Down, but Not Out

Life sure knows how to throw some good punches.  I’ve definitely taken my share over the years as a competitive skier and I’ve always got back up on my feet before the bell tolls and the ref counts me out.  This time was maybe the closest I’ve come to staying down.  I staggered and almost threw in the towel.

"My Dad always said, 'Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.'" - Joe Biden
The punch that dealt such a heavy blow was being cut from the National Ski Team after my best racing season to date.  I remember when I was in my younger years and struggled with Ontario funding because for a few years in a row I would have qualified based off the previous year’s funding criteria, but they would change the criteria and I would miss qualifying by the new standards.  I was frustrated because I needed the financial support and it felt unfair that the criteria would change so abruptly.  Now I’m in essentially the same boat on a bigger scale.

If I was going to be cut from the National Ski Team, I thought for sure last year was the year.  I did not have a good season.  I was inconsistent due to fatigue, I didn’t have any International racing breakthroughs, in fact I was sick for most of the International racing opportunities I had, I won a bronze medal at National Championships and finished 3rd on the NorAm circuit; nothing too special, no major improvement from the previous season.  And yet I was renamed to the National Ski Team.

This year I was the top Canadian in 4 of 5 early season distance races, won two NorAm sprint races (I had never even been on a sprint podium before), consistency was good as my worst result in a NorAm distance race was 4th place, I won 3 gold medals at National Championships and the aggregate title (beating a World Cup team member head to head in the process), and won the NorAm circuit by a sizeable margin with 12 podiums.  I also had a solid International result in a Scandinavian Cup 30km where I finished 21st, just over 2 minutes behind in a very competitive field where the top three Norwegian skiers combined for multiple top 12 finishes on the World Cup.

I was confident I would be renamed to the National Team.  However, just like the Ontario funding criteria changes, the National Ski Team changed tactics and decided to ONLY look at World Cup results this year of which I competed in a whopping total of 3 races.  Unfortunately my World Cup performances were only mediocre and I did not make the top 30 necessary to meet the standard.  It’s a little strange because of the 3 World Cups I did compete in; Alex and Emily were the only Canadians to finish in the top 30.

I also find it hard to comprehend why the National Team would choose to stop supporting me when I have start rights for the entire first period of World Cups as NorAm leader.  It’s the best World Cup opportunity I have ever had and the first time in my career I have qualified to race World Cups well in advance so I can tailor my training specifically towards performing on the World Cup.  In the past I have always had to duke it out on the NorAm to qualify, then fly straight over to Europe and race.  It’s like they said, “hey, we have this athlete who was the best domestic skier in the country, earned start rights to the world cup, is ready to work hard within the system we’ve created to try to make it, but… we don’t really think he can do it so why bother supporting him anymore?  We helped him out this far, let’s see if he can do the last step on his own.”

It’s an obstacle I did not anticipate.  I didn’t know how to react when I got the phone call.  My excitement for skiing after Nationals success came crashing down.  I felt defeated, helpless, and a whole host of emotions.  I needed time away from the sport to reevaluate my life and see if I still wanted it.  If I still wanted to chase my athletic dreams.

Ultimately I am doing this for me.  I want to be successful for my girlfriend, my family, my ski club, my coaches (past and present), the Thunder Bay ski community, and the Canadian ski community.  I am blessed to have had so much support over the years from so many people and I want to be successful for each and every one of them, to show that their efforts were not wasted.  But I can’t carry everyone on my shoulders.  I have to do it for me and that’s what I needed to be sure of.  Do I still want this?

The answer is yes.  I asked myself the same question after my difficult season two years ago.  I decided I wasn’t going to go out of the sport like that, on a low.  I wanted to prove to myself I was better than that.  I did last year.  I am satisfied to have conquered the domestic circuit.  Now I have to see it through.  I earned the starts and now it’s time to truly see whether I have what it takes to make it on the World Cup circuit.

The challenge is made that much bigger by losing my National Team status, but fortunately I have an amazing fallback option.  I moved home and rejoined the National Development Centre in Thunder Bay.  My coach is a long-time friend and advisor, my teammates are supportive, motivated and eager to improve, and the team’s technical and health support is the best in the country.  The real impediment I’m facing right now is financial.  In losing my National Team status, I also lost my funding, $18,000 of Sport Canada carding and $7500 of Ontario carding gone.  To minimize my expenses I moved home (thanks Mom!), but I’m still well short of what I need to pay for this year’s training and racing expenses.

The good news is I’m back on my feet.  I’m training again, following my passion and pursuing my athletic dreams.  I feel very fortunate to have the support of those close to me to enable me to continue pursuing this path I have chosen.

Above: Packed and ready to return to Thunder Bay.
Below: Camped out in the prairies. Pretty comfy sleeping in the back of a uhaul!


Thomsen D'Hont said…
Go Somppi! You are a great athlete who has shown consistent improvement. I believe in you!
Rod Somppi said…
There are no words to describe how proud I am of you. I don't think I could get kicked as much and as hard as you have been and still keep a positive outlook for the sport going forward. CCC, you should be ashamed! You have my total support. Dad
Esa said…
Great read Somp. Tough situation for sure, but I think the ultimate payback would be to train hard and kick some ass at your World Cup starts, and see how you feel after that. It's great that you're able to keep a positive outlook. That's huge. We're all proud of you Mike!