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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Grateful Zoe Williams steps out of the nordic racing track

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

By Martin Cleary

Cross-country skier Zoe Williams fuelled her nordic career with many elements, including multiple dreams.

Sometimes, the dream played out in full colour with a happy ending. Sometimes, the nasty gremlins got in the way and the dream never materialized.

As the Carleton University graduate from Cantley, Que., was flying home from last month’s Canadian cross-country ski championships in Whistler, B.C., where she helped the Nakkertok Ski Club win its 11th consecutive national club title, Williams reflected on her past season, which also would be her last season.

“Wondering how I can conceptualize the rollercoaster of emotions I have experienced as my ‘final year as a ski racer’ nears its end and without the fairy tale ending I had dreamed of,” Williams wrote in her blogpost.

“I have spent the majority of my life working towards goals and dreams in this sport that I now will be laying to rest. I spent the season watching these dreams fall through my fingers, making me question the years I have devoted to this sport, whether it is actually time to move on, and trying to come to terms with the feeling of failure associated with moving on without having reached the heights I had worked towards for so long.”

The more she thought about retiring as a high-performance athlete – and she’s not even sure retirement is the proper word as she will carry her skis with her for the rest of her life – the more she realized she was filled with “a deep, deep gratitude towards this sport and the people I’ve met along the way,” rather than tears and disappointment.

Williams will be forever thankful that cross-country skiing, its experiences, the coaches, the competitors, her supportive family and her teammates have shaped her into who she is today.

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“I have experienced my highest highs and lowest lows in this sport, and ski racing had a way of forcing me to confront aspects of myself and learn lessons that I doubt I would have experienced elsewhere, such as: how to come back from rock bottom and keep trying, recognizing that more lessons come from failure than success, the importance of being on a team and how my actions influence those around me…”

As one of the region’s top cross-country skiers, Williams has travelled, experienced nature, challenged herself and surprised herself, met incredible people and crossed finish lines feeling truly fulfilled.

Williams has decided to continue that challenging transition from being a student-athlete at Carleton University (2016-21) to a full-time athlete in 2021-22, and now to become a full-time student as she will head to Ireland in the fall to pursue her PhD at University College Cork.

“Wherever life takes me, I’ll still be exercising outside in all weather conditions, tackling new challenges, learning new lessons and feeling grateful for my years as a high-performance athlete and for the people I’ve met along the way.”

Last fall, Williams thought she was going to achieve one of her dreams this season with her sister, Bronwyn, when they were named to the Canadian team for the FISU Winter Universiade Games in Lucerne, Switzerland. But the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic kept them both home. The Games were cancelled because of restrictions on international arrivals due to the health and safety concerns of the Omicron variant.

Zoe Williams also had her eye on the 2022 Beijing Olympics, but her best result at the trials was a sixth-place finish in the skate sprint, which wasn’t enough to represent Canada at her first Winter Games.

In mid-January, she tested positive for COVID and that took a three-week slice out of her training and competitive season.

But in February and March, the final two months of her final nordic competitive season, Williams came alive with many positive results.

At the Eastern Canadian championships on her home Nakkertok course, she won gold medals in the women’s open 1.4-kilometre classic sprint and the interval-start 15-kilometre skate race, and also earned silver in the interval-start 10-kilometre classic test.

Returning to the Gatineau Loppet for the first time in seven years, Williams placed first in the women’s 50-kilometre skate race in her marathon debut. She wanted to enter the Gatineau Loppet marathon to get a feel for the race as the longest race for women at the national championships was going to be 42 kilometres, instead of the traditional 30 kilometres.

At the Canadian championships on the 2010 Olympic course in Whistler, B.C., Williams won the silver medal in the women’s team sprint with Hannah Shields and was the bronze medallist in the sprint as well as being the fourth Canadian in the 42-kilometre marathon. She also had two other top-eight results.

“I may not have reached the heights I’d worked towards in this sport, but I feel so lucky to have been filled with dreams all these years. Thank you for dreaming with me,” concluded Williams, who also thanked her ski community at Nakkertok and Carleton University, her coaches, teammates and family for all their support.

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

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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