World Cup ski racing finally has female head coach in Karin Harjo

Karin Harjo, new alpine skiing coach for Canada
U.S. Ski and Snowboard

Karin Harjo is the new head coach of Canada’s women’s alpine skiing team, making her the only woman to currently lead a national ski team on the World Cup stage.

Harjo’s hiring was announced on Wednesday. While Alpine Canada’s initial release said Harjo would be the first woman to serve as head coach of a national ski team, at least one woman has previously held the position: Marie-Theres Nadig, who led the Swiss women’s team during the 2004-05 season.

Harjo previously served as an assistant coach for the U.S., working with the women’s speed team. She has been one of only a handful of female coaches on the World Cup circuit in recent years.

“It’s not the first thing that I think about, but it is really important,” Harjo told CBC Sports of breaking the gender barrier. “I’m really excited, and it is an honor to be entrusted with this leadership role and to work with such a talented group of athletes.”

In 2016, Harjo also became the first woman to set a World Cup slalom course. (And to be clear: she was the first woman to accomplish this in women’s skiing.)

Still, the fact that the World Cup began in 1967 — and Harjo is perhaps just the second woman to ever serve as head coach of a women’s alpine team — speaks to the longstanding gender disparities in the sport.

While ski racing generally has a good reputation for gender equity thanks to the mostly-but-not-actually-equal prize money and robust World Cup calendar, in a story published earlier this year, On Her Turf reported on the many inequities that still exist in the sport: from a lack of women in decision-making positions to unequal sponsor contracts.

“You see that huge gender divide and it’s one of those things that you become accustomed to and almost blind to it,” retired U.S. ski racer Alice McKennis Duran said in February. “It’s just the way it is.”

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While Alpine Canada’s hiring of Harjo is a step in the right direction, a more seismic shift is needed if the sport is going to continue to add — and retain — female coaches.

“Working with [women] to help them stay in the sport is really important because we’re just going to keep losing women, over and over and over again,” McKennis Duran said. “Something that needs to be recognized is that women are valuable in the sport.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Harjo was the first woman to serve as head coach of a national ski team at the World Cup level. It has been updated to reflect that Marie-Theres Nadig previously led the Swiss women’s team during the 2004-05 season. 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC