No matter where he’s from, Canada’s lone Nordic combined athlete shares Olympic dream with American friends
December 27, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Canadian Nordic Combined team spent much of the last month in a spare bedroom of a downtown Steamboat Springs home furnished with one twin bed.
Nothing to worry about, Nathaniel Mah said. He fits just fine.
Mah's the only Canadian competing in international Nordic combined and to deal with that rather considerable hurdle, he's joined to train, live and compete with the U.S. team.
There's plenty that sets him apart from his American counterparts, now all close friends.
"Apparently," he said recently, grinning, "I say the word 'about' weird."
There's plenty he has in common with them, as well.
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He goes to many of the same competitions. He shares in their training plans and lives on the same schedule. He even makes regular trips to Steamboat Springs with the United States team for events like the annual Fourth of July competition and other training events.
More than anything, he shares the same dream, going to the Olympics.
"That's the main goal for the season," he said. "I'd like to think my chances are pretty good."
Mah faces a far different route to the 2018 Winter Olympics — set to begin Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea — than his star-spangled pals.
He's had a front-row seat to the drama that's started to unfold as the U.S. athletes have narrowed their focus on the goal of making the Olympic team. Things are different, he said, quieter, more serious.
"Everyone's still supportive of each other, but it's interesting to see the competitiveness arise," he said. "If someone can take an advantage over a teammate, whatever that is, they're going to take it now."
The U.S. has roughly eight athletes in the running for four spots, one set of life-long friends slugging it out and two sets of brothers, all sharing goals that aren't necessarily compatible.
Mah, on the other hand, has a few obstacles but none that involve success at the expense of his friends. He needs to secure Canada a spot in the Olympics first, and he can do that by scoring about 50 points on the Continental Cup. He hasn't scored any yet, and didn't score any in a trio of Continental Cup events earlier this month in Steamboat Springs — not his best weekend, he said. But, he's confident he can achieve that before the Olympics. He'll have four stops and 11 events to take care of it.
After that, he likes his chances.
"They're pretty good, I like to think," he said. "It's not a guarantee, but it's likely I'll be able to get that Olympic spot."
His confidence stems from the way he's been able to bounce back from a nasty injury sustained several years ago in Steamboat Springs.
He was riding a road bike down Fish Creek Falls Road in Steamboat with the American team. One of the U.S. athletes skidded out on the gravel beside the road and to avoid the resulting mayhem, Mah rode into the ditch and catapulted down a steep drop.
He paid a quick visit to a local medical clinic and didn't initially feel bad. He'd sustained a concussion, however, and it took several days for the effects to fully manifest.
Soon, he was feeling dizzy and nauseous and just … wrong.
"You know when you first wake up in the morning? It's like that, but all day," he said. "It was this feeling of not being present or aware."
It took 18 months before he was fully cleared to dive all the way back into training. That was the summer of 2016, so he went into last winter without any expectations of being competitive on the Continental Cup.
He never quite got the top-30 finish he needed to score points on the circuit, but he came close on several occasions and came closer than he expected.
This year, he's healthy and hoping to leverage his strength on the jumping hill — his best element of Nordic combined — with better skiing fitness to earn a spot at the Olympics.
"I know I can be competitive at the Olympics," he said. "I'm not going just to participate. I'm going to try to get a result."
If he is able to make headlines in South Korea, his participation there may come as a shock to many Canadians.
Mah grew up in Calgary, Alberta, just 10 minutes from the venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics. He ski jumped for the first time at 4 years old and was deeper into the sport by 6.
For as small a spot Nordic combined occupies in the sporting landscape in the United States, it's considerably smaller in Canada. The nation had one athlete compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics on home soil, then didn't have any until it fielded two in 2006. It bulked up programs a little heading into the 2010 Olympics, again on home soil, but cut funding in the years after and didn't have any athletes compete in 2014, either.
"In Canada, you at least have to have one guy get an Olympic medal or amazing results consistently and it will trickle down to the other guys. I don't have a Todd Lodwick or a Bill Demong, so I have to do it myself," he said. "That's fine. That's motivation for me,"
There was a four-man team and a Canadian coach not long ago, but two athletes retired and another quarreled with the coach. The coach was fired and before long, Mah, 22 years old, was the only athlete still standing.
He has former competitors who serve as impromptu coaches monitoring his events and serving somewhat as coaches. He spoke at length with Wesley Savill — the last active Canadian Nordic combined athlete before Mah — after his disappointing results in Steamboat's Continental Cup events.
He gets some money from the Canadian Nordic combined office, as well, but, he doesn't feel an overwhelming amount of support from his home country's winter sports organizations.
"They know who I am. The Canadian Sports Institution knows exactly who I am," he said. "They specifically told me I can't use their gym to train. They just don't care, is the gist of it. It's not a great (relationship). They built, similar to the Center of Excellence (gym in Park City, Utah), a brand new gym, amazing facility. No one's allowed to use it except very high up national team or unless you’re paying a lot of money to use it, so I was told, ‘no.’ I'm definitely not allowed in there."
But he's found support in the United States after signing a contract to outsource his training to the U.S. team. And he's found support from the skiing community beyond the official channels.
He struggles to say where his home actually is these days. He spends what free time he can, including time around the holidays, back in Calgary, but he shares a two-bedroom apartment with a U.S. ski jumper in Park City in the home of U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team member Stephen Schumann's family.
When he's in Steamboat, he bunks up with the family of another U.S. team member, Jasper Good, and spent more time leading up to the Continental Cup event in Steamboat with the Keeffe family.
"That's really a huge part of why I'm able to do this sport," he said. "I have people in the Nordic community who understand my situation, that I can't be paying rent or buying hotels for months at a time. I'm really thankful."
If things unfold as he's hoping they can in the next month, that support system in his own country and in the neighboring one could be enough to send him to the Olympics.