12 Women Who Pioneered Snowsports In Canada

A Virtual Exhibit

Name: Sarah Burke, Maëlle Ricker, Ashleigh McIvor, Lucille Wheeler, Maxime, Chloé & Justine Dufour-Lapointe, Holly Blefgen, Lauren Woolstencroft, Sharon & Shirley Firth, Taylor Henrich
Affiliated Discipline(s): Alpine, Freestyle, Cross Country, Snowboard, Ski Cross, Ski Jumping, Telemark

Research shows that, “women make 80% of the buying decisions in a family, regardless of their background.” And that, “if mom is convinced that skiing and snowboarding are good investments for her family then, chances are, the family will start skiing or snowboarding.”

The 12 women featured in this story were the ultimate pioneers who changed the face of snowsports in Canada, through their grit and determination, often in the face of sometimes overwhelming adversity, ultimately inspiring future generations to pick up the torch and follow in their tracks. 

This story was researched and written by ski writer Dave Fonda, for the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum. NOTE: In winnowing our selection down to a dozen snowsports pioneers across nine different disciplines, we’ve had to leave out a great many worthy and deserving favourites. You can search all Canadian Ski Hall of Fame members here.

1. Sarah Burke

Skiing’s 21st Century Icon

Larger than life. Trailblazer. Leader. Activist and philanthropist. Pioneer. Female action sports legend. Of all of Sarah Burke’s many accolades, none matches her husband Rory Bushfield’s, “every woman in freestyle skiing owes something to Sarah.” 

Born into a skiing family in Barrie, Ontario, on September 3, 1982, Sarah Jean Burke learned to ski at age five and qualified for the Ontario Freestyle Team at age 15 in the discipline of moguls. But her passion was in the halfpipe. In 1997, she co-founded the national halfpipe team. Then, as the first woman to land a 720, 900 and 1020 in competition, Sarah won the 2009 World Championships before taking gold in four Winter X Games and one Winter X Games Europe. But that was just the beginning for Sarah.

An impassioned advocate, Sarah fought to ensure that male and female X-Games competitors got equal billing and prize money and that women’s slopestyle should be an official Olympic event.

She was a community advocate to her core, filling her time with coaching, mentoring and fundraising for the sport she loved. On January 12th, 2012, while training for the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games, Sarah Burke passed away from injuries sustained during a ski accident. This left devastation in the ski community, but her legacy, passion, and inspiration will live on forever through the sport and those who knew her.

Remembering Sarah Burke


2. Maëlle Ricker

Canada’s Renaissance Athlete

What would you call someone who excels in seven different sports, and who competes nationally in track and field, soccer and at the World Cup and Olympic levels in both snowboarder cross and half-pipe? Answer: Maëlle Ricker.

North Vancouver-born Maëlle Ricker was a teenage sports phenomenon. Not only did she excel in track, she also captained her high school basketball and soccer teams and was an all-star goalie in field hockey when her older brother Jörli introduced her to snowboarding. Four years later, Maëlle competed in her first World Cup halfpipe and snowboard cross events and went on to win 14 World Cups and world championships and two gold and two bronze X Games medals. She also represented Canada in four Olympic Winter Games. Fittingly, she opened the floodgates to Canada’s incredible Olympic medal run when she took the gold in snowboard cross at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where she was also the first Canadian woman to win Olympic gold at home. Canada’s renaissance sportswoman now serves as a KidSports ambassador, teaching and inspiring youth in sports today.

3. Sharon Firth / 4. Shirley Firth

Sharon and Shirley Firth.

Our Twin Cross-Country Titans

Born 10 minutes apart on December 31, 1953, in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Shirley (the elder) and Sharon (the younger) Firth grew up to become Canada’s most dynamic cross-country skiing duo. They first learned to ski in Inuvik, in 1967, while enrolled in TEST (the Territorial Experimental Training Program) that father Jean-Marie Mouchet had founded to “motivate Aboriginal youth, build their leadership skills, help them integrate into mainstream Canadian society and promote amateur sport.”

Skiing in winter in complete darkness in sub-40° Celsius temperatures and running on the mosquito-infested tundra in summer while staving off insect bites and fatigue, the twins developed the incredible determination, endurance, fortitude and perseverance they needed to dominate women’s cross-country skiing in Canada. Between 1968 and 1985, the Firth sisters won 79 National Championship medals, with Sharon taking home 37 and Shirley 42. The first Aboriginal women to compete in cross-country skiing on the international stage, the twins represented Canada in four world championships, and four Olympic Winter Games. Their record remains unmatched by anyone save Québec’s ironman speed skater, Gaëtan Boucher.

