CANMORE – Maya MacIsaac-Jones was readily straightforward about her experience as a high-level athlete and the national cross-country ski team (NST).
On one hand, MacIsaac-Jones passionately sees what the NST can potentially be. But on the other hand, there are hindering challenges she's faced as a female athlete, who, she said, have been "receiving fewer opportunities" than their male counterparts since she's been around.
“Those experiences for us have certainly created a lot of frustrations,” said MacIsaac-Jones. “We’re not necessarily going to get the opportunities if we don’t push for them. We’re out there, we’re fighting for ourselves, setting standards higher and going after it as a group.”
Nordiq Canada, the governing body of cross-country and Para-nordic skiing in Canada, bases its NST selection on performance-based results.
Being selected to the NST, or not, means the difference between thousands of dollars in federal grant money, which can make or break seasons.
The 25-year-old MacIsaac-Jones locked up her spot on this season's NST with a personal-best 18th-place in sprint at the world cup in Ulricehamn, Sweden, last February. It's her fourth NST selection and first since 2018-19.
MacIsaac-Jones has dreamt about competing at the Winter Games since she was a child and being selected during an Olympic season is a big step forward in that direction.
While discussing her return to the NST with the Outlook earlier in May, the athlete hailing from Athabasca spoke toward the "current reality" of the NST.
“There are some very hard working individuals at Nordiq Canada and I think we have a huge potential within our ski community, both in Nordiq Canada and just as Canadians as a whole, to create a very strong national program,” said MacIsaac-Jones.
“That being said, there’s the difference between having the potential to do that and it actually happening and so I think we certainty can make it happen. As to whether it will or not, that is up to us and to our organization to prove it and make the results happen.”
Since the 2011-12 season, there have been 85 selections to the men's side of Canada's world cup and senior development teams, as opposed to 55 for the women.
In the past five years, there have been 31 male selections and 24 for women.
On the competitive side, MacIsaac-Jones used two examples from last season where she felt female athletes were facing the current reality of challenges with fewer opportunities.
In a followup interview, MacIsaac-Jones said: "I'm confident myself and other athletes have the potential to get the results we're aiming for and I'm confident Nordiq Canada has the potential to meet their own high performance goals by consistently supporting and giving opportunities to our top athletes. We've made progress towards those goals, but we're not consistently there yet. So we've got to keep putting in the work to make it happen."
The NST has had highs and lows with men and women on the team over the past 20 years.
Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov and Devon Kershaw led a strong male contingent for Canada in the early and mid-2010s during a time when the women's side was under development.
Harvey is the last Canadian to podium at a world cup, winning silver in the 15-kilometre mass start in 2018. He's also the most recent Canuck to podium at a world championship, winning gold in the 50-km mass start in 2017. He retired in 2019.
And before that, it was Olympic medallists Chandra Crawford, Beckie Scott and Sara Renner leading the way for Canadian cross-country skiers.
Nordiq Canada established a women's committee as part of its structure in 1984, and part of its goal is to monitor the gender equity policy and ensure qualified women have access to a complete range of opportunities within the sport, among others.
Allison McArdle, chair of the women's committee, said part of the challenge the most recent group of Canadian women have had, in an odd way, is suffering from their own success.
"The women are doing a better job at being competitive [than the men] in that sense," said McArdle, who is also a representative of the FIS Women's Cross Country sub-committee.
"And [the women have] gone on and off the national team and it's been very challenging to have that consistent team support because the way the criteria is set. It probably seems like they've had to fight for that position on the team more because it's a grey area in a selection criteria. Whereas on the male side, there isn't the same number of athletes vying for those positions; there's more males who compete in the sport, but they haven't been performing so they haven't been going on and off the team like the women are.
"I can see how it seems like the women have to fight harder because they're missing a tiny bit of the criteria and then they're off the team and the next year they're back on ... so it feels like they're always fighting, but they're fighting because they're always in the mix."
Recently, Nordiq Canada updated its NST selection criteria to reward performance-based results rather than the previously objective and subjective picks.
Nordiq Canada's high-performance director Kate Boyd believes there's been a fair and equal process determining teams. Although, Nordiq Canada's first woman HP director has previously heard similar rumblings from female athletes, she said.
"It's important for us to have the conversations with the athletes and understand they're understanding and why there's that perception out there," Boyd said. "So absolutely we welcome those conversations with the athletes to share what our perception is as well and to come to an understanding on where things are at.
"Maya and I had a great conversation ... We both want to get the best Canadian athletes over and competing and that's what we're striving for in our high performance program like fielding Canada's best teams."
The cross-country ski organization has very ambitious future goals as it aims to recapture its strength as a medal contending country.
Boyd said Nordiq Canada is setting the criteria to help drive the teams to the elusive podium by fielding Canada's best.
"When you look at our criteria and documents, we're looking to field equal size teams of the men's and women's programs. What it often comes down to is performances and athletes achieving the criteria that's been set out," she said.
"We're looking down through our system and how we build a strong, robust Canadian Nordic ski team and that's really on the radar moving forward, like what is our program and how do we build it stronger, regardless of gender."