VANCOUVER – For your average university student, managing four or five classes per term on top of a social life feels like a full-time job. Six courses? Crazy, only engineers do that. Six classes, research assistant, and varsity athlete? That’s just ridiculous, how would you find time to sleep? Ask nordic skier Rob Ragotte (Belleville, ON). In fact, he can even one-up that. This year, Ragotte is fulfilling a rare trio as a UBC student, athlete, and coach.
Unlike most of UBC’s varsity athletics programs, whose coaches are often full-time employees, the nordic ski team has always relied on student-athletes who are willing to step forward and take responsibility for coaching and managing the team. Usually this role has been taken on by senior students, often those completing their Master’s or PhD’s.
Ragotte, however, is a second-year science student at UBC. An Academic All-Canadian, he’s majoring in microbiology and immunology, although he says he is hoping to switch into physiology next year. He only turned 19 a couple months ago, although you’d never have guessed it by the maturity with which he carries himself.
Recognizing that the nordic team had lost some of its senior members in the past couple of years, Rob thought that having a younger athlete take on the leadership role would make things more consistent, and decided to put himself up for the assignment.
“Somebody was going to have to take on that responsibility and I thought it would be convenient if I did it since I will be around for a few more years. It would be hard if the person who was doing it was going to graduate then we would be back where we were,” he said.
It is no small task though, and there is a lot that goes into organizing a team.
“At the beginning of the year there were lots of administrative tasks relating to UBC Athletics and Cross Country BC.
Then there is organizing practices, figuring out a race schedule, and communicating with prospective athletes,” he explained. Luckily, teammates Nico Petch (Kamloops, BC) and Alistair Hardy-Poirier (West Vancouver, BC), both rookies, also provide quite a bit of assistance. “One of the nice parts about the Nordic team is that it is an extremely cooperative environment, and people are always willing to help out if I can’t do something,” said Ragotte.
Fellow athlete and PhD student Andrea Bundon spoke highly of Ragotte’s leadership. “It’s been fantastic to watch Rob and some of the younger members of the team take on leadership roles. It has really rejuvenated the whole program,” she said.
“Rob is incredibly hard working and he’s also very smart. He has great ideas and he follows through. He also sets a good example – because he is willing to take on additional duties to help the team out, I’ve noticed that other athletes are volunteering to lead team training sessions and organize travel to races,” Bundon added.
Ragotte says that the extra time commitment is “definitely worth it,” and that “what’s rewarding is that at the end of the day, I just really love the sport.” His main goal is to show other students and athletes that involvement with sports doesn’t have to end after high school. “It seems a lot of people either go to NDCs (National Development Centres) or go to university, and most of the people who go to university don’t continue with the sport. I guess that’s probably true in most sports, but I think it’s a shame.”
Ragotte didn’t start Nordic skiing until grade nine, and even then it was just with a small high school program. In tenth grade, he joined a club team and continued from there until university. His rookie ski season at UBC was less than ideal. He suffered with multiple bouts of pneumonia throughout the summer and fall leading up his first races as a Thunderbird, which included a DNF at the World Junior Trials. The team travelled to Mont Ste. Anne in Quebec City for the Canadian College and University Nordic Championships, CCUNC for short. Ragotte was pleased that he was able to put together some decent races there. “In CCUNC I ended up getting top 20, which was my modified goal after a rough season. And we placed seventh as a team,” he said.
Throughout this past summer, Ragotte worked as a research assistant in a pharmacology lab that focused on the metabolic side effects of anti-psychotic drugs. Not bad for a guy who had just finished his first year of university courses. On top of his job in the lab, he was still keeping up with his training. With no snow on the ground, nordic skiers spend the warmer months of the year doing the next best thing: roller skiing.
“It doesn’t always look like the most normal thing to be doing, and there have been occasions when people have pulled over their vehicles to take photos and videos,” Ragotte admitted. But, he added, he and his teammates do what they have to do to keep up to the best. It sounds like a contradiction, but “skiers are made in the summer.”
