By Martin Cleary
The racing was tough.
The wait was even worse.
After cross-country skier Helen McCulligh of Kanata had completed her Ontario trials races early last month at the Lappe Ski Club, the waiting, worrying and wondering filled that void.
Did she ski well enough to qualify for her first Canada Winter Games?
As the Kanata Nordic Ski Club athlete waited in the Thunder Bay airport for her return flight to Ottawa, a little of the tension was released. She was talking to a provincial cross-country ski insider, who actually was a coach with another club.
That coach had watched all the races, charted all the results and crunched the numbers. By his careful calculations, it looked like McCulligh had enough good results and placement ordinals to be named to the Ontario team for the Games, which start Saturday and run through March 5 in Prince Edward Island.
But the naming of the provincial team couldn’t happen right after the Ontario trials. Instead, it was delayed until after Jan. 21 because the Canadian trials for the world junior and U23 championships had to play out to see which Ontario athletes would be available for the Canada Games.
“But when I was in the airport in Thunder Bay, someone showed me a chart of the points,” McCulligh said in a phone interview. “I was sitting fourth. Since then, I was more positive.”
And two weeks later, she was ecstatic, when the first-year Carleton University commerce student out of West Carleton Secondary School had been named to the team for the multi-sport festival for Canada’s rising, high-performance athletes.
“I was definitely excited,” added McCulligh, who felt stressed early in the three-race qualifier, but managed to make the grade with a strong closing result.
Ontario cross-country ski officials looked at the results from the three different girls and boys’ races and named the top six skiers in each gender to the provincial team for the Canada Winter Games.
McCulligh is a strong free technique skier over long distances and her best race wasn’t until the end of the trials – the mass-start, 15-kilometre skate.
In mid December, she made her debut in a high-level 20-kilometre mass-start skate race at Mont Ste. Anne, PQ., and finished first.
Ontario’s Games trials opened with a concerning seventh-place result in the classic sprint, which meant she was one place out of the top six for the team.
“I was a little discouraged after the sprint,” McCulligh admitted. “But I would be going into my strongest event.”
In the interval classic 7.5-kilometre race, she finished fourth, which lifted her into a tie for fourth-place overall with Mya Marshall of Chelsea Nordiq.
Entering her big race, McCulligh wasn’t aware of her position in the standing, but drew some confidence from the classic interval race. In the mass-start, 15-kilometre free technique race, she placed third, which was good enough to make her a solid fourth in the trials and qualify for the team.
Team Ontario will send a dozen cross-country skiers to the Canada Winter Games and half that squad will be comprised of Ottawa skiers.
The two other female skiers are Clara Hegan, who won the trials’ sprint and mass-start 15-kilometre races, and Addison Frank. Both represent the Nakkertok Nordic Ski Club as well as Nepean High School.
Frank is one of two 16-year-old females set to compete for Ontario in the 20-and-under event, though she’s skied since age three. When it’s warmer, Frank also competes for the Ottawa Bicycle Club in cyclocross.
The three male skiers are Nakkertok’s Robin Mason, the winner of the trials’ interval classic and mass-start races, Skinouk’s Antoine Gauthier and Nakkertok’s Isaac Fortin.
Mason, 19, and Gauthier, 18, both moved to Calgary after high school to study at the University of Calgary and join the Alpine Insurance Alberta World Cup Academy program in Canmore, AB.
Gauthier is studying engineering, while economics student Mason is fresh off competing at January’s FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, where his top result was 24th in the men’s 30 km free.
Originally from Bridgenorth outside Peterborough, Fortin is now a second-year Carleton University Ravens skier and architectural studies student. The Ravens’ Ontario championships are scheduled for Feb. 21-24 in Huntsville, while racing begins at the Canada Games on Feb. 28.
The Games’ cross-country ski schedule will feature a sprint, a 7.5-kilometre classic and a 10-kilometre mass-start skate as well as a team sprint. But McCulligh is uncertain of her race schedule for the Games.
“My main goal was to qualify for the Games,” said McCulligh, who has no race expectations. “I have a strategy to take into the Games and I want to implement that well.
“I’m learning to do the full sprint day (qualifying and heats) and working on my cross-country technique for the 7.5-kilometre classic.”
Learning is the operative word as McCulligh came into cross-country skiing with Kanata Nordic at Wesley Clover Parks late compared to her peers and is still sharpening her skills to produce her best results.
“I started later than most, when I was in Grade 7, because of my background in running. Then, there was 1½ years when I didn’t race because of COVID,” McCulligh, 18, said. “My first three years, I was learning the basics. I was learning to be a skier.
“But I feel I’ve made a big jump in the last few years. I’ve put in the work. I’m happy with my progress. I have met most of my goals and my coach’s goals.”
When McCulligh entered cross-country skiing, she had the advantage of being an endurance athlete, having played ringette and soccer for many years and also running cross-country races in school.
In high school, she ran cross-country and track alongside nordic skiing, where she qualified for the OFSAA provincial high school championships in 2020 and won a bronze medal in the girls’ junior race. Fellow Ontario teammate Hegan won that race, while racing for Nepean High School.
McCulligh joined Kanata Nordic seven years ago because it was a 10-minute drive from her home. She has enjoyed and benefited from the coaching, but also feels comfortable with the team atmosphere.
“I feel I know everyone. It’s a small, close group. I’m the only female my age, but I usually train with the younger group. It’s fun to know the people at different skill and age levels,” she added.
The Canada Winter Games cross-country ski competition runs from Feb. 28-Mar. 4 at Mark Arendz Provincial Ski Park in North Wiltshire, PEI. Consult the full schedule here.
Visit our Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games central webpage for more coverage on our local athletes’ journeys to the PEI 2023 Games.
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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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