Canadians cheered, then applauded, then cheered again as Salmon Arm skier Natalie Wilkie earned four medals in the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing.
Wilkie brought home two golds, a silver and a bronze: golds in the long-distance classic standing race and the sprint standing event, silver in the middle distance standing race and bronze in the team relay event.
“Coming back with so much success is pretty awesome,” said Wilkie, who lost four fingers of her left hand in shop class when she was 15. “I am feeling pretty stoked with my performance.”
Three days after arriving home, Wilkie strapped a pole to her hand and competed against cross-country skiers in the Canadian Nationals in Whistler, where she was top-10 in all of Canada.
While Wilkie and her mom, Karin Huster, celebrate the medals, the real source of pride is in the young skier’s attitude towards life and the many challenges she overcomes between podiums.
Wilkie said training leading up to the Beijing Olympics was strange because COVID-19 shut down most competitions.
“It kind of sucked to miss out on that and going in kind of blind, not knowing how we would compare to other skiers,” she said, noting the athletes basically existed in a bubble for a couple of months prior to Beijing.
Wilkie felt pressure from the expectations of family, friends, coaches, the team and herself.
“I kept having thoughts of what if I made a mistake in training, what if I didn’t train enough, what if I didn’t ski hard enough, what if I didn’t beat my performance in PyeongChang,” she said of her 2018 Paralympic debut where she won gold, silver and bronze medals. “And I was part of an ad campaign running on TV for about a month. That added a layer of pressure as I thought people were expecting great things of me.”
Super-stressed, Wilkie said she was able to let out a massive breath once the team arrived in China and she was able to ski the courses.
But her Beijing experience did not begin well.
In her first race, a biathlon, Wilkie missed seven out of 10 targets and came in second to last. For every missed shot, she had to do a 150-metre penalty lap.
“I put my gun down, raised my arms and kept on skiing,” she says, noting she used the time to make a major shift in the story she was telling herself.
“OK, this is not going well, you can’t recover from this kind of race, so you’re just going to ski as hard as you can.”
Two days later, Wilkie skied to gold in the 15-kilometre classic race and, as she puts it, went from bad to gold.
Rather than putting her off her game, Wilkie says her frequent bad starts spur her on.
“I think, OK it can’t get any worse,” she laughed. “So that’s when I can bounce back and go into the next race with no expectations. I just ski as hard as I can and try to do my best.”
Wilkie began skiing at the end of her mother’s ski pole pretty much as soon as she could stand up.
Huster said young Wilkie was a very interesting child, a bit of a fairy, who liked lichen and trees among other things. “I was a very distractible child,” confirmed Wilkie. “I was pulled along or having a temper in a snow bank.”
Wilkie joined the Jackrabbits program but didn’t learn to love the sport until she joined the racing team and began year-round training.
“I thought my life as I knew it was over,” she said of the 2016 accident in school. “But I got pretty bored with being depressed and told myself there are so many things you can do, so get off your butt.”
The Larch Hills team helped her get back into training and an occupational therapist came up with a way to attach a pole to her hand so she could ski with two poles.
“It was training and skiing – that was the most stable and normal part of my life,” she said. “After the accident, I was seeking normalcy and I found it in training.”
Wilkie laughed about her mom’s description of her as a fairy child, spacey and in her own world.
The young athlete who made lists, more lists and lists of lists, said being in her own space is invaluable.
“When I’m in my own world, I’m able to block everything out and focus on myself,” she said, pointing out that at a big event, people only see the media coverage and medals.
“When you’re out in a race, you’re basically on your own with your own thoughts, and it takes a lot of strength and inner power to focus on the race plan and the task at hand.”
Wilkie’s favourite part of any race is at its end, when skiers change from being competitors to fast friends. And the friendships were most poignant in Beijing as two of her fellow Paralympics were from Ukraine and continue to face uncertain futures.
Wilkie, who lives in Canmore, said she trains hard year round but is looking forward to a bit of a break during the April “rest month,” a time when she will be able to come home and connect with her family, friends and horses.
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