Origins & Connections to Sport
Located high in Canada’s North, above the Arctic Circle, on the west side of the mighty Mackenzie River Delta is the hamlet of Aklavik. Close to the Arctic Ocean and the majestic Richardson Mountains, Aklavik is home to a wealth of extraordinary landscapes. In mid-winter when the sun remains below the horizon, known as Polar nights, residents live in almost complete darkness 24 hours a day and endure frigid temperatures which can reach as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. Despite these adverse conditions, two of Canada’s most resilient athletes emerged from this location and dominated the Canadian women’s cross country skiing scene for over seventeen years. Their success on the National and International cross county ski scene was unprecedented. Twin sisters, Sharon Anne and Shirley Firth, have always been the pride of the North.
The Firth sisters were born into a traditional Gwich’in family of 15, mom and dad plus seven sisters and six brothers, who lived entirely off the land. To provide for the family, their father trapped, in addition to hunting the great caribou herds throughout the Mackenzie River Delta. In the way of their Gwich’in ancestors, their way of life was based on a special relationship with the land and water. As a family, they had no modern conveniences or technology, and outside of walking or the use of snowshoes during the long winter months, a dog team was their form of transportation.
Race bibs from the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, the fourth and final Olympic Winter Games in which Sharon Anne and Shirley Firth participated.
Courtesy of Sharon Anne Firth
As young girls, their mom was a tremendous influence on them. Although she was soft-spoken, she was a strong, powerful, traditional woman, doing whatever it took to look after and provide for her family. At an early age, she taught the girls the knowledge, skills, and values of being Gwich’in. She would always say that you get nothing free in life, you have to work for it, that the girls must do their absolute best in whatever they pursued, and never be quitters. When they were young, she taught them how to look for and identify animal tracks where they learned to snare smaller game which contributed to feeding their family. The girls also spent many hours hunting with their father, exploring long stretches along the mighty river, searching for food sources to help their family survive. They realized how influential their traditional way of life was, and how important the lessons and values passed down to them would become in the future.
When the twins were five, the federal government relocated the family to the newly developed town of Inuvik because of the flooding and erosion from high waters along the Mackenzie River Delta. In Inuvik, the girls were forced to attend Residential School. At age 12, the girls were introduced to cross country skiing when skis acquired from the U.S. Air Force in Alaska were passed out to kids in the community as part of the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program. When the Canadian Federal Government learned how much the kids of the Mackenzie River Delta enjoyed the opportunity, it gave money to keep the program going with the added bonus of funnelling the best skiers towards the tutelage of the Canadian Ski Association. Two of those making the elite ski team were the Firth sisters: Sharon Anne and Shirley Firth.
In those early years, as part of their training program, the girls would ski for hours outside, often in complete darkness in temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. In the summer months, they logged long runs across the tundra, battling fatigue, mosquitoes, and flies.
Success came quickly to the Firth sisters, and before long they dominated Canadian cross country skiing. They were an unprecedented phenomenon, coming out of nowhere to win countless National and International races. They achieved all these things despite training, often on their own, in an isolated community, with adverse weather, poor training conditions, and a total lack of the luxuries that other elite athletes had. Their story and success remain a source of inspiration for all.