HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
OTTAWA’S OLYMPIC INSIDERS (Part 1 of 5): When Dirk Van Wijk was a young boy living in rural Chelsea, Que., he loved the winters as it gave him a chance to cross-country ski. But as he grew older, entered his teenage years and became a competitive racer, he needed to spend more time on his skis instead of just weekend family outings.
But there was no transportation system that would take him to Camp Fortune on a regular basis and hitch-hiking wasn’t a smart option. So Van Wijk developed a system to groom his own ski trails on his family’s property using a few basic items he found at home.
Van Wijk took an old wooden, four-seater toboggan and shortened it by cutting off the back two feet. He screwed blocks of wood underneath the sled, which allowed him to carve two classic cross-country ski trails. Using ropes to pull the toboggan, he strapped on his ash wood and catgut snowshoes, started walking and created a finely groomed course.
The Nakkertok Nordic Ski Club was created a few years later and Van Wijk offered his skills and enthusiasm as a groomer for course preparation. This small club, which was started by the Weber and Holloway families and has grown into the largest and most successful in Canada, gave Van Wijk the thumbs up. He put down and maintained the trails using a snowmobile.
Five decades later, Van Wijk is still making his winter rounds, but the toboggan and snowmobile are long gone. Today, he fashions impeccable classic and now free-skate technique courses, while driving monster machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And his enthusiasm, knowledge and dedication to this rare talent has earned him a valuable role in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China. The Games officially open Friday, but competition begins Wednesday in mixed curling and continues Thursday with mixed curling, freestyle skiing and women’s hockey.
The Beijing Olympics will be the third Winter Games for Van Wijk, who lives in Ottawa and is co-owner of the OWL Whitewater Rafting company with wife Claudia. They also own the Nakkertok Nordic Ski Club land.
Van Wijk, 62, had the title of Chief of Course for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and was part of a team of 12 groomers, who worked eight-hour shifts around the clock. For the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in Korea and the 2022 Beijing Games, he is a key co-groomer.
The Beijing Olympic nordic competition venues in Zhangjiakou (about a three-hour drive outside of Beijing) have been designed in a horseshoe layout for cross-country skiing, biathlon and ski jumping. Cross-country will be staged at one end and biathlon is located at the other end. The 70- and 90-metre ski jumping towers are in the middle. Van Wijk is staying in a hotel on the same site and is within walking distance of his grooming work.
After the Olympic skiers train on the cross-country ski trails during the day, Van Wijk starts grooming about 8 p.m. each night with five other Chinese groomers. There’s also a translator, who passes on Van Wijk’s instructions and gives him feedback.
“We are using two Prinoth Bisons (grooming machines) and two Prinoth Huskys every night,” Van Wijk wrote in a post on Nakkertok Nordic’s website. “The Bisons are set up with four track pans, the Huskys (have) two and there are track tillers on each one. We are setting some near perfect tracks already.”
When in Ottawa, Van Wijk spends a good part of his winter days taking care of the trails at Nakkertok Nordic using the club’s $350,000 PistenBully 100 grooming machine.
That’s quite a change from when Van Wijk made his debut in the Callaghan Valley region of British Columbia for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“In 2010, it was tricky snow. Things were not smooth,” Van Wijk said with a sense of disappointment in his voice. “Smooth is our aim. We had rough times. We’d be out all night with freshly fallen snow and then everyone (technical people) would come around 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. I wished we were finished and out before then.
“There were some bad, tough days. The wet snow was the hardest to deal with, hard to make it smooth.”
Two years before the Vancouver Olympics, Van Wijk indicated to Games organizers he would be interested in being part of the grooming team. He couldn’t accept a full-time job, but offered to work during the Games.
“They were looking for a Chief of Course. I didn’t want to say ‘yes’ as I wasn’t sure what it meant. No one had applied. I got a phone call saying I was the only one left and I needed to do it. It was a big job, but it was fun working with great people,” he said.
Organizers of the 2014 Sochi Olympics handled their own trail grooming, but Van Wijk got a call from John Aarlberg, the course designer at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, to be part of the 2018 PyeongChang grooming contingent.
“He reached out to the Callaghan Valley group, who were clever people from all across Canada,” Van Wijk added. “I learned the most with that group of experienced groomers.
“In Korea, it was so cold some mornings that the machines couldn’t start,” said Van Wijk, who was teamed with a Norwegian and a Korean groomer to make ideal cross-country trails over a hilly golf course.
The expensive grooming machines can travel between 15 and 20 kilometres an hour at top speed. But to make proper and consistent classic-style trails and well-rounded turns, the machines slow down to between five and seven kilometres an hour.
Aarlberg, who also designed the Beijing Olympic trails, contacted Van Wijk again for his assignment in China.
“He reached out to us in pre-COVID days. It has been more of a challenge to get this far and stay healthy,” he said.
Van Wijk travelled 36 hours to Beijing from Ottawa via Toronto and Vienna two weeks before the start of the Olympics to get familiar with the machines, terrain and the weather. But his third Olympic grooming role comes with the added feature of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Chinese are taking COVID very seriously,” Van Wijk wrote in another Dirk at the Olympics web post. “We are always wearing approved masks, get ‘gag’ tested (throat swab) every morning, facilities are sterilized frequently, (and) hazmat suits seem in style here. But the biggest concern for the venue is how to keep the bubbled group separated from the non-bubbled.”
But there’s a solution. The non-bubbled spectators use their own upper deck walkway at the cross-country, biathlon and ski jumping venues, while the bubbled athletes, coaches and Olympic officials travel along a different lower walkway.
Despite the added concerns, Van Wijk is thrilled to be a third-time groomer at the Olympic Games, which will feature three representatives from West Quebec.
“It’s a privilege to go to the Olympics. As a competitive racer, I never worked hard enough to go to the Games,” said Van Wijk, who represented Canada at the 1979 world junior cross-country ski championships. “It’s a passion. I love to do it. I like the results. I’m proud of the results.
“It’s an honour (to work at the Winter Games). Thousands of skiers want to represent Canada. But there are not too many groomers.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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