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Harjo at the helm, first woman to coach Canadian women's alpine ski team

Canadian women's alpine team head coach Karin Harjo poses for a photo at the women's FIS World Cup downhill ski race in Lake Louise, Alta., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Karin Harjo isn't just the first woman to be the head coach of a Canadian alpine ski team, she's also the first woman to have that job with any country on the World Cup circuit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

LAKE LOUISE, Alta. — Karin Harjo isn't just the first woman to be the head coach of a Canadian alpine ski team, she's also the first woman to have that job with any country on the World Cup circuit.

Harjo is a few weeks into her first season at the helm of the Canadian women's team.

"It's a dream role," Harjo told The Canadian Press. "To be asked to take on such a huge responsibility is pretty incredible.

"As far as the gender piece, this is why I loved going through the interview process with Alpine Canada, they were seeking the best candidate for the job and were not necessarily focused on gender.

"I don't believe gender is something that makes you better or worse at a job. I've just always believed in loving what I do in the moment and trying to be the best at what I'm doing regardless the level, whether it's with the youngest kids all the way up to now working with the top athletes in the world."

Harjo from Hood River, Ore., was previously the assistant coach of the U.S. women's downhill team from 2017 to 2022, and thus worked with retired downhill star Lindsey Vonn. 

She was an assistant coach of the American women's slalom and giant slalom team from 2015 to 2017. Her husband Randy Pelkey is the head coach of the U.S men's downhill team.

Harjo is currently in Lake Louise, Alta., with Canada's downhillers after overseeing the slalom and GS racers last weekend in Killington, Vt.

The women's speed season opens with back-to-back downhills Friday and Saturday followed by Sunday's super-G at the resort in Banff National Park.

Canada's tech and speed skiers often train and race in different parts of the world. Harjo intends to be present as much as possible with all athletes.

"It being my first year as a head coach, to stay connected with all the athletes on the different teams is really critical," Harjo said. "I see myself as supporting all the women on the team, regardless whether it's tech or speed, Europa Cup to World Cup level.

"If I haven't seen them in awhile, I'll always do check-in calls to make sure that I'm present, so I don't become this random person that 'that's our head coach, but I haven't seen her in a month.'"

More Canadian women compete in slalom and giant slalom than in the speed events of downhill and super-G, but downhill veteran Marie-Michele Gagnon of Lac-Etchemin, Que., feels Harjo has her back.

"She's been juggling between tech and speed. She's doing a lot," Gagnon said. "She's amazing. Great communicator, so compassionate and a listener. She's been a really great leader thus far. 

"It's definitely talked about a lot in the press, the fact that she's a woman. To me, because you're a woman doesn't make it special. She has a lot of experience in the line of work. She deserved it just as much as any man. 

"It is cool we are breaking barriers in general in the sport, but it's not like 'we're going to hire a woman now so she can be the first one.' She deserved it fully."

Skiers had their final training run for the weekend's races on Thursday, with Austria's Nina Ortlieb posting the fastest time in one minute 48.79 seconds. Ortlieb was also fastest in the first training run on Tuesday.

Switzerland's Corinne Suter was second in 1:49.12, followed by Slovenia's Ilka Stuhec in 1:49.37.

Stefanie Fleckenstein of Whistler, B.C., was the top Canadian in 19th in 1:51.06.

The future of World Cup ski racing in Lake Louise in unclear after 30 years as a regular stop on the circuit.

Alpine Canada will introduce women's World Cup giant slaloms in Mont-Tremblant, Que., starting in 2023. 

It falls on the same weekend that's been the traditional opener of the women's speed season in Lake Louise, which has also been the only women's downhill in North America on the World Cup circuit.

"More so than anything else for the sport is having a speed event in North America. I think it's so critical regardless of where it is," Harjo said. 

"The whole development pipeline for women's speed in North America, to have a World Cup on the continent is so critical to keep the sport alive on that side."

Alpine Canada has committed only to trying to keep a men's speed event in Western Canada.

Gagnon, 33, posted her best result in Lake Louise last season finishing ninth in super-G.

The three-time Olympian reached the podium for the first time in a speed event with a super-G bronze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in 2021.

She has her eyes on February's world alpine ski championships in Méribel and Courchevel, France.

"The goal is to peak around that time," Gagnon said. "Last season, I had a lot of good steps forward, especially in downhill. 

"I had so many close calls to the podium, always a few tenths of a second and just losing time in certain little sections. That's why I'm still here and kicking, kicking hard."

Gagnon will have more company in speed events as Valérie Grenier of St-Isodore, Ont., works her way back into speed events.

Since crashing and breaking her leg at the 2019 world championship, Grenier has focused on giant slalom. 

The 26-year-old will race Sunday's super-G in Lake Louise, where she was fifth in that race in 2018.

"After last season, it was really my goal to for this season to really get back into super-G," Grenier said. "We had really good super-G prep in Portillo (Chile). 

"I finally felt good because I didn't have any fears or any mental blocks this time like I was having in the past. I'm finally over the hump, I hope."

Grenier likes Harjo's athlete-centred approach.

"She's super-understanding, like you can tell that she's really here for us and wants to always listen to what we have to say and is really interested in our opinions on everything," Grenier explained.

"She's also been having lots of meetings with the other girls just to make sure that everyone is feeling good and that the atmosphere on the team is good."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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