10 pounds.
“I found actually it terrifying to be honest cause I went from stepping on a scale and always being a lower number to stepping on a scale and always (seeing) a higher number,” she noted. “I felt like I had kind of lost control of my body in a way and I was gaining weight and didn’t feel like I should be.”
She didn’t understand what was happening and said she started cutting back on her food intake to try and regain control. This led to her running out of energy during workouts and feeling, as she put it, “bonked.”
“At that point, I realized, ‘wait, what am I doing, what are my goals,’” she recalled.
She went on to consult with dietitians, as well as her coach, Jones.
“They were like ‘Zoë, you’re freaking out, what you’re doing isn’t going to help you from a racing perspective, it isn’t healthy.’”
But when her weight continued to fluctuate, her confidence fell, and she felt the need to have the look of the ideal athlete. She says she hit a moment of realization right before a qualification event last year for the U23 World Ski Championships.
“I woke up in the middle of the night really, really hungry and I had a really important race the next day, and it went horribly,” said Williams.
The problem was that she hadn’t eaten the night before.
“I was like, ‘Okay, my goal here is to race the fastest, not be the lightest,’” she added. “I made the intention to start giving my body what I wanted – and what I wanted was food.”
Williams talked to Jones and her family for support and went on to educate herself about REDS and change her diet to ensure she was eating food that gave her enough energy. Now, she wants to be a role model to other skiers who may be going through similar struggles by sharing her experience.
She says Jones was always an enthusiastic coach who truly cared for her athletes – evident in helping Williams through her adversities.
“As an athlete, I have been riding the edge of burnouts for a while and I think with a different coach who prioritize results and product over enjoyment and personal satisfaction … I would have stopped skiing many years ago,” she said.
Instead, she was able to compete in a World Cup with her family at her back, a feeling she’ll remember as “nostalgic.”
At the Canadian Ski Championships, Nakkertok’s Pierre Grall-Johnson won the award as the top junior skier. He won gold medals in his division’s sprint and 30k mass start events.
Chelsea Nordiq ski club’s Laura Leclair and Gatineau and Skinouk ski club’s Antoine Cyr were also selected to compete at the World Cup. Leclair couldn’t compete at the Canadian championships because of an illness, but won a gold medal, two silvers and a bronze at the Canada Winter Games. Cyr won two silver medals at the Canada Winter Games and also had a 5th place finish at the Canadian championships.