The Long Distance Ski Championship

Into the Yukon Wild: Johnsgaard Retires from Skiing at 25

Author: 
Gabby Naranja

Former Canadian World Cup skier Knute Johnsgaard snaps a photo during a canoe trip. (Courtesy photo)

One hundred and fifty kilometers from the city of Whitehorse, if you are adventurous enough to hike through the troves of white spruce and over the two mountain passes to get there, you may come across Knute Johnsgaard’s family trapline. Traverse the 100 square kilometers of land where his family holds the rights to trap, and you may even catch a glimpse of Johnsgaard himself.

Johnsgaard, a native of the Yukon Territory’s Mount Lorne community, plans to spend most of next winter hunting on his family’s remote patch of land in northwest Canada. He will set traps for lynx, wolverines, foxes, and wolves. He will drop a few fishing lines into the land’s frozen lakes. He will sport cross-country skis as he travels from trap to trap.

He will not, however, train as he once did. That kind of work is a thing of the past (he will, incidentally, get in a few nordic over-distance workouts, as he plans to ski the 60-kilometer stretch of snow-covered land from snare to snare).

At 25, Johnsgaard has been a member of Cross Country Canada’s senior national team for the past three seasons (first on the U23+ Development Team, then on the U25 Team, and finally on the World Cup A-team last season). He represented Canada at this year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. And as of this spring, he is officially retiring from professional skiing.

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Looking at the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic team rosters for Canada and the U.S., the pattern of athletes with the same last name is tough to miss. The Bjornsen siblings. The Patterson siblings. The Nishikawa brother-sister duo.

Knute Johnsgaard racing a 2016 World Cup in Lillehammer, Norway. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

Johnsgaard is not one of those. He does not come from a family of athletes. Most of his relatives, he explained, had never followed his skiing or cross-country in general until the two weeks he competed at the PyeongChang Olympics. What Johnsgaard did have growing up was a family who encouraged him to be outdoors and access to it. A lot of it.

The Yukon Territory spans an area of nearly 500,000 square kilometers, including Canada’s tallest mountain, Mount Logan. The region is, as Johnsgaard puts it, “one of the world’s last true wilderness areas.” It was within this last wilderness area that the Canadian began his cross-country journey.

He first started skiing on the ski trails of Mount Lorne. In between skiing adventures, he would join his father for trips to the family trapline. At the age of 13, Johnsgaard’s father suffered an accident that left him paralyzed, which halted their trips to the trapline.

Around that time, he and his mother moved to Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital and only city, where Johnsgaard joined the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club. Johnsgaard remained active with the club through his high-school years. Following graduation, he moved to Quebec to train with the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, where he spent two years.

“I enjoyed my time in Quebec, but I really missed the Yukon,” Johnsgaard explained. “I felt it was kind of silly, I guess, to be training on the other side of the country when we had better snow conditions and so much available to us right here at home [in Whitehorse].”

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Scroll through the photos Johnsgaard has posted on his blog and a few anomalies crop up. The first being that many of the shots feature Johnsgaard, proudly smiling, while kneeling over the hulking form of a freshly fallen carcass (the seamless transition between shots of Johnsgaard sporting camouflage then spandex also seems slightly unorthodox for the average cross-country skier).

Knute Johnsgaard (standing) with the Yukon Elite Squad during a cliff-climbing trip. (Courtesy photo)

Yet to those who are familiar with Johnsgaard, there is a reason hunting appears in tandem with his athletic pursuits. Hunting was more than a hobby outside of ski training. For Johnsgaard, hunting was also how he trained.

“The type of hunting he was doing, it’s not like weekend-hunter-type skier, it was a lifestyle,” said former Canadian national-team head coach Justin Wadsworth, who coached Johnsgaard during his first season on the team, during a recent phone interview.

“I think he drew a lot of his confidence from that kind of upbringing and those kinds of experiences,” Wadsworth said.

Following his two years in Quebec, Johnsgaard returned to the Yukon. He and four other Yukon skiers started a training group called the Yukon Elite Squad (YES). The five men had no formative coach, which permitted them to train when and how they wanted. For Johnsgaard, it also meant a hunting trip could count as training, if he wanted.

“There was nobody to tell us we couldn’t skip training to leave and go moose hunting for a week,” Johnsgaard said.

According to Johnsgaard, the squad met about four times a week and tried to coordinate one training camp a year with Alaska Pacific University (APU), an American elite ski team located about 1,000 kilometers west in Anchorage, Alaska. YES also competed at Canadian nationals, “throwing cash” to any team’s wax technicians who were willing to help out.

“We were in a unique situation where we recognized that the Yukon was a great place to ski train and we all wanted to pursue skiing,” Johnsgaard said. “We made the best of it and that’s how I made it onto the national team, training in the Yukon with just a few other teammates. I was pretty proud of that.”

After two years with YES, at age 22, Johnsgaard was nominated to the senior national team in 2015. In his rookie season as a member of Canada’s under-23 development team, Johnsgaard scored his first World Cup points in 30th place in the freestyle sprint in Gatineau, Quebec.  

The following spring, he was renominated to the team, which changed its name to the U25 (under-25) Team. He started that winter of 2016/2017 on the World Cup circuit in Europe, competing in Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and France. During that World Cup Period 1, his top finish was 51st in a classic sprint.

Then came Period 2. While his World Cup teammates Len Valjas, Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw were overseas competing at World Cups, Johnsgaard was at home in the Yukon training. He was also looking at the World Cup calendar, with one race in late January in particular focus: the 4 x 7.5 k relay in Ulricehamn, Sweden.

