Vernon’s Justin Sigal (left, training with Kelowna’s Tracey Meleschuk and Francis Stanley) will represent Canada in cross-country skiing at the 2017 Special Olympics Winter World Games in Austria. - Image credit: submitted

Sigal dons Maple Leaf for World Winter Games

Vernon athlete Justin Sigal to compete at 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria

Justin Sigal has been boning up on his cross-country skiing abilities and his limited German.

Sigal, 27, from Vernon, will represent Canada in cross-country skiing at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games, which begin Tuesday in the Austrian communities of Graz, Schladming, Ramsau and Styria.

“I know ja bitte (yes, please) and nein danke (no, thank-you),” smiled Sigal, who left Saturday to join his Canadian teammates in Toronto before heading overseas.

“I’m very excited to be going. It will be my first time in another country and first time representing Canada.”

Getting to the World Winter Games has been a four-year process for Sigal.

He started at a 2014 regional event in Kamloops, where his results qualified him for the provincial finals the following year. At the B.C. championships, Sigal’s results were enough to earn him a spot on the provincial team for the 2016 Canadian Winter Games in Corner Brook. In Newfoundland, Sigal won gold and silver in the 2.5- and 5-kilometre classic events (the same events he’ll race in Austria), much to his surprise and delight.

“I was just enjoying the experience (of Canadians). I wasn’t focusing on results or anything,” said Sigal, who claims to have been “born with cross-country skis.” He did start skiing at a young age – was named Most Improved Skier in the Jackrabbits program at age 10 at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre, where a ski mounted on the wall inside the centre’s chalet commemorates the achievement – before deciding to try downhill skiing in 2006.

That lasted for six years before Sigal returned to the cross-country trails.

He is one of 20 athletes from B.C. on the 108-member Canadian squad. He’s joined by fellow Okanagan cross-country skiers Tracey Melesko and Francis Stanley, and wax technician/coach Garth Vickers, all from Kelowna, and coach Ray Huson of Penticton.

“I’ve been training with the Kelowna guys since August,” said Sigal, the first winner of the Courage honour in The Morning Star’s 2016 Community Leader Awards. “We do a lot of hiking at Knox Mountain or Okanagan Park. I’ve been on the snow at Sovereign since November.”

Sigal has been working at Sovereign with coach Dudley Coulter for the past four years.

“Justin’s perseverance and ability to put his head down and get the training done is inspiring,” said Coulter.

“He is generally committed to his monthly training plans, no matter the weather or how tired he might be.”

Sigal, who holds down a shift as a cashier at a Vernon Tim Hortons, usually trains about seven-to-eight hours per week. He has completed more than 300 hours of training between the 2016-17 dryland and on-snow seasons. Sigal is a regular at Vernon’s Snap Fitness, where he works with personal trainer Chelsea May.

Coulter believes Sigal can do exceptionally well in Austria as long as he works hard on the course.

“I always tell him to ‘leave it all out on the course’ and finish with nothing left in the tank,” said Coulter. “To me, it doesn’t matter how he places but how hard he works during these races.

“If Justin is laying down across the finish line, I know he gave it all he’s got.”

Sigal, whose parents, Les and Jackie, will be in Austria rooting for their son, will arrive in Austria wearing his Canadian team jacket. He’ll wear his Canadian race suit underneath his Canadian warm-up pants – which he’ll remove from his Canadian roll-on luggage bag and put in his Canadian backpack – and give it his all. Cross country skiing begins Saturday.

“I’m just going to do my best and enjoy the experience of meeting new people, trying new food and learning a new language,” he said. If that doesn’t work, Sigal will live by the Special Olympics credo, which he knows by heart:

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

The 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games will bring together more than 2,700 athletes from 107 nations. Canada’s team is the third-largest at the Games.

Athletes will compete in six sports: alpine skiing, cross country skiing, figure skating, floor hockey, snowshoeing and speed skating.

Canadian Olympic and World Championship gold medalist figure skater Jamie Salé will serve as Canada’s honourary coach.