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National team coach de Nys back on Prince George ski trails

Snow conditions not ideal at Otway Nordic Centre for Nordiq Cup races, but U-23 coach says Prince George much better off than snow-starved Europe
Eric de Nys as back at his old stomping grounds this week at Otway Nordic Centre, where he learned to race as a teenager. The 48-year-old Prince George native is now head coach of Canada's NextGen U-23 cross-country ski team.

Back when he was a young boy in Prince George, long before he became head coach of Canada’s NextGen cross-country ski team, Eric de Nys remembers big snowfalls and drifts as high as he was tall.

His dad Matt, a former city employee, used to record the day’s weather in his journal and 1981, when a six-year-old Eric was just starting to learn how to race, and that was a particularly heavy snow year punctuated by a January that had snow 29 out of 31 days.  

Now 48, Eric de Nys knows climate change is for real. He’s seen it all this season with his own eyes as coach of the country’s up-and-coming Olympians. The team trained in Muonio in northern Finland in November, where the only snow they found had been stockpiled from the previous winter and steady rain turned to slush.

It’s been a similar story in France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Sweden. Wherever in Europe the Canadian team has been on the Tour de Ski or World Cup , the only ski trails suitable for racing are those covered with human-made snow. A thousand ski resorts in France are closed due to a lack of snow.

“It’s getting worse,” said de Nys. “When it’s raining in November in Finland above the Arctic Circle - maybe global warming is a thing.”

De Nys is back in his hometown this week at Otway Nordic Centre for the Nordiq Cup/Nordic Canada Selection races, which started Wednesday with the classic sprint events. Skiers from Poland, Czech Republic, Australia and Estonia are competing with a large Canadian contingent at the event.

Race organizers from the host Caledonia Nordic Ski Club could use a good dump from the sky but the Otway race trails are well-covered thanks to some early season snowmaking.

“I think the conditions here are just fine, it’s just not normal Prince George to have to use klister in Prince George in January,” he said. “Talking to the Polish skiers, at home they have a 3K man-made loop and that’s it, there’s no snow. For the Polish and the Czechs to come here and have 15K of snow with no rocks showing, it’s perfect. ”

This is the second season as head coach of the NextGen team for de Nys after several years as head coach/program director at Sovereign Lake Nordic Club near his home in Vernon. He retired as a ski racer in 1998 after three seasons on the national development U-23 team and was hired that year for his first coaching gig with Cross-Country BC. He continued to climb the ladder after attending the National Coaching Institute, earning his stripes with the Foothills Nordic Club before moving on to coach the senior national team and women’s World Cup team from 2004-14.

The NextGen team is made up of 12 athletes, nine of whom are in Prince George this week (the other three are injured). This is a tune-up race to get them ready for next week’s world junior championships in Whistler.

Julian Smith, 26, of Owen Sound, Ont., posted the best sprint qualifying time Wednesday and as a result earned a spot in the senior world championships in Slovenia in late February. Nineteen-year-old Xavier McKeever of Canmore, who finished second to Smith, was second overall in qualifying and was within a finish-line lunge of Smith in the men’s A final.

First-year senior Sasha Masson of Whitehorse, 20, was the top U-23 qualifier, finished sixth overall, and locked up his berth at world juniors as did Erickson Moore of Montreal, the top U-23 qualifier, who placed second behind Masson in the final.   

Daria Beatty of Whitehorse, 28, won the senior sprint, while top junior bragging rights went to Alison Mackie of Edmonton. Mackie, 17, was also the fastest junior qualifier. Sonya Schmidt of Whitehorse qualified first in the U-23 category but was sick and chose not to race. Liliane Gagnon of Quebec City , 20, won the women’s final heat.

De Nys says Canada has done well in recent years at world juniors. The men’s relay team won a medal in 2019 and was fourth last year, while McKeever posted fifth and sixth-place results in 2021, among several top-10 individual results for the Canadian team.

Nordiq Cup racing resumes today (men at 10 a.m., women at 11:30 a.m.) with the 20 km classic mass start event. After a day of training Friday, the skiers will be back on course for a 10 km free technique individual start event.