Left to right: Canada’s Len Valjas, Alex Harvey, Knute Johnsgaard, and Alex Harvey after their historic third place finish in the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer team relay on Jan. 22, 2017 in Ulricehamn, Sweden. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

“They actually weren’t going to start a relay team because they didn’t have a fourth guy,” Johnsgaard said. “I had a meeting with our high-performance director [Thomas Holland] and begged him to send me over there to race that race.”

Holland consented and Johnsgaard flew to Ulricehamn to start in the relay. He arrived a few days before the race and was told he’d ski the third leg (first skate portion) of the relay.

On the day of the relay, Kershaw led off the first classic leg, putting the Canadians in third and just 0.7 seconds out of third at the first exchange. Harvey skied the second classic leg, holding onto the front pack of skiers before tagging to Johnsgaard in fifth, 3.5 seconds back. Despite being a little jet-lagged, Johnsgaard explained having a “weird confidence” that day on the trails.

He maintained his team’s position in the pack through his leg, handing off to Valjas in seventh, just 5 seconds out of first. After a smooth handoff, Valjas stayed streamlined in the group to the finishing stretch, sprinting to the line for third place. The result was historic for Canada. It also secured Johnsgaard’s spot on the 2018 Olympic team the following year.

“That was probably the highlight of my sporting career, that weekend in Sweden, qualifying for the Games there, and making World Cup team history for Canada at the same time,” Johnsgaard said.

The fact that the race pre-qualified him for the Olympics was a surprise to Johnsgaard.

“I always imagined getting a phone call or something after a stressful weekend at trials or something like that, but instead it was just one of my wax techs telling me over beer that evening, going, ‘Hey, I think you made the Olympic criteria,’ ” Johnsgaard said. “It was a pretty funny way to find out.”

Just over a year later in PyeongChang, Johnsgaard competed in the 15 k freestyle, 30 k skiathlon and 4 x 10 k relay. His best individual result was 69th in the 15 k skate, and he skied the anchor leg of the relay, which placed ninth as Canada’s second-best Olympic relay.

He started 12 individual World Cup races last season, with a top finish of 51st in a skate sprint in Seefeld, Austria.

“Since I started skiing at a young age, the Olympics were the ultimate goal,” Johnsgaard said. “To have finally accomplished that, I guess I feel fulfilled and I don’t really see incentive to keep going. I met my goal that’s all I ever wanted and now I’m moving on to new goals.”

In a blog post late last month, he noted how he finished every race he started.

“There has never been a ‘DNF’ next to my name,” he wrote. “I’ve never backed down, never not finished a race without laying it all out on the line. … Exploring my limits has always been something I loved doing. Results are inconsistent and out of your control, giving 100% effort, however, is attainable every time you’re on course.

“The world of sport is cruel in that I was always left wanting more,” he continued. “When you believe anything is possible, then everything less than perfect is not good enough. I always found myself striving for the next step that I could only hope would bring satisfaction. Instead, it brought only desire for greater success, which only got exponentially harder to achieve as I climbed the ladder. The final step was hard for me, and near the end of my career I began to struggle with anxiety and depression. It took so much energy that I didn’t have anything left over for ski races anymore, and I wasn’t happy.

“Now that I’m retired, I’m finally satisfied,” Johnsgaard added. “I’m able to step back and see for the first time this giant mural that I’ve painted, rather than focusing on the many imperfect brush strokes. I feel a cool breeze of fresh air bringing relief with each breath. I’m calm and content.”

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All of the animals Johnsgaard traps are, in his words, “put to good use” for clothing, etc. In order to spend his winters living off the grid on his family’s trapline, Johnsgaard plans to work for a construction company through the summer and fall.

Knute Johnsgaard (front) after checking on rabbit snares on his family’s trapline. (Courtesy photo)

He will continue to organize and run the Father Mouchet Loppet in Old Crow, which he and friend/former YES teammate Colin Abbott helped create. Johnsgaard also hopes to do some coaching with the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club. Other than that, his connection to skiing will remain a lifestyle choice, and no longer a career one.

“I’ve always had quite a number of other hobbies and interests, so I’m not at all worried or stressed about what I might do,” Johnsgaard said of his retirement. “I’m just excited for new things, whatever they may be. It’s kind of exciting to be free.”

Johnsgaard is particularly excited about being able to do what he wants, when he wants.

“I hope people understand my decision and I hope that it’s not a question mark of why Knute is retiring at age 25 and he might not even be at his peak yet or this and that,” Johnsgaard continued. “It’s just that I’m satisfied with how far I’ve taken it and I feel fulfilled and I’m excited to do new things.”

Some do wonder whether he might have taken it further. Wadsworth described Johnsgaard as a “physiological talent”, his non-traditional ascent to the World Cup level an attestment in itself.

“He had a lot of natural strength and physical ability, and I think my guess is he would have had a much longer career had he had that upbringing of the traditional cross-country ski training,” Wadsworth said. “But Knute did it his way and for me to say, ‘Oh, he could have been better, had he taken the traditional method,’ that’s not for me to say. That’s purely a speculation on just what I’ve seen.”

For now, the reality is Johnsgaard’s skiing will stay in the Yukon — where he hopes to acquire land and build a home — which is exactly how he wants it.

“I would describe it like getting a wild mustang,” Wadsworth said of working with Johnsgaard. “Wild mustangs are used to running around out in the field and not being told what to do.”

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