“It was never intended that I would go to the Olympics,” admits Augustana Vikings cross-country skiing co-coach Les Parsons. “In 1998, I was traveling through the Middle East and received a fax in Egypt. Beckie Scott – a cross-country skier I coached in Vermilion – was headed to Nagano and wanted me there!”
Les started coaching about 20 kids from the Vermilion area in 1987. “I was just a volunteer,” says Les, “I never intended to coach professionally. Some mother convinced me to coach and said she would provide food for me. I was a bachelor and thought it was a good deal.”
That mother was Jane Scott, and it was her 14-year-old daughter Beckie (17 World Cup victories, 2002 Olympic Gold Medal, 2006 Olympic Silver Medal) that Les worked with for years. Out of that group of 20 athletes came Morwenna Lane (Canadian Biathlon Team), Patricia Holmen (Canadian Junior Ski and Cross-Country Running Team), and Conrad “Tigger” Johnson (Canadian Paralympic Runner).
“I went to Nagano and Beckie finished near last place,” Les recalls. “She was pretty demoralized. We went for a long walk after she finished her last race and I encouraged her to keep on going.” Four years later, in Salt Lake City, Beckie Scott won the Olympic gold in cross-country skiing. Les grins, “So that’s a good message: you can finish last in one Olympics and win the gold in the next if you really want to do it!”
Les accompanied Beckie to Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino, Italy.. After the Italian Winter Games, he went to Quebec to learn French and participate further in federal politics. As “Beckie Scott’s coach”, he found himself with another group of eager young athletes. He spent seven years coaching in Quebec.
“From that group, many of whom have gone on to provincial or national competition, I met Alex Harvey,” says Les. He coached the multiple World Championship winner in Vancouver in 2010, where Harvey placed 4th and 5th, and is now in Sochi. “I’m not officially with Team Canada – I’m just Alex’s club coach,” he says. “I’m helping the British team as well – I coached for them in Scotland and took them to the World Juniors. I know most of the Canadian national team, because I’ve watched them grow up. I’ll just be out there hollerin’ and coaching. Just givin’ her heck.”
Les doesn’t let the pomp and circumstance get to him, though. “I’m not any more proud of these kids as of the slowest kids I coach,” he laughs. “I think I’m probably the loosing-est coach in Canada. I’ve had some of the slowest kids in Vermilion, at the Alberta Cup, at the Coupe de Quebec, at the Edmonton Nordic and now in Camrose I’ve got some of the slowest kids. Everybody has their own Olympics. Right now, for Camrose, their Olympics is the Alberta Youth Championships or the Alberta Winter Games in a couple of weeks. For our Masters, the 55km Birkebeiner is their Olympics. For some of the people in our community, their Olympics might be to go ski Stoney Creek from the biathlon range and back.”
“I love the ideals of the Olympics,” Les continues. “The philosophy of amateur sport is inspiring. But they have become extremely commercialized. There is a lot of corruption, a lot of bribery, a lot of cheating with drugs and doping. It’s lost its lustre in a way. I’m not too excited about the money part of the Olympics – $50 billion is a huge waste of money. For the kids I’m coaching, though, the Olympics is their dream. As much as I don’t like the direction the organizations take the Olympics, I always encourage people to dream, follow their dreams, take risks. As a coach, I think I’m a glorified cheerleader and that’s what I think a good coach is.”
Les was a Spring Course student of Camrose Lutheran College professor Garry Gibson 1981: the Gibber helped him get started in coaching. “Remember, he told me,” says Les, “you’re not coaching cross-country skiing, you’re coaching people who cross-country ski. And that’s stuck with me.”
Les is enthusiastic about his trip to Russia. “I’m pretty excited about Sochi,” he says. “I really like what the Olympics did for Australia, for Vancouver and Canadians. It was great for the British and even for Beijing. I’m hoping these games will breathe some life into Russia. I hope we win a bunch of medals, but I also hope for the underdogs to upset the superpowers every once in a while. I make an extra effort to yell and scream like crazy.”
“It’s not about winning,” says Les. “It’s about the pursuit of excellence.”