Though the Firth sisters retired from official competition in 1985, their tireless and stellar work was far from being over. Sharon returned to Inuvik where she tried to restart the TEST program. She now works for the Institute of Circumpolar Health Research, tirelessly promoting the development of programs and services that help foster self-awareness, healthy choices and positive lifestyles among indigenous youth. She also teaches and practices cross-country skiing.

Following her retirement, Shirley, for her part, moved to France where she earned a teaching certificate at the Université de Paris. After spending decades criss-crossing Scandinavia and Central Europe, visiting universities and cultural centres and lecturing on Dene and Inuit cultures she and her husband Jan Larsson returned to the Northwest Territories in 2005. Shirley was serving as Executive Assistant to the speaker of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly when she died of cancer. 

“It has been an honour and a privilege to carry the beautiful load of representing Canada and First Nations.”

– Sharon Firth, 2015

5. Lucile Wheeler

Lucile Wheeler and Pat Ramage (right) at 1958 World ChampionshipsLucile Wheeler and Pat Ramage (right) at 1958 World Championships. Photo Henni Angerer.

Canada’s Premier Speed Queen

Lucile Wheeler first hit the trails at her family’s legendary Gray Rocks Inn, near St. Jovite, Québec at age two. Ten years later, she was Canadian junior downhill and combined champion.

In 1956, Lucile became the first North American skier to win an Olympic medal when she took bronze in the women’s downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The following year, FIS ranked her among the world’s top three women racers following her downhill and combined triumphs in Kitzbühel, Austria. Then, in 1958, in a landmark performance by a Canadian ski racer, she won four World Championship medals (two gold, one silver and one bronze) in Bad Gastein, Germany. 

In 1959, Lucile retired from racing and made instructional ski videos. She and her family then settled in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where she and her husband launched a programme that made learning to ski affordable and accessible for generations of local schoolchildren. Inducted into the Canadian and U.S. Ski Halls of Fame, Lucile Wheeler was a flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.

6. Ashleigh McIvor

Photo credit: Greg Kolz

Pursuing Passion. Achieving Excellence.

Olympic and World Cup champion. Model. Television announcer. Motivational speaker. Mentor. Sponsor. You can branch out and do anything, if you put your heart and mind into it. Just ask Ashleigh McIvor. 

Born in Vancouver on September 15, 1983, Ashleigh began racing at age 10. Tired of beating the clock, she found her thrill racing other skiers on the new and super gnarly ski cross circuit. Despite repeated injuries, Ashleigh’s methodical approach and boundless passion carried her to the highest echelons of women’s World Cup and X-Games ski cross competition. After winning her first World Championship in 2009, she took the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in that event at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. When she finally retired from racing in 2012, she’d amassed 58 World Cup medals, four world championships, plus, plus, plus… Twice named Canada’s Female Athlete of the Year, Ashleigh entered the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015. A B210 co-founder, she now works as a television announcer, mentor and motivational speaker showing others how to achieve excellence while pursuing their passion. 

7. Maxime Dufour-Lapointe / 8. Chloé Dufour-Lapointe / 9. Justine Dufour-Lapointe

Triple-threat Medal Winners

As children, learning to sail in the close confines of a small boat taught Maxime, Chloé and Justine Dufour-Lapointe the value of overcoming their differences and working together as one, happy, united team. That lesson would launch them to Olympic heights when they traded in their sails and rudders for mogul skis.

When each of the girls turned three, their parents – Johane Dufour and Yves Lapointe – taught them how to ski at Mont Blanc, Québec. Maxime, the eldest, was the first to try freestyle mogul competition when she followed her friend to an event and entered just because she loved the jumps. The 10-year old was so good on the jumps and in the bumps, that she would go on to earn a place on the women’s Canadian National Freestyle Team. In 2009, Maxime made history when she became one of the first women to land a backwards flip with a full-twist in competition. 

Watching Maxime having fun, travelling the world and making new friends while skiing moguls lit an Olympic-sized flame in both Chloé and Justine’s hearts. Chloé, the middle sister, was 15 when she embarked on her international mogul skiing career. She would go on to become the first Canadian woman freestyle skier to participate in four Olympic Winter Games (Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014, Pyeong Chang 2018 and Beijing 2022). She would end her career with an Olympic silver medal (Sochi 2014), one gold and one silver world championship medal in the dual moguls, and four World Cup podiums.

