Elite Amateur Sport Universities

HIGH ACHIEVERS: No poles, no problem for para-nordic skier Emma Archibald

Petro-Canada Fuelling Athlete and Coaching Excellence grant program recipients series
Part 2 of 3: Emma Archibald (athlete) and Sheila Kealey (coach) – cross-country skiing

By Martin Cleary

A first impression sometimes requires an explanation.

If you were to watch Emma Archibald for the first time zipping along the cross-country ski trails in either a classic or freestyle race, you’d notice she was missing two vital pieces of equipment.

When Archibald, 20, competes, she battles the hills, descents and corners without using any ski poles. A para-nordic skier, she’s unable to hold the poles properly with her hands.

Born with Amniotic Band Syndrome and clubbed feet, she only has three fingers on each of her left and right hands. Instead of using poles, she charges from the start line as a no-pole skier and fully benefits from her forward-backward arm movements to help power her through races.

Archibald played many sports when she was in high school, while growing up in Fall River, Nova Scotia. When she attended a Paralympic search camp to try different sports in 2019, she was identified as a candidate for seven different sports.

One of that group of seven was nordic skiing. She was invited to a Nordiq Canada para development camp in Canmore, AB., received her classification as a standing skier with a disability and had her first lessons on how to be a cross-country skier.

Returning home, she joined the Scotia XC Ski Club and worked on developing her skills as best she could during the COVID-19 pandemic. When she enrolled at the University of Ottawa in 2020, where she is now a fourth-year bachelor of science in nursing student, Gee-Gees head coach Sheila Kealey introduced Archibald to racing.

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Archibald caught on quick and has been named to the Nordiq Canada para development team, the Nova Scotia provincial team and the University of Ottawa nordic team. For the 2023-24 season, she will serve as team captain for the Gee-Gees.

As she continues to develop her skills, Archibald moves into the upcoming season with a big financial boost, after being selected with Kealey as one of the 56 recipient pairings of Petro-Canada Fuelling Athlete and Coaching Excellence grants.

The $10,000 grant will be equally shared by Archibald and Kealey and can be used for travel expenses, equipment, medical treatments, competition fees, etc.

Kealey, a public health researcher, has been coaching cross-country skiing for more than 30 years and is passionate about connecting with university students on the ski trails.

Petro-Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee announced the names of the athletes and coaches last month. Athletes were nominated for grant consideration by their national sport governing body, if they weren’t receiving any federal funding.

This is the 35th year of Petro-Canada’s FACE program, which has provided more than $13.5 million in financial assistance to more than 3,500 Canadian athletes and coaches.

“It’s really exciting,” Archibald said about being a FACE grant recipient. “I was really surprised. It’s a cool opportunity. It will definitely make a difference. There’s lots of travel.”

Archibald plans to attend the Nordiq Canada time trials next month in Canmore, AB., to determine the national teams for World Cup competitions. She hopes to qualify for World Cup races, gain more experience in international races and improve her ranking in world-class races.

“I had a nice start at the Scotia XC Ski Club and got my technical work done,” Archibald explained about her first year in nordic skiing. “But when I came here (Ottawa), the sport was much, much bigger. It was nice to come and learn with a whole new group.

“Sheila Kealey has helped me improve so much. I am so grateful.”

Emma Archibald. Photo provided

No-pole skiing for Archibald is all about developing her core muscles, strengthening her balance and using her rhythmic arm motion in conjunction with her legs to move ahead quickly.

“I’ve learned to adapt. Honestly, everything has clicked in skiing. I’m very lucky. I had a great childhood and it’s nice to find a sport,” an upbeat Archibald said.

“I grew up with basketball in the winter in a gym or dome. But I appreciate being outside. The community of people is so encouraging. In every race, everyone is cheering for everyone. Everyone wants you to do your best. The community has kept me in the sport.

“I was like Bambi my first year. But they kept encouraging me, saying ‘use this technique’ or ‘use that technique.’”

Archibald added that when some able-bodied people start cross-country skiing, they don’t immediately use poles, which helps to improve their balance.

“My technique is to swing my arms and carry that momentum,” she explained. “For going up hills, it’s more of a quicker cadence. I move my feet more.”

Archibald, who is pushed hard during Gee-Gees training sessions by her able-bodied teammates, had a banner year in 2022-23 in terms of results.

Representing Nova Scotia for the first time, she won two gold and one silver medals in the women’s para-nordic standing class at the 2023 Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island. She was first in the 2.5-kilometre classic race and the five-kilometre freestyle race and second in the 1.2-kilometre classic sprint.

At the OUA championships, she scored a pair of first-place finishes for the Gee-Gees in the sprint and distance races. She also was the sprint freestyle and classic distance gold medallist at the Eastern Canadian championships.

Archibald plans to graduate from the University of Ottawa in 2025, which would give her about 10 months to qualify for, and hopefully compete in, the 2026 Paralympics in Italy.

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 martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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