Skier Graham Nishikawa set to take over as head coach of Cross Country Yukon


Graham Nishikawa says it feels like “a lifetime ago” that he was part of the Yukon cross-country ski team, being driven to race events by the team’s longtime coach Alain Masson.

That was about two decades ago. Now Nishikawa is set to return home to Whitehorse to take over from his former coach who’s retiring, and head up the local competitive ski program — Cross Country Yukon.

It’s a “little bit surreal, for sure,” Nishikawa said.

“With all the experiences I have and all the training I’ve done, I think I just felt like I can, I want to share what I’ve learned.”

Nishikawa has an impressive resume as a competitive skier. He started as a youth in the “jackrabbit” program in Whitehorse with Masson, and then moved to Canmore, Alta., in 2003 to pursue a career in the sport.

Since then, he’s competed at World Cup events and coached at the national level. He also found great success as a guide for Canadian Paralympic skier Brian McKeever.

Nishikawa helped lead McKeever to medal-winning performances at the 2014, 2018 and 2022 Paralympic games, as well as in other international competitions, up until McKeever’s retirement from competition last year.

Two winter athletes wearing bibs stand together by a finish line waving.
Canada’s Brian McKeever, left, and guide Nishikawa, right, celebrate during the flower ceremony after winning the gold medal in the men’s visually impaired middle-distance cross-country event at the Beijing Paralympics in 2022. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Coming back to lead the Yukon cross-country ski program is no step down for Nishikawa, though. The relatively small Yukon program is renowned for punching above its weight when it comes to Olympic talent — along with Nishikawa, Dahria Beatty, Knute Johnsgaard, and Nishikawa’s sister, Emily, all went on to international success after starting their ski careers in Whitehorse.

Nishikawa describes himself as a “super process-oriented” coach.

“I think you need to have a plan. You need to have a goal, and then you’ve got to be really realistic,” he said.

“No matter how your race goes, you can just find three things that you’ve done well — and then kind of reevaluate and and start working again to try to get better.”

He says he’s also going to pick his predecessor’s brain as much as he can. Masson has led the program for nearly three decades, and Nishikawa wants to figure out exactly what’s been going right. 

“Obviously the success is there already,” said Nishikawa.

Not fully retiring, says Masson

Masson — an Olympian himself — is not fully retiring from coaching. He plans to return to working with the national team, but mostly in the fall and winter and not as a year-round occupation.

He’s loved his years of coaching the Yukon team, and working with hundreds of young athletes over the years. He has lots of fond memories of travelling with team members in Canada and overseas, and seeing them excel on the international stage.

A man and a woman stand in front of a sign in the forest.
Yukon Olympian Dahria Beatty and her former ski coach, Alain Masson, himself an Olympian, in 2018. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

“When it’s an Olympic year and there’s a local skier from the Whitehorse Ski Club at the Olympics, everybody feels good about it,” he said.

He’s also reluctant to take too much credit himself for the success of the Yukon program.

“It takes a community to to achieve this success,” he said.

“I think cross-country skiing in the Yukon has demonstrated that if you put everything together — quality programs, quality volunteers, a huge effort from the community — it is possible to produce results like this over the long term.”


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