By Martin Cleary
For the past two cross-country ski seasons, Anna Stewart has experienced big changes – taking a post-high-school gap year, changing clubs and developing a fresh approach to her sport.
But those major steps have been balanced by big results at the national and international levels for the Nordiq Canada development team athlete.
When Stewart, 20, graduated from high school in Thunder Bay, ON., she wanted a year to herself, which essentially was a year to develop her competitive ski skills in a structured manner.
Her gap game plan saw her travel to Canmore, AB., to join the Alpine Insurance Alberta World Cup Academy, which is a national training centre to give talented Canadian skiers quality programs and opportunities to develop into international athletes.
Stewart started skiing at the Big Thunder Nordic Ski Club at age nine and represented it for 10 years before switching to the Cantley, PQ-based Nakkertok Nordic Ski Club, which has won the national club championship for the past dozen years.
But last year, Stewart decided to drop her affiliation with Big Thunder because of how she felt the club handled her Safe Sport complaint. Safe Sport is a training module developed by the Coaching Association of Canada to “help anyone involved in sport identify and prevent situations of maltreatment.”
When she looked for a new club, Nakkertok was her obvious choice early last fall.
“(It had) a massive family of skiers that were so talented. I wanted to be a part of it,” she said in a recent phone interview.
Given her solid nordic ski skills and bolstered by her training at the academy and with Nakkertok, Stewart had a productive 2022-23 results season.
Stewart qualified to represent Canada at the world junior cross-country ski championships in Whistler, B.C. and placed 34th in both the women’s 1.2-kilometre classic sprint and the 20-kilometre classic race.
At last month’s Canadian championships, which were held on familiar trails in Thunder Bay, Stewart was a standout and had multiple individual and team honours.
Individually, she won the women’s U20 20-kilometre classic race, placed second in the women’s open 1.3-kilometre sprint final and was fourth overall in the women’s 10-kilometre free skate, but first in the U20 category.
Her results earned her the national women’s U20 aggregate title, top spot in the year-of-birth (2003) category and played a critical role in helping Nakkertok win its 12th consecutive club title.
“It has been really good,” Stewart said about her 2022-23 competitive season, which also included a fourth-place finish at the PEI 2023 Canada Winter Games. “I checked off big goals. At the end of January, I went to the world juniors in Whistler and that was an amazing accomplishment for me.
“I was pleased as it was my very first time racing at that level. I guess I could say I wanted more, but it was a great start.”
Stewart was thrilled to be racing at home for the Canadian championships as she had a family and friends cheering section and knew many of the volunteers.
“At one race (free skate sprint), my little sister and dad were there. That was the most surprising result (first U20, second open women),” she explained. “I hadn’t performed well in skate sprint racing since 2019.
“But that was really cool. I proved to myself that I’m still a skate sprinter.”
Stewart’s success on the Thunder Bay trails was partially because of her new approach to racing.
“This championship, I approached every race with a blank slate,” she said. “The next day, I had forgotten my previous race.
“I did the (free skate sprint) qualifying race and it was OK. I wasn’t amazing in qualifying, but I got better and better in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final. I was curious to see where it would take me. I had no expectations.
“I had a lot of fun. I watched my older teammates. I was curious how they tackled it.”
As the free skate sprint field narrowed to six for the final, Stewart surprised herself by earning a berth in the women’s open championship race.
“I didn’t feel tired. I had no expectations. I was curious and excited. I paid attention. Nothing could hold me back. I had a lot of speed in my legs,” she explained.
Stewart will move into the women’s open and U23 categories for next year and podium-type results may be more difficult as a first-year racer in those two top classes.
“Last season was my first at the academy and it wasn’t a good season. It forced me to evaluate how I framed my training and thought about results,” she said.
“I developed a new approach and improved my mindset. Depending how good or bad the race was, I didn’t think about it. Now, I feel more refreshed. I am less run down after championships. I’m less tired because I’m not thinking about the races. It’s a big change. No matter how good or bad it was, it’s over.”
Joining Nakkertok also has been a positive step for Stewart.
“It has been very refreshing. One of my closest teammates (Katya Semeniuk) is from the same club. It’s nice to bond with her,” said Stewart, who trains with Semeniuk at the Alberta World Cup Academy and races with her wearing Nakkertok colours.
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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