Despite an inauspicious start in which her sisters had to bribe her with chocolate just so she’d ski another bump run, Justine, the youngest, would go on to have the Dufour-Lapointes’ most illustrious Olympic and World Cup career. At 16, she became the youngest skier to win an FIS World Cup event. At 19, she became the youngest freestyle skier to take home Olympic gold. By the time she hung up her mogul skis in 2022, Justine had won Olympic gold and silver medals, world championship gold, silver and bronze medals, plus 16 World Cup podiums. 

But for all their individual achievements, what’s most telling about the Lapointe-Dufour sisters is that they accomplished it all while having fun skiing together. In 2014, all three siblings qualified for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. Then, with Maxime cheering them on from the sidelines, Justine and Chloé won gold and silver, respectively. But perhaps the highlight of their careers came in 2016 when they swept the podium, one, two three, at an FIS World Cup mogul event in Val Saint-Côme, Québec. Now that’s strength in sisterhood!

“My sisters support me, they help me. We’re stronger together than we are apart. This type of support system is what helps all of us, in sports and in life.

– Justine Dufour-Lapointe

10. Lauren Woolstencroft

Lauren Woolstencroft

A Star Everyone Should Follow

Canada’s most decorated Paralympic skier, Lauren Woolstencroft was born without legs below her knees, or a left arm below her elbow. A gifted and determined athlete, she never thought of herself as being disabled. With no para-heroes or role models to emulate, she became one, herself. 

Born on November 24, 1981, Lauren was four when her family introduced her to skiing at Whitefish, Montana. At 14, she joined the Alberta Disabled Ski Team and attended her first World Cup two years later. She made the Canadian Para-Alpine Ski Team at 18 and won one bronze and three gold medals at the 2002 and 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. Lauren was also named International Paralympic Committee Athlete of the Year in 2006. She was just warming up.

Lauren went on to win another five gold medals, in five events, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games and proudly carried Canada’s flag during the closing ceremonies. That same year, she retired from competition with 50 World Cup medals, eight world championship medals and 10 Paralympic medals. Emulate that!

“What was amazing was the stories, people were reaching out to me and telling stories of either themselves having grown up with a disability or a challenge in their life that kind of related to me. Others had children who are growing up with a disability. The stories were just incredible.”

– Jim Morris, CBC Sports (March 13, 2020).

11. Taylor Henrich

Courtesy Canadian Olympic Committee

Elevating Women’s Ski Jumping 

Of Nordic skiing’s many disciplines none instils more fear or awe than ski jumping. Who, in their right mind, would speed down a steep, icy, rutted track, launch themselves 90-plus metres in the air and then try to nail a perfect Telemark landing? Taylor Henrich, that’s who.

Born into a sports-driven family on November 1, 1995, the Calgary native grew up running, swimming, cycling, wrestling and practicing Karate. One summer, 14-year-old Taylor discovered ski jumping at Canada Olympic Park. She was hooked. In 2012, she became the first woman to participate in an IOC-sanctioned ski jumping event. Taylor finished fifth in the Innsbruck 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games and helped Team Canada win bronze in the mixed team event. A two-time Olympian, she competed in Sochi (2014) and Pyeong Chang (2018). As the flag-bearer for her sport in Canada, she was instrumental in gaining vital financial support for Ski Jumping Canada. Taylor Henrich now works as a trainer, stunt performer and professional skier appearing in films, on television and in video games while always aiming farther and higher.

12. Holly Blefgen

Telemark Is Skiing For Life

Skiers up and down the Niagara Escarpment know Holly Blefgen as the woman who taught them how to have fun skiing again. As an eight-year-old, Holly fell in love with snow and the outdoors while teaching herself how to ski on the golf course behind her parent’s Toronto home. A fearless cross-country and alpine skier, Holly discovered the incomparable elegance of Telemark while backcountry skiing with friends in Banff. Smitten, she resumed her kinesiology studies at the University of Guelph when fate struck.

While teaching alpine skiing, an errant pupil skied into her and shredded her MCL. Fortunately for everyone, Holly learned that Telemark skiing was key to rehabilitating her mangled knee. So she and her partner, Steve Kahn, dutifully taught themselves how. After picking up some pointers and proper gear from US Tele legend, Dickie Hall at Mad River Glen, Vermont, and getting her CANSI accreditation, Holly founded Ski Telemark in 1984. Her mobile ski school has been touring southern Ontario and Québec ever since, gracefully spreading the Tele gospel. Or as she calls it, “skiing for life.”