CANMORE, ALTA – Exshaw’s Bill Hamilton wasn’t ready to compete at the 2022 Masters World Cup in Canmore.
At 86 years old with a bad back, sore hip, and less than ideal preparation time, the long-time cross-country skier had every excuse to throw in the towel and simply watch the event for skiers aged 30 and up from the sidelines.
But for the lover of frozen trails, Hamilton wouldn’t have been content with that alternate reality of not racing his brains out. On March 11, Hamilton showed up at the Canmore Nordic Centre, with a walking cane in hand, determined to race.
“This was a big challenge for me,” said Hamilton. “This is the first time I’ve gone that distance since 2011, and it’s a race.”
Described as a local legend and pillar of the community by friend Gareth Thomson, Hamilton had a tall order in front of him – 15 kilometres of Canada’s best nordic trails where Olympians and Paralympians put in the hours each season to prepare for the world’s top competitors – and he was doing so still recovering from a broken back.
A freak accident at a remote cabin 10 years ago left Hamilton badly injured.
Alone in British Columbia's backcountry, the ski enthusiast was setting his own cross-country tracks to ski and train. While riding a snow machine, a tree fell and hit Hamilton, knocking him unconscious and throwing him to the ground.
When he came to, Hamilton couldn’t get up, and the 200-metre distance away from the cabin may as well have been 100km for the hurt man. For three-and-a-half hours, Hamilton painstakingly slid on his back through snow and brush by pushing with his heels before being able to reach the cabin and call for help.
“That’s all I can say: what are the odds?” Hamilton said about the falling tree hitting him on the snow machine.
Prior to the accident, Hamilton had been doing a lot of ski training and considered himself pretty fast on the frozen trails, but it’s been tough since.
“The next year I was out skiing at the Canmore Nordic Centre and beginners are passing me,” he said. “There I was, putting 100 per cent effort into it and people were passing me, so I started from there.”
His road to recovery had him doing exercises recommended by doctors and physiotherapists and continued for the past 10 years, but he knows he’ll never be the same again.
Starting as an alpine skier in Toronto, Hamilton shifted to cross-country a little over four decades ago.
What brought him and his wife, Mary Squario, to Alberta was a longer ski season and more snow, first moving to Canmore in the 1980s and then to Exshaw.
Hamilton had kept an eye on the Masters coming to Canmore, contemplating entering. At first, the event was supposed to be held in 2021, but then shifted to 2022 due to COVID-19.
He said he wasn’t ready in 2021, and even less so in 2022, but improved a lot in the short time frame for the 85 years and up class.
On race day, he even showed up using a walking cane due to a sore hip.
“I didn’t want to put any strain on it, so a few Ibuprofens and I was fine. There was a few other problems, but you don’t get through 86 years of life without problems,” Hamilton said.
The course Hamilton would be racing was three, 5km loops.
He joked each 5km lap got tougher and tougher and he got slower and slower.
“The third time around my body was just screaming at me,” he said. “I remember on one of the last hills and my body didn’t want to do it. I said, ‘c’mon we’re doing it. We’re just about at the top of the hill.’ I didn’t stop, but I was close to it. I was going really slowly, but working hard. … It was all I could get out of the body.”
Hamilton was fourth place, and the first and last Canadian to finish, he joked.
“It was a good day,” he added.
With more than 700 athletes competing, the Masters World Cup took place between March 4-11 at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
Hamilton acknowledged those helping to make the event run smoothly for everyone.
"This was a big competition and these competitions always take volunteers," he said. "They go out and freeze their butts off while we’re skiing our brains out… these things don’t happen with them."