The following article is a version of the one published in today’s Yukon News.
I’m in Silverstar at 1,900m when I find out Father Mouchet has died. Part of me feels gutted, tears freeze on my eyelashes. But another part feels a deep building joy. The classic track I’m skiing on is hard packed and grooves of fresh corduroy glint like crocodile teeth in the sun. I make a bid for the summit.
The Legend of Father Mouchet is widespread throughout the North. He was a French Oblate Priest who fought Nazis on skis during WWII. He immigrated to Canada after the war and in the mid nineteen-fifties was sent to Old Crow to convert the Gwich”in people to a Western concept of God.
Finding the Anglican church doing a thorough enough job Father turned his attentions to another form of conversion and instead taught the people of Old Crow to cross county ski. In 1960 he formed the TEST program and by the 1970’s much of the Canadian National Ski Team was filled with athletes Father had produced between Old Crow and Inuvik.
Twenty years ago he received the Order of Canada “in recognition of his half-century of dedication to the people of the North.“ Until last year people in Whitehorse could glance him in the early mornings shuffling on his classic skis up and down the grueling 7.5km trail. He was 96.
It’s hard to express the depth, the profound impact of family relationships. Father’s entrance into my life has no starting point, no defined role. He married my parents, he baptized me. It was his influence that brought my parents to cross country skiing. When my dad left to work on the World Cup, Father walked me to school and drove me to swim practice. He was always there, an unquestioned piece of our family tapestry. I cannot imagine my childhood without him at our kitchen table, or on skis just around the corner.
As my coach Father was a harsh mentor. He believed the power of skiing came secondary only to God. He was a Priest and with that came a rigid commitment to training and an incredibly high standard for excellence. As a young teenager his expectations were hard, sometimes impossible to live up to. TEST kids skied in small loops focusing on technique. We climbed the same mountains over and over again. We chopped wood, hauled water and packed bags full of gravel around. A singular focus on excellence was imperative and there was no bullshitting him on what was 80% effort and what was 100% effort.
What I learned from those experiences was the deeper meaning of hard work, and that through hard work we gain the self confidence necessary to succeed. Father understood how important self confidence was. ‘Low self-esteem,’ he would often lament ‘is the athletes greatest threat.’ When I turned twelve he told me to look in the mirror every day and say ‘My name is Pavlina Sudrich. I am strong. I can do anything!’ It was so lame I still groan when I think of it, but even today when I feel like I’m in over my head I remember those words.
TEST also helped me understand that my coaching philosophy is informed by broader values. Hard work is critical but it doesn’t have to be miserable. Friendship in sport is important. Elitism is destructive. Love of sport, love of training, and fun are what keep people skiing for decades.
Over the years Father Mouchet affected the lives of many people. From Inuvik Angus Cockney remembers the man who taught him to ski as a funny contradiction. “He didn’t look like a priest, he dressed like a human being. In residential school it was really hard to trust anyone but when Father came in…we thought he was different from the others. It didn’t take long for us to trust him.” Cross country skiing became an incredibly important aspect in Cockney’s life. “For me back then being in that system skiing became my escape hatch from the abuse that happened at that school. For me skiing was a way out, I adopted it as a lifestyle and I’m glad my kids did too.” Cockney’s son, Jesse is well known to us on the Canadian racing circuit. This past weekend he raced in the World Cup in Kuusamo, Finland.
In a time when Canada’s relationship with religion was growing increasingly tenuous, Father Mouchet established relationships of profound respect that would last lifetimes.
As Glena Tetlichi Frost tells me, “A lot of people are mourning for Father Mouchet in their community. We’re grieving. We’ve lost a family member. That speaks for itself. That’s how much he impacted Old Crow.”
Here on the side of this snow blown mountain I’m struggling through the last section of switchback trail. At this elevation my breath comes in short bursts, white in the cold morning air. In the last two weeks of his life I was fortunate enough to see Father every day. While he disappeared physically, mentally he remained untarnished. In the early mornings of each day we shared breakfast and laughter. It was an incredibly special time to spend with him. I loved him very much.
When I crest the summit the sun pours out lighting the low level clouds on fire. The First Nations say when a respected elder passes away and arrives in Paradise, that person sends days of sunshine to where they left. Today it seems, Father and I have both skied our way to Paradise.
When my team, a pack of laughing teenagers who love to ski find me we descend the mountain together. Saturday they will race with Knute Johanesgard, one of Fathers last athletes. Angus Cockney will join us, in Europe his son will race another World Cup, and in Whitehorse the ski club will be packed. Father’s legacy continues to live and breathe on ski trails around the world.
I feel incredibly honoured to have been asked to deliver Father’s Eulogy. I look forward to seeing the many friends who’s life has been affected Father Mouchet.
A vigil service will take place for Father Mouchet at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Monday, Dec 9th at 19:30.
The funeral mass will take place at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Tuesday, Dec 10th at 13:30pm. It will be followed by a reception at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre.
I would like to thank Cross Country Ontario for the flexibility it’s afforded me in returning home to Whitehorse during this time.
I would also like to thank my Team, an awesome gang of young people who’s motivation and enthusiasm has been incredibly comforting during my sadfest.