Last Friday, in the gathering darkness on a ski hill in Zao, Japan, Alexandria Loutitt prepped for her next jump at the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup, not totally aware she was on the verge of making ski-jumping history.
It was getting later in the evening — when most of the competition was scheduled to accommodate European TV viewers — and the sun had gone down between the first and second rounds. Loutitt had already made a remarkable first jump, leading by more than 10 points.
Then, as Loutitt jumped, making it a distance of 95 metres, an incredible moment for Canada — and for Gwich'in — was marked. The 19-year-old Nihtat Gwich'in member became the first Canadian woman to achieve a World Cup victory in ski jumping.
"It felt surreal, it still doesn't quite feel real to me. It's something I've always dreamed about. But it's one of those things where you're never sure if it's really going to happen," she said.
Her fans and supporters back home in Canada were ecstatic.
Loutitt checked her phone to see "a lot of messages and about 1,000 new Instagram followers and lots of new followers across all social media platforms," she said.
"Maybe every person I know from home has texted me."
A lot of those new followers happened to be Indigenous people, particularly from the North, she said.
She says her Gwich'in roots are "a small portion" of who she is, but she found it moving to hear how she had inspired people.
"I think they're excited to see someone who kind of represents them in a way … And so it feels really special," she said.
After Loutitt competed at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, she got a message from a young girl who also was part Indigenous.
"She was just really excited to see someone who looks like myself, like competing at such a high level. And it was a message that made me tear up, for sure," Loutitt said.
She traces her Gwich'in roots to her great-grandmother Laura McLeod, who lived for many years in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., and her great-grandfather, Colin 'Chippy' Loutitt, whose cabin is featured in Old Town Yellowknife's Self-Guided Tour.
Loutitt was raised in Calgary, and now trains most of the year in Slovenia.
Ahead of this recent win, she faced down a road of recovery from more than one injury.
It started with knee surgery in the spring. Loutitt had a cluster of cysts growing off a ligament, and a torn meniscus.
During that time, Loutitt finished high school, and by summer after making a full recovery from knee surgery, she went back to training.
In one of her first sessions back, however, she crashed and broke her foot, though doctors didn't realize it at her first medical visit.
"My binding didn't release and my foot hit the top of my foot and the ligament ruptured with such force that it tore a hole into my bone," she said.
"I went to the hospital in Europe, and they said, 'Oh, it's just a sprained ankle.' They took one X-ray and they couldn't see where the damage was to the bone because it's kind of on the underside."
She was told she could resume training in a week and a half. But when she did, she was in terrible pain.
"The pain just didn't go away, I could barely walk and I was still trying to push through it," she said.
"Eventually, my coaches took me to get an MRI."
It showed she had ruptured the ligament and that she would need a bone scan to confirm whether or not there was a hole in the foot and if it had healed.
Turned out it hadn't healed because she was continuing to weight train, run and jump on it.
"So, I spent most of my fall trying to recover from that. And so you know, I was doing like an hour of core each day just to keep myself occupied," Loutitt said.
"I was trying to stay motivated, because after having a really good season last year, my rookie season, it was pretty phenomenal. So I was really motivated to get back on the hill."
Eventually Loutitt was able to get back on skis, slowly at first. It was hard work and there were some tears, she said.
She said when she first started competing again, her jumps "were really nothing special."
"It was so bad. I knew what I had to do to fix it. And that little bit of pressure that comes with competition was really that last bit needed to really send them far," she said.
"It was definitely not easy. But, you know, I had my heart set on what I wanted. And I knew I could do it, if I put in the work and, you know, didn't give up."
She chalks up her ability and grit to get through the recovery to her Gwich'in heritage.
"I honestly wholeheartedly credit my resilience and my work ethic to my Gwich'in family, because they've had to overcome so much more than any other person in Canada. The Indigenous people of Canada have to face these struggles and still face these struggles, and it develops a work ethic, and it develops grit and resilience that you can't get anywhere else," Loutitt said.
"It's something you have to learn, and you have to learn it to survive. And so obviously, it was something that my grandfather had taught my father and my father taught to my brother and I, and I'm so grateful to have those skills."
Loutitt had two fourth-place finishes earlier this season. She won Olympic bronze last year in the inaugural mixed team ski jumping event at the Beijing Games.
The last Canadian to reach the World Cup women's ski jump podium was Calgary's Taylor Henrich, who had two third-place finishes in 2015.
Horst Bulau was the last Canadian to win a World Cup men's ski jump event back in 1983. The only other Canadian to win World Cup men's ski jump gold was Steve Collins in 1980.