Competitive spirit propels student rower to Russia—to ski


- Kim Dias

Student athlete David Walker. Photo provided by Walker.

The World University Games are the second-biggest multi-sport event after the Olympics, and this month, 22-year-old Vikes rower David Walker is competing for Canada on the cross-country skiing team.

Skiing has always been part of Walker’s life. He was born and raised in Smithers, BC, which he slyly quips is “the Revelstoke of the northwest.” His parents—both skiers—had him on skis by the age of two. “They got me up in the mountains from day one,” Walker recalls with a smile. “There are photos of me all bundled up in a backpack. They used to tow me in this little toboggan behind them.”

This continued all through high school. “Skiing just kept on being the common denominator in everything I did. Like, I’d play team sports, then go to ski practice. I’d go running, then go to ski practice.”

While in high school, Walker managed to balance school, sport and work with relative ease, consistently placing in the top 10 in his age category and receiving a national title by grade 12. Even with sport taking up so much of his time, he always made school his priority, determined to attend post-secondary education. After graduating, he went straight to Okanagan College in Kelowna.

How did it go? Walker laughs before replying. “It was a disaster,” he says. “I’d also just jumped up a category skiing, so there was actual legit competition. Yeah, it was hard. I think it’s how a lot of people feel in their first year of university—‘oh, wow, this is real now.’” He laughs again. “I got my butt kicked.”

Getting to where he is today—about to represent Canada and UVic internationally on the cross-country skiing stage—hasn’t been a smooth, straight-forward path. After getting his “butt kicked,” he decided not to return to school the following year and instead focus entirely on skiing. After a summer spent firefighting, he was in great shape for the upcoming ski season. Then he came down with mononucleosis.

“I raced with mono for 45 days,” he says. “I got tenth at US nationals. I was fourth or fifth Canadian, with full-blown mono. There were a few races that I started and got 200 metres in and would think, ‘Wow, I feel awful.’ It’s like you’re drowning. I finally went to a doctor. I had mono and a chronic sinus infection.”

David Walker skiing during a competition

Struggling with having to drop out of the ski season, Walker put his regular routine on pause. He visited friends on Vancouver Island. He fought fires during the summer again. He also finally made the decision to go back to school. By the time the ski season resumed, he’d settled into the rhythm of schoolwork and training. “I was going fast, and I felt good. School went really well, skiing went really well.” But even with this success, Walker decided this would be his last year skiing. His new plan was to transfer to UVic and pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. He wanted to move to the island, he wanted to try rowing, and he wanted a break from skiing.

Then he received the email from Cross Country Canada telling him he had qualified for the World University Games.

Walker laughs when he tells this story. From taking a break to competing on the international stage, all in a matter of months—and he also didn’t give up his plans for school. Walker started at UVic in September 2018.

University has given Walker a community away from his skiing families in Smithers and Kelowna. When asked about support he’s received while training for the World University Games, his rowing teammates are the first people he mentions. “The rowing team has been exceptional,” he says. There are several other engineers on the rowing team, who also understand the stress of trying to juggle academics with athletics firsthand. When asked how he balances the heavy academic workload of an engineering degree with being a student athlete, he quotes his rowing teammate: “It’s not balance. It’s sacrifice.”

When asked to elaborate, he explains that sacrifice is maybe the wrong word. “It’s priorities. Because I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything. A lot of athletes who train as much as we do are very process-oriented. The thought process is, ‘I wake up, I’m going to do this, these are the things I can control.’ We’re obsessive about the things we can control and what we can do to influence our outcomes. That mindset fits really well with school.”

Profile photo of David Walker holding skis

So what’s next for Walker? He honestly doesn’t know, explaining that the answer changes every time someone asks the question. The one thing he does know for certain? He isn’t done being competitive—whether in rowing, skiing or any other sport that comes along, Walker is a highly-motivated person with a try, fail, try again, do better mentality.

His number one piece of advice for student athletes is to “go for it.” But he’s also very level-headed about the struggles of competing as a full-time student. “Be patient for your success, and you’ll find it’s very rewarding. You’ll regret not trying more than you’ll regret taking an extra semester. If you need to drop a course, drop a course; if you need to miss a session, miss a session. You can’t hold yourself to robotic standards. Being a student athlete is hard—and it’s wonderful. So don’t be scared. And,” he adds with a laugh, “take it easy on yourself.”

David Walker is currently competing in Krasnoyarsk, Russia for the 2019 winter World University Games.


In this story

Keywords: athletics, sports, student life, mechanical engineering, international

People: David Walker

Publication: The Ring

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