By Darren Lum
The Red Hawks Nordic ski team is making a comeback after a six year absence and couldn’t come at a more opportune time for its coaches and athletes.
Co-coach Mike Rieger appreciates this opportunity to bring back the program and hopes it could mark the start of a return.
“Hopefully, we can manage to make it work [so] that skiing can come back and have good interest and the other winter sports can kind of get back to what they were before COVID as well,” he said.
This team has been more than a foundation for competitive success with multiple all-provincial berths during its existence, but it has also encouraged a love for Nordic skiing and a healthy active lifestyle.
“In high school there is a lot of sports [where the] peak of their sports career is going to be what they do in high school and it’s hard to carry on, if you think about a sport like basketball … it doesn’t [even] run all year, whereas something like skiing you can do that for the rest of your life whenever you want. There’s so much more accessibility that comes [with] a sport like that than some of the more traditional team-oriented high school sports,” he said.
Rieger said he started Nordic skiing as a young boy and then stopped when he was in his teens. Although up until a few years ago he didn’t ski for several years, he embraced the opportunity to ski the dozens of kilometres of groomed trails, which are part of the Haliburton Highlands Nordic Trail and Ski Club Association. It has rekindled his love of the winter endurance sport.
With the pandemic and associated uncertainty of what is allowed, Nordic skiing is one of a few competitive options available to Haliburton Highlands Secondary School students this year.
Bringing this program back is important, Rieger said.
“It just seems like a good opportunity to be able to introduce a sport to more students and I know there’s sort of a lot of curiosity about how sports are going to reshift through COVID and beyond. And skiing just seemed like a great chance to be able to at least bring a program [back] that’s got a strong history and Haliburton certainly has a strong cross-country skiing community,” he said.
The last time there was a team was in the 2015/2016 season when the team was coached by Jennifer Paton, which included Nordic ski standouts Brynn Meyers and Jessica Bishop. Both earned all-provincial, OFSAA (Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations) championship berths.
He adds the past few years has seen a reduction in Nordic ski team members because of how strong the other sports teams were in the winter, whether it was girls’ volleyball or boys’ basketball.
Coaching isn’t new for Rieger, who was part of the Red Hawks basketball program for eight years prior to the pandemic in 2019. Coaching Nordic ski racing is new to him though. He is coaching the team with Karen Gervais, who was the school’s cross country coach this past autumn.
Close to three weeks ago, there was a meeting with coaches from all of the six schools based in Kawartha (HHSS, Lakefield College, Adam Scott Collegiate Vocational Institute, Crestwood Secondary School, St. Peter Catholic Secondary School and Thomas Aquinas Secondary School).
Rieger said there was a collaborative atmosphere at the meeting among the coaches, who all recognize the different levels of skill levels and racing experiences among the high school skiers.
“There’s some kids that are racing club [level of competition]. There’s some kids that are quite athletic that maybe don’t race club that are going to race on school teams. There’s a lot of kids that it’s brand new for them,” he said. “So they tried to set up a couple of meets where the coaches from all the schools help out and they take some groups of kids and do a bit of teaching and then hold a race at the end.”
Thus far, there are nine students on the HHSS Nordic team preparing for the season with dry land training after school. They will be representing the red and white skiing in the junior girls and senior boys categories.
Rieger said the expectation is to hold two invitational competitions in January, which will be followed by the COSSA (Central Ontario Secondary School Associations) championship where competitors will compete for an opportunity to earn a berth to the OFSAA championship.
The first one, which will be organized as an intro-to-racing format for racers and coaches, will be hosted at the Kawartha Nordic Ski Club, which is also the home venue for Lakefield College. The second one could be held at Glebe Park in Haliburton a week later and will focus on ascending and descending techniques, utilizing the predominant challenges of the hilly terrain there.
Rieger said for Haliburton to host a race will be based on COVID-19 protocols and related transportation options for teams from schools based in Peterborough. Dates and locations remain open to change.