Ski cross the new family passion for top Nor-Am circuit siblings

Jared Schmidt (left). Photo: Andrea and Jim Leask.

By Dan Plouffe

Like a bouncy ski course, Hannah and Jared Schmidt’s journey through high-performance sport has been full of peaks, valleys and unexpected bumps. Right now, the Dunrobin athletes are on a definite high – ranked 3rd and 1st respectively overall in the North American Cup standings in their latest pursuit of ski cross.

“I think in sport, it’s always up and down,” reflects Hannah, who, at 24, is a few years older than most of her fellow Canadian development team members. “There’s no kind of clear trajectory. It’s always, you’re going to have good days, bad days; good years, bad years. So I think pushing through that and continuing to take steps and learn is what’s important.”

Those are lessons acquired from a passionate athletic family. As kids, the Schmidt siblings took part in all kinds of sports. Paddling was the main summertime activity at the Ottawa River Canoe Club, which their family founded at the Bonnenfant Y Outdoor Centre.

In 2012, both Schmidts were canoe-kayak national youth silver medallists, and they even paddled in competitive boats with their parents too.

Skiing was their winter love, with most weekends and holidays spent alongside family at Mont-Tremblant, where their dad was an instructor. As juniors, Hannah and Jared were both solid regional alpine racers with the National Capital Outaouais Ski Team, though they didn’t quite manage to break onto the sport’s bigger stages.

Never selected to a provincial alpine team earlier in her career, it was a big moment for Hannah when she earned a national team spot many years later.

Hannah Schmidt. Photo: Andrea and Jim Leask.

“I was quite honoured,” highlights Hannah, who’s also had to overcome the challenges associated with juvenile diabetes. “It just goes to show you – never give up.”

There were definitely times when her belief wasn’t as strong. After finishing high school at West Carleton, Hannah spent 2 years focused on alpine skiing as her main pursuit in life, but didn’t gain much traction towards her goal of racing at top international levels.

“I didn’t really make it, so then I kind of looked at university,” recounts the Carleton U criminology student. “I didn’t want to stop skiing, but I was definitely like, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to happen.’”

Hannah did wish to continue skiing competitively, but there was no team at Carleton. So – as per family tradition – she started up a club herself, in concert with other skiers from the University of Ottawa and the Université du Québec en Outaouais. Lo and behold, her best alpine results came in her rookie year on the Quebec university circuit.

“When you go home, you’re not always thinking about skiing,” signals Hannah, who competed in the 2017 FISU World Student Games, placing 18th in super-G and 5th in the alpine team event for Canada. “I found I wasn’t as hard on myself if I didn’t have a good race. I was like, ‘OK, refocus. Go to school for a couple days, come back, and then go back to school again.’”

New life in ski cross

Jared had hit a bit of a crossroads at the same time as his older sister’s struggles. He was always competitive in races, “but I was never the best kid,” he indicates.

Then came a Facebook message from a fellow Mont-Tremblant product – Britt Phelan, a 2014 alpine Olympian who switched to ski cross and has now won 4 World Cup medals and counting. She encouraged him to give ski cross a try, so Jared attended a spring camp in Alberta after competing nearby in alpine.

“That was crazy,” recalls the now-21-year-old. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is definitely something I want to do.’”

That led to lots of time on the road with his father, Bevin, who stepped in as coach out of necessity given that Jared didn’t really have a ski cross team to join. The pair travelled around for races, figuring out this new pursuit where 4 skiers battle head-to-head down the slopes at the same time.

“It was cool. Really cool,” Jared says. “We were kind of learning together, but we’d watch and see what worked and what didn’t.

“My dad’s intense. He’s really intense and he likes to see us do well, so it’s fun. And you kind of feed off that, too.”

In his rookie ski cross season, Jared managed to qualify for the 2017 Under-21 World Championships in Italy, where he finished 32nd.

Then it was full on. He packed up and drove across the country to Calgary, rented a basement suite with two fellow developing ski cross athletes, and signed up for courses at Mount Royal University.

Jared gained more experience on the Nor-Am circuit, eventually earning his first podium performance back close to home at Calabogie Peaks in February 2018, followed by a second bronze medal in Maine.

He’d fallen in love with the thrill or ski cross, and told his sister she had to give it a try. Not long after, Hannah earned her national development team ticket thanks to some solid results.

“I’m gonna take credit for that when she makes it big one day,” Jared smiles. “She’s learning a lot, but she’s still got a lot to learn, and so do I, but we’re working together. It’s really cool to share this with her.”

