Athlete Rep Spotlight: Julian Smith, Cross-Country Skiing

It’s Our Turn, AthletesCAN’s new marketing campaign focuses on the stories of athlete leaders across the 68 sports eligible for AthletesCAN membership. The campaign highlights a pivotal moment for a new era in sport governance, underlining the athlete representatives’ respective journeys into the athlete advocacy movement both in their careers and within their National Sport Organizations (NSOs).

Each week, AthletesCAN profiles a key athlete leader among its membership, highlighting how athlete representation has played a significant role in their career and within their National Sport Organization.

Julian Smith

Name: Julian Smith
Sport: Cross-Country Skiing
Position / Event: Sprints
National team tenure: 2019-20
Hometown: Auckland, Ont.

How did you first hear about and get involved within your sport?

When I was a child, my family moved from a small town near Hamilton called Dundas up to the Bruce Peninsula to Oxenden. And Austin is very rural. It’s a small town with a lot of outdoor activities, one of which is snowmobiling. And a snowmobile trail ran right by our house in a farmer’s field and my parents, who had skied a handful of times on wooden cross-country skis, would take us out and pull us along. And through that, our family heard about jackrabbits, which is a nationwide learn-to-ski program. And our family became heavily involved. My parents taught jackrabbits. Myself and my two siblings participated in jackrabbits for many years, and that’s how I got introduced to cross-country skiing.

Why is it important for the Canadian Sport System to prioritize an athlete-centred experience?

The sports system in any nation is complex and diverse. And in Canada, the fact that we are in such a large country means that our athletes from dozens of sports are spread out and are experiencing multiple different experiences all at the same time. I think the value of having an athlete-centred sports system is that it’s crucial for athletes to have, the organizers, the volunteers, the coaches, the funding partners and the staff, to provide the foundation for us to be able to do what we love. But it’s important for athletes to voice their opinion such that they are leaving the sport better than they found it for the next generations. It is important to me and my peers as well that we the athletes, voice our opinion to leave each individual’s sport better than they find it.

Julian Smith competes at the 2023 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships
Julian Smith (Nordic Focus)

How have you used your athlete voice on behalf of your peers and how has it impacted your sport journey?

I think for myself it was a very clear transition from being an athlete to being an Athlete Rep for my training center. There was a void on the board because our previous athlete rep had stepped down and I wanted to take on the responsibility of speaking for the athletes at a small scale of of 15 individuals on our team. But what I realized was that if I wanted to leave my team better than I found it, some avenues made it easier or harder to do that. And one way to do that was to be at the table. During the conversations where people were making decisions about the team. While I learned a lot through that position, again, it became very clear when a friend of mine reached out to me asking me to put my name forward for the Nordiq Canada Board for Canadian Cross-Country Skiing.

I think what drove me most strongly for that was that I felt more and more as I was becoming a more senior or veteran athlete was that more and more I heard my peers expressing their opinion, but expressing their opinion to their peers. I think it’s difficult sometimes for athletes to express their honest opinions to the people who make the decisions about the lives of athletes. It became very clear to me that I felt I could fill the role of being the funnel, catching the wide variety of comments, concerns, ideas and opinions and funnelling them down into concise and hopefully constructive pieces of information for our board. And then again, I saw that role, progress and being productive and valuable for myself but also making an impact on the sport around me. And so now it has also led me to put my name forward for the AthletesCAN board, and I’m grateful and honoured to have won that election and won a spot on the AthletesCAN board. And I hope to do that very same thing of gathering information from those around me who want their voice heard but maybe don’t know who to speak to or don’t want to be the person that steps forward. And I’m happy and confident to be in that role for Canadian sport.

What is your favourite memory being an Athlete Rep / being involved in athlete advocacy?

I think two moments stick out to me. The first conference that I attended as an athlete rep for Nordiq Canada was the COC Session conference and I took the first room I walked into was for the Athletes Commission full of faces that I knew from watching the Olympics. I first thought I was in the wrong room. I thought “This can’t possibly be the room that I’m supposed to be in.” But what struck me was that these were individuals at the top of their athletic game but were now taking the time, energy and resources that they had built through sport, and trying to make the sport better than how they found it. And that really struck me as going very quickly, from feeling like I was in a room where I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be there to truly believing and having the confidence that I was in the right room.

The second would be, I think, because of how wonderful my relatively short experience in athlete advocacy has been. I’ve been the rep on my team’s board for five years. But this year has been a big steep learning curve for the Nordiq Canada board and the athletes on board. But I think one memory that really does stick with me, is my partner, the female athlete rep within the Nordiq Canada board, Katie Weaver. When she asked me to run for the male athlete rep, I think looking back, I took my time to think about it, but the value that it has brought to my life, I hold that memory quite closely because it has turned into one a great friendship with Katie, and I feel like we’re making really valuable impacts on the Canadian Cross-Country Ski scene, but also because it’s been fantastic to work together on the board and it’s it’s been a fantastic experience overall.

What have you learned about being a leader in your sport?

I frequently or almost solely believed or thought about leadership in a very outward and top-of-the-pyramid way. I thought of leaders as the CEOs, the team captains, and the founding members of any given group of individuals. At a leadership conference, I learned about the value that different types of leaders bring to an organization and that any group of individuals needs an outspoken leader. But you also need leaders who are willing to let someone else speak. Lead by taking a step back and honing the skills of those around them rather than just shining a light on maybe their own leadership skills. And that is maybe a less glamorous leader, but just as valuable and pertinent to the success of a group of people. And through my role as as board member, as a board member, where no one individual has more power than the other boards are designed to be a group of individuals making important decisions. There has to be trust that everyone has the same weight in decision-making, and I have pushed myself and learned that you can be a positive leader and an impactful individual in decision-making by listening, taking a step back and helping those around you quietly rather than putting your own ideas and your own outspoken views first. And that’s something that I’ve learned and experienced through sport leadership is an amazing one.

Why should your peers join AthletesCAN and/or get more involved in the leadership of their National Sport Organization?

I was speaking with some individuals in Nordiq Canada and the cross-country skiing scene of Canada about why athlete advocacy is so valuable, but also why or rather how athletes can be advocates for themselves, their peers, and their clubs. And I think AthletesCAN, and your NSO’s board are at the top of the pyramid. If you the person reading this are thinking, “I want to make a small difference”, then volunteer with your club or run a program at your local sports team or club. That’s the beginning of athlete advocacy, standing up and making the sport around you better no matter what the level is. But if you feel that calling to make an impact on the incredible and passionate Canadian sports scene, then an organization like AthletesCAN that is standing up for the vulnerable, making valuable and sometimes difficult decisions that have to be made in sport because high-performance sport is vulnerable and difficult and passion-filled, then I think an organization like AthletesCAN is one you should reach out to ask how you can make a difference and how you can join alongside and become an ally of an organization that is making a difference and doing good in Canadian sport.