In cross country ski racing, athletes have to be able to race in both the classic technique and what is known as the free technique. In the classic events, athletes move their skis parallel inside a track, whereas the free technique looks more like a skating motion. Not only are the skill sets different, but the two styles require completely different sets of skis, boots, poles, and even wax.
With two different styles, and races that range from 1 km sprints to up to 50 km, training is a bit more diverse than in other sports, and nordic skiers tend to have the highest VO2 max scores of any athletes. He structures his training (and therefore the teams) in three week cycles: light, medium, and a then a heavy week in terms of volume and intensity. “Each cycle gets progressively more challenging until mid-December when racing starts regularly and then training slowly reduces,” he explained.
With so much on his schedule, it would seem only human of Rob to get a little bogged down from time to time. However, he says he has organized himself into a pretty good routine, and like most university students, when it comes to sleeping, he’s “not as good as I probably need to be, but not as bad as I could be.”
Elaborating, he said “In high school I used to be really bad about getting enough sleep, but I reached a point where I decided I didn’t want to be tired all the time anymore. Since then I have definitely been more conscientious about my sleep.”
The only evidence of stress in his life is the stress fracture in his foot that he was diagnosed with in September. Since he aims to be at around 20 hours of training in his heavy weeks, being kept off of his feet with a stress fracture presented some challenges. “It was pretty unfortunate, but at the same time, the timing could have been worse had it come later in the season.”
While the stress fracture was healing, Ragotte “attempted” to train on what he calls “that fancy rowing device in the gym” and do some water running in the pool. To sum up this experience, he said, “All I can say about that is that I have a lot of respect for the rowers out there who have to use that torture device as a regular part of their training. I’ve also been water running which is less masochistic than the erg but infinitely more boring.”
Water running is common practice amongst injured athletes. As any one of them will tell you, “it looks a little bit ridiculous”, but for Ragotte, years of roller skiing has taught him to be unfazed by this. “Nevertheless, I was definitely looking forward to getting back to running… and I guess roller skiing,” he added.
Ragotte got through this round of injuries in time to win the men’s junior race at the team’s first event, the Coast Cup, which took place on Dec. 2 at the Whistler Olympic Park in Callaghan Valley. This will also be the site of the 2013 Nationals, taking place March 23-30, so it was important for UBC to get a good feel for the course and capitalize on their home advantage.
This year’s team is younger and has more depth than those in recent memory, and they are aiming to get a top five placing at Nationals.
“We aren’t at a point yet where we can really challenge Lakehead, Carleton, Laval or Alberta, but we are aiming to be next in line. Hopefully within the next few years we can start to pose a bigger challenge to some of the top schools,” said Ragotte of his squad.
At nationals, skiers compete in two middle distance races, an individual sprint, and a team sprint, which has two athletes alternating roughly 1-1.5 km laps for a total of three laps each, six combined. “It is an absolutely brutal race, and it’s a really important one in terms of university rankings.”
Newcomers Kirsten Bock (100 Mile House, BC) and Adam Woods (Vancouver, BC) are both poised to have strong seasons for the Thunderbirds. Ragotte thinks Woods, who finished second in the junior men’s race at the first Coast Cup event, is in great shape after a fall spent racing in orienteering, and Bock placed in the top 10 nationally last year in the aggregate (the combined total of the points earned in each race) and was Western Canadian champion in the sprint.
As for himself, Ragotte’s goal is a top ten individual performance at nationals, and a top six in the team sprint with whomever he ends up being paired with.
“Rob volunteers a lot of his energy and time to ensure that his fellow athletes are able to train in a supportive environment and be competitive during the race season,” said teammate Solen Roth.
“He courageously took on this responsibility, which means he is now both one of our best performing athletes and our coach. It can’t be easy to be the person we’re trying to catch all the while being the person pushing us to go faster.”