Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

THE REVEAL – The young skiers of the Yukon Cross Country Ski club remove the sheet unveiling the new sign on the Olympic Trail at Mount McIntyre on Wednesday. The signs honour Graham Nishikawa’s, Emily Nishikawa’s and Knute Johnsgaard's participation in the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Three skiers honoured with Olympic Trail sign

A crowd gathered in the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club on Wednesday evening as Emily Nishikawa, Knute Johnsgaard, and Graham Nishikawa were honoured with a new sign on the Olympic Trail for their participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic games.

By John Tonin on April 11, 2019

A crowd gathered in the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club on Wednesday evening as Emily Nishikawa, Knute Johnsgaard, and Graham Nishikawa were honoured with a new sign on the Olympic Trail for their participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic games.

The Olympic Trail was established in the mid-’90s to recognize Lucy Steele-Masson and Jane Vincent, who competed in the Albertville Games in 1992.

As Alain Masson, the Yukon Ski Team coach, stepped up to speak about the three athletes' accomplishments, a light snow began to fall.

Emily Nishikawa recently finished competing with the National Senior Team and is one of the most successful racers domestically. She qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia and earned her second trip to the Olympics in PyeongChang.

While in South Korea she came in 30th in the 30-kilometre mass start race. She also saw success in the relay, where she teamed up with fellow Whitehorse skier Dahria Beatty, who was honoured with a sign on the trail last year.

She already had a sign on the trail after competing in Sochi but said it was just as special the second time.

"It does," said Emily. "It's really special that so many people came out for this presentation this evening even though the ski season has pretty much wound down. The community support we've received over the years has been incredible. It is really special, even the second time to have my name up there on the sign."

Emily said it is special to be on the sign alongside her brother.

"It's really cool to be next to my brother up on the sign," said Emily. "He has been so supportive, he has helped me as an athlete. I've learned so much from him over the years too. He has been a big part of my ski career as well."

Emily started skiing at a young age with her family. She joined the Jackrabbit program and eventually moved on the Yukon Ski Team programs.

When the young skiers at the club ski down the trail she hopes it inspires them, like the names that preceded her.

"When I was a little kid, I mean the same thing, I was inspired by Lucy Steele, Jane Vincent, Alain Masson, all of these Olympians on the signs," said Emily. "It was sort of a dream of mine to have my name up there one day.

"It is a dream come true to have my name, then just knowing that hundreds of kids will be skiing by and seeing that. I hope to inspire someone and I can't wait to see the next name to come up on the Trail."

During the presentations, Masson credited the three skiers with putting Whitehorse on the map.

"With our population size and we are isolated from the rest of Canada, it seemed like it could be hard to make it as an athlete just with those kinds of challenges," said Emily. "But it has been completely the opposite. We have so much support, we have long winters, an amazing program that developed us as kids and grew our love for the sport here. We've just had all the opportunities in the world so we've been incredibly fortunate in that sense."

Graham started in the Jackrabbit program as well before progressing on to the Yukon Ski Team. In 2014, Graham joined teammate and friend Brian McKeever in 2014, where he helped guide him to three gold medals at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

In 2018, team McKeever was back making history. The team, which used a two-guide strategy, won three gold medals and a bronze at the 2018 Paralympic Games.

Like his sister, this was his second sign on the Olympic Trail. Graham said it was even more special the second time around.

"It does, having four more years of training and dedication and the last games in PyeongChang it was a bit more stressful trying to win the three gold medals with Brian," said Graham. "Thinking back about it, it's just as big a deal this time and it is just a huge honour."

Graham said there was a lot of pressure at the last Games.

"Yes, absolutely," said Graham. "I was kind of new with Brian, he asked me to be his guide. I didn't understand the gravity of the situation, how he is the best all-time Paralympian. Going back into PyeongChang, we had a ton of pressure to deliver three more golds.

"I loved every minute of it and we did it. I couldn't be happier."

He likened working with McKeever, one of the top athletes in the world, to a certain basketball superstar.

"I liken it to as if I was chosen to work on a team with Michael Jordan," said Graham. "He's the best. He doesn't lose. It's a lot of pressure but at the same time, it's amazing to be around him. You just see how he operates and how hard he trains and how hard he executes on race day, he doesn't let the pressure go to his head.

"It's an honour to be his guide. It's awe-inspiring to be around him and see how he operates."

Graham said he isn't sure if he has one more Olympics and one more sign in his future.

"Beijing feels like a long ways away," said Graham.

Johnsgaard helped make Canadian cross-country history in 2017 when he was a member of the first men's distance relay team to ever stand on a World Cup podium in Sweden. It was here he was named to the Olympic team.

At the Olympics, his relay team finished ninth. Skiing was always a part of his life from a young age. He started skiing at six and was competing nationally by age 16.

Johnsgaard said it was an honour to have his name beside Graham’s and Emily’s.

"It's hard to describe. It's pretty special," said Johnsgaard. "Especially being there on the same board with Emily and Graham. I watched Emily qualify for the 2014 Olympics and that was the first time in my career, at least, that I got to see a Yukoner make the team.

"She was someone I trained with a lot with the Yukon Ski Team. To see her make that happen was pretty inspiring. Her brother Graham was a real mentor to me in my career. He helped me right training plans and coaching me in technique advice. They are really great athletes themselves. Here I am up on the same sign with them; means a lot."

Now retired from skiing, Johnsgaard said he is looking forward to watching the progression of the young athletes.

"Now I get the pleasure of watching all these up and coming skiers here," said Johnsgaard. "I took part in a couple local races this winter and they are already kicking my butt a couple of them. It's really neat how fast they are improving. I'm quite sure that in the next couple Olympics we will see more Yukoners names show up on the Trail here."

Although the Yukon has only a small portion of the population, its presence is known in the cross-country scene.

"We make a small dent in the overall population of the country here but a big dent in the 10 members we send to the Olympic team," said Johnsgaard. "Three of us competing in PyeongChang and Graham in the Paralympic to. So four Yukoners out of just a handful of Canadians, we are in Korea. It's pretty impressive."

Johnsgaard said he accomplished his Olympic goal and now plans on chasing other dreams. Skiing, he said, will always be a part of his life.

The ski club's goal is to recognize all Olympians, Paralympians and Special Olympians who are living in Whitehorse by placing signs in their honour on the Olympic Trail.

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