Q+A | Yukon's Gary Bailie on cross-country skiing, and being named to Sport Yukon's hall of fame

Gary Bailie says it's "pretty amazing" that he'll be inducted into Sport Yukon's hall of fame this month, for his contributions to cross-country skiing in the territory.

"It's not something I ever thought of. It's just the way that I live," he said.

Bailie started skiing young, when he was recruited by the late Father Jean-Marie Mouchet to be part of the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program.

Later, Bailie would go on to create the Kwanlin Koyotes youth ski program in Whitehorse, spending many hours grooming trails in the McIntyre subdivision, and showing young people the joy of staying active through the long winter months.

Bailie spoke to CBC Yukon's Airplay guest host George Maratos about his life-long love of skiing, and his nomination to the Sport Yukon hall of fame.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For people who don't know about Father Mouchet and the TEST program, can you paint a picture of what that time was like for you?

His concept was to develop character in young children through the discipline of cross-country skiing. You know, every sport is a discipline — you're just working hard and you're dedicated and stuff. And, you know, we all got into it and it was just a lot of fun. It was very challenging at first, but when I finally got it, it was like, "wow." It just elevated everything for me. The confidence it gives you... you know, the sport is so great and it does these things for you, but also, I did better at school, I just wanted to do good at everything. So it really elevated me as a person.

So you took to it right away, and you knew that this was a sport you enjoyed?

Not really. It was difficult for me, like I had trouble getting it. My situation was, I grew quite a bit and was a little bit uncoordinated because of that. And I couldn't quite get it and it was frustrating for me. But I just didn't give up. I just kept doing it. And so the first big lesson is just, don't give up, right?

Finally one day everything just clicked and it was magical. You know, all of a sudden, "wow, like this is great." And it just gave me even more confidence to work even harder.

Working with Father [Mouchet] was really challenging. You know, he really worked on our technique and skiing really well, which to this day I always work on — especially in the beginning of the season, because it's that technique that gets you moving well.

And then of course, there was the training part of it, which was just putting in the time and skiing, and it just builds your fitness. Winters are so long, so it was just a great thing to do.

And you became quite the skier. I know you're a humble person, but you went pretty far with the sport.

Yeah, when I was around 12, I became like the fastest midget boy in like, North America. And we'd race at the Top of the World ski championships and I would meet up with all these guys who are undefeated — and I would beat them, like, many times over.

I actually made the national team when I was 17. I also got an offer to go at that time to the United States, to Vermont, to ski for the U.S. team. And I also got an offer to go to Finland to ski for the Finnish Army. I wouldn't be a soldier, I would just ski for them because skiing is, you know, a big deal over there. But being a proud Canadian, I stayed here.

Although I never really achieved my dream of making the Olympics, I was kind of on the doorstep. It was possible. But you know, for many reasons, I just decided that I didn't want to lose my joy of the sport, and I just made my decision to stop competing around the age of 20. My last race was at Arctic Winter Games. I won a gold medal. Father Mouchet hung it on my neck. I thought, how perfect is that, right?

So I just skied because I love it. And then just carried on from there.

Yukon Commissioner Doug Phillips presenting a Governor General's Meritorious Service award to Gary Bailie, in Whitehorse.
Former Yukon commissioner Doug Phillips presenting a governor general's Meritorious Service Award to Bailie in 2018. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

But this is more than a sport for you. You've shared your stories of the grief that you've faced in your life. This is bigger than a sport.

Well, it is. I really think that the big takeaway for me for cross country skiing is that it got me out on the land. Father Mouchet always used to say, "the bush is church." And I thought, wow, it kind of really is. I always felt really close to the creator and to my ancestors and everything. I just felt good out there. And it was a place I went to just deal with anything that happened to me, right? It helped me to process it.

One of the biggest things for me was when I became a father, when I witnessed the birth of my daughter. It just changed my life. It was miraculous. I just loved her so much.

When I was teaching her to ski when she was young, she said, "Dad, can I bring my friends?" I was like, "of course you can!" All of a sudden I had like, you know, 20 to 30, like really wild, spirited kids on my hands. And that was the birth of the Kwanlin Koyotes. So I kept going year after year with that. And then eventually people came on board to help out, which was really great.

But my daughter passed away two and half years ago, unfortunately. And I never realized till then that this was her legacy. 'Cause you know what? I really don't think I would have done that if it wasn't for her, right? So she came into the world and she lived and did her thing and she was just a wonderful girl. And she inspired me to do exactly that. And it continues to this day. So I'm out there all the time working on trails and just trying to, you know, make it possible for people to experience the sport in a good way.

And now that my granddaughter's in elementary school, I'm in the school, I'm getting everybody that I can skiing, you know?

How many kids have come through the Koyotes program under your watch?

Hundreds of them. It's about connecting with the land and getting out there and just experiencing that. It's a beautiful sport and, you know, it's all inclusive, which is a great thing. Because I think that the one thing that I really tried to do through the Koyotes is to build a good positive relationship between the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the greater community. One thing I noticed when we were out on the trails, everyone looked happy. They used to say, "miles of smiles," right? It didn't matter, you know, how rich you were, or what you had or whatever. Out there, everyone felt equal.

It was just a unity thing. I just really like it when people get along. So I took the word "community" and I broke it down to "common unity." We have skiing in common, and it unites us. And we have great relationships with the Whitehorse ski club, and with Cross Country Yukon, and we're like, in the mix, and we make it open to everybody.

One year I looked at the kids and I was like, holy smokes, man, this is like the United Nations. And we're all getting along, which is what we need to do.

Congratulations and enjoy June 19 [the hall of fame induction ceremony.] We'll come up there and be part of it.

Everybody's welcome. They were asking, who would you like to invite? I'm going, well, I don't know, like, I'm a homeboy here. I like everybody, so anybody come and check it out.

It's at the Kwanlin Koyote ski cabin, 'cause I didn't want to be inside of a building anywhere. I would like to get outside, because really that's what it's all about, you know, being healthy and choosing to live in a good way. It's a choice we all can make every single day of our lives, right? So choose well, my friends.