Getting kids moving is a complicated task, says four-time Olympian Sharon Firth, but it has to start with role models.
“I’ve thought of this question lots: what do we have to do to get kids out?” Firth told The Journal while in Fort Smith for the recent Polar Cup ski and biathlon races. “Parents have to be there. Parents are the role models for the children and children are going to imitate their parents, so if you’re active and exercising, that’s what your kids are going to do.”
That is what the cross-country skier, originally from Aklavik, attributes her success to: a sturdy upbringing with strong parents who played the coach role.
“From birth to age five, we had a solid foundation growing up on the land and that solid foundation led to who we are today,” she said. Both she and her sister Shirley – also an Olympian skier – were raised on trap lines. “My parents really instilled in us a work ethic and, of course, not only were they our parents, but they were our coaches, teaching us how to survive off the land.”
Similarly, she advised, kids need to be surrounded by positive peer role models.
“If you’re around positive people and good friends, it’s going to rub off,” said Firth. “So if you’re around a lot of sports people, that’s what you’re going to do; if you’re around a lot of drinkers that’s what you’re going to do; if you’re around gamblers, that’s what you’re going to do. So it’s really your environment. And with anything, if you’re going to be good at something, it has to be a lifestyle.”
Firth said she started setting goals and dreams for herself at a very young age, without any idea that they would come true. Then one day she was introduced to the sport of cross-country skiing through the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program designed to get kids in the North involved. She fell in love.
While admittedly part of the winning combination was Firth’s drive, recognizing that there was something “different” inside her when it came to the sport, she gives a lot of credit to her coaches for their role in guiding her to the competitive level.
“From day one that I went to do the sport, I had a coach,” she said. “And we had good coaches, coaches that believed in you. By having coaches that believe in you, you really believe in yourself and what you can do in your sport, whether you want to do it at a recreational level or at a competitive level. It just so happened that it was competitive in my sport. I loved that.”
While cross-country skiing became Firth’s life, she does not necessarily advocate competitive sports – or sports at all – for youth to be happy and healthy.
“I think as long as kids are doing something, it doesn’t necessarily have to be sports,” she said. “There are arts out there; there’s music, there’s dance, drama. As long as they’re doing some kind of activity, I think that’s important.”
But whether or not kids want to be involved in activities is another story, she said, noting that there are so many “distractions” for youth these days.
“Look at the beautiful cross-country trails here and you have your volunteer people that are devoted, they’re totally dedicated to making the sport enjoyable and for parents and kids to enjoy it,” she said. “And then you have that beautiful new track in town and a swimming pool, so what’s the community doing? They’re giving their best for these facilities to be here. So you know we sometimes just need to look out our back door and see what amazing sporting arenas we have around our territory.”
Ultimately, Firth maintained that we need to take personal responsibility for our well-being.
“Anything in life, if you want to be good at it, it takes years and years of dedication,” she said. “You’re not going to become a world champion overnight, or an artist overnight, or a musician overnight. You have to have that desire and passion and you have to love what you do, or else why suffer?”
Both Sharon and Shirley Firth were awarded Diamond Jubilee medals Feb. 7 in Yellowknife. The medals were established in honour of Queen Elizabeth II and recognize Canadians who have made a significant contribution to their community, territory and abroad.