Family fun at Calabogie

Sport is just as much a family pursuit as ever, says mom and chief logistics planner Lesley Anne, who endeared herself to Jared and Hannah’s Team Canada mates with her homemade chili at recent Nor-Am Cup events at Calabogie.

“To have two kids make a national team in one family? Never thought that would happen, but it did,” marvels L.A., who works for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s “Winning Attitudes” co-op program for teens who haven’t been attending school.

“I don’t think I could be any more proud,” adds L.A. – not so much because of their athletic achievements, she underlines, but for the people they’ve become and the resilience they’ve shown.

Though they regularly compete across the continent, the elder Schmidts got to catch their kids’ big breakthroughs 45 minutes from home at the Calabogie Nor-Ams.

Hannah earned back-to-back bronze on Jan. 19 & 20 at Calabogie, made her World Cup debut the next weekend in Collingwood, Ont. (placing 27th), and then won bronze and silver back at Calabogie for Nor-Ams on Feb. 1 & 2.

Jared, who was 45th at the Blue Mountain World Cup, took silver on Jan. 19, scored his first Nor-Am victory on Jan. 20, and followed that up with back-to-back gold on Feb. 1 & 2. He leads the Nor-Am Cup standings by a solid margin (90 points ahead of his closest challenger, with 380).

“It was such a good feeling. Especially to have my family here,” details Jared, who treasured having dinner with the many relatives who’d come to watch the race. “Just to have a great support crew when I show up at the finish, you really realize who’s kind of gotten you here. It was awesome.”

Both Schmidt kids stress how appreciative they are for their parents’ dedication and sacrifices they’ve made along the way, particularly in a sport that’s high on expenses. Then there’s the constant emotional support, in the times where high-level sport success didn’t seem so likely, or with other life challenges.

“That’s so much of it – saying the right things, or sometimes saying nothing and just listening. Just a squeeze or a hug,” L.A. notes. “That’s it, right? The ups and downs. The thing I love about sport is – you’re not always going to win. And I think the journey for both kids has been a lot of hard work. In my mind, I’m so proud, because this is not something that’s been given to them, they had to work.”

Though they’re enjoying the current rise, the Schmidts say they’ve got a further peak to climb yet.

“When I was younger, my biggest goal was to make it to the Olympics,” Hannah smiles. “Still is.”

Hannah Schmidt: diabetic, and international ski talent

It was at the end of a great summer when 12-year-old Hannah Schmidt realized something was wrong. She got very sick while travelling home with her family from the Canadian Canoe-Kayak Championships, and when the already-skinny kid began losing a lot of weight, her parents knew it was no ploy to get out of going back to school.

“I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to school at all. I was too tired, so weak, I had no energy,” recounts Hannah, who wound up in hospital and was diagnosed fairly quickly with Type 1/juvenile diabetes. “Huge life change for sure.”

There was a lot to learn in order to manage the condition – how to count carbohydrates, how much insulin to give herself, “and meanwhile, I’m trying to stay active, still be in sport,” recalls Hannah, who was determined to be independent and figure out how to best take care of herself.

She started with pens, injecting herself 4-6 times per day. Now she has an insulin pump and wears a continuous glucose monitoring device on her shoulder – the technology advances helping to almost create an artificial pancreas for her.

“It’s just always monitoring my blood sugar, instead of me having to prick my finger,” Hannah details. “That’s definitely helped. Especially being on the ski hill for four or five hours a day.”

Remaining physically active is also helpful in managing the effects of diabetes, though pursuing sport at a high-performance level can be challenging at times too, she indicates.

“You always have days that diabetes is kind of taking you over,” notes Hannah, who tries to never miss training, though she may reduce her volume if she’s feeling off – not unlike managing fatigue, adds the 24-year-old.

Hannah says she doesn’t feel like diabetes keeps her from reaching for the top international levels in ski cross racing.

“It’s under control,” underlines the athlete who always keeps a sugar source in her pockets to consume on her way up the chairlift if needed. “If I were to go low, typically I’m just weak. So if I were at the start and I go low, for example, that will limit me. But I try to avoid that.”

Hannah’s mom L.A. is impressed by her daughter’s attitude and believes her story can be inspirational for others with diabetes to pursue their objectives.

L.A. is doubly impressed by her daughter’s resiliency when she thinks of all the other hurdles she’s had to clear to make it to the level she has. That includes another significant physical challenge – the titanium rod in her right leg, the product of one of multiple crashes that have broken Hannah’s limbs.

“I guess if you don’t get up and get on the horse again, then you didn’t learn anything,” L.A. smiles. “All those things just seemed to make her stronger.”

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