Yukon skier makes history with ‘sensational’ upset win at world championship meet

A young cross country skier from Whitehorse has been proclaimed a “star in the making” after she unexpectedly made history by winning gold at a world championship meet this week.

Sonjaa Schmidt, 21, was not favoured to win the women’s sprint at the U23 championship — in fact, she barely qualified for the quarterfinal heats at the event in Planica, Slovenia.

Once in the quarterfinal, though, Schmidt was unstoppable — cruising to the semifinal, and then the final where she turned heads by powering her way to the front of the pack just before reaching the finish line.

“How about that! She’s beaten all the favourites … It’s Sonjaa Schmidt who’s sprung the surprise of the meet so far,” proclaims the broadcast announcer, calling the race for FIS Cross Country. 

“Suddenly the Canadians have a star in the making … sensational!”

Watch Sonjaa Schmidt’s gold-medal race, beginning at 1:25:00:

The surprise win marks the first time Canada has won gold in a U23 Nordic World Ski Championship women’s event. 

“I felt lucky to have qualified in the first place,” Schmidt told CBC News later on Tuesday.

“Then I think I just told myself, you know, that I have the same amount of chances as everyone else to win. And I tried to stay calm and just race the way I normally do, make moves where I can, rest where I can. And I think I did a really good job in that.”

Alain Masson, a Whitehorse ski coach who works with the national team, and was there to see Schmidt’s win, and called it “probably the biggest surprise in cross country ski racing, maybe not ever, but in a long, long time.”

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“I mean, even the quarterfinal, and the semifinal — it’s rare for Canada to have athletes going beyond the quarterfinals … It’s amazing. Like, I think people were shocked.”

Masson credits Schmidt’s success to “perseverance, self-confidence and just work ethic.” 

Schmidt raises her arm in victory as she crosses the finish line on Tuesday. (Borut Živulović/BOBO/Graeme Williams)

Schmidt had a challenging year, after being passed over for the national team last spring. That meant she lost some of her funding, according to Masson.

But that setback may have ultimately helped give her an edge. In order to afford to keep her ski career going, Schmidt worked for several months last summer as a tree planter. 

“I guess tree planting is a very physical labour — so maybe that’s what has paid off for Sonjaa,” Masson said.

Masson said Schmidt’s surprise win was celebrated by more than just the Canadian contingent in Planica. He said after the race, lots of people from other teams — including those typically more favoured to win — were coming to offer congratulations.

“People were excited. I mean, it’s good for the sport to have people from different countries doing well. So I think the Scandinavian countries were quite happy to see a North American on the top of the podium,” Masson said.

Schmidt plans to now go visit her grandparents in Germany before getting back into competition at World Cup races in Finland, Norway and Sweden.

She’s expecting her performance on Tuesday will now earn her a spot on the national team, meaning she’s unlikely to spend another summer tree planting.

“Or maybe I will be — it seems to be the trick!” Schmidt said. 

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