How to raise a Fraser Valley Olympian
Nancy Howden shares what it was like raising Olympian Reece Howden, from his first days on skis to saying goodbye before the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
In 2010, Nancy Howden had a prophecy. Vancouver had transformed itself into a world-welcoming stage for the Winter Olympics and Nancy and her young sons Reece and Jesse watched as Team Canada’s alpine skiers narrowly missed out on medals in their home country.
“I said to Reece and Jesse: ‘Reece, you’re going to be in the 2022 Olympics. And Jesse, you’re going to be in the 2026 Olympics,’” Howden said. “And I had no doubt that they would.”
The first part has now come true.
Reece Howden, now 23, is competing in this year’s Winter Olympics as part of Canada’s alpine ski team. Although he has competed in the 2016 Youth Olympics and became a North American champion during the 2017-2018 season, this will be the Cultus Lake-raised skier’s first Olympic games. He left for Beijing on Feb. 8 with the rest of Team Canada, and will be competing in men’s ski cross on Feb. 17.
Ski cross made its first Olympic debut in 2010—the same year Nancy had her prophecy about her sons. A combination of alpine racing and freestyle skiing, athletes head down the hill in groups of four to six with an aim of finishing first. But they must also navigate jumps, turns, and other obstacles on their way to the finish line.
Despite his mother’s prediction, younger brother Jesse won’t be heading to the 2026 Olympics; he switched to free ride, an extreme skiing competition that isn’t an Olympic sport, although he has competed at the world level.
Supporting their kids in their chosen ski competitions hasn’t always been easy—and not just during the years of driving up to mountains in the Interior from their home in the valley. The Howden parents have also spent many nights staying up until three in the morning watching their boys’ World Cup races taking place halfway across the world.
“It’s just so draining on you, because you’re so amped up,” Nancy said. “You can’t even fall back asleep when it’s over, because you’re so wound up and excited for him.
“But the Olympics is different,” she continued, “Even though it’s the same people and the same races… it’s the big show.”
Nancy is no stranger to international competition herself. In the ’80s, she played on Canada’s national rugby team—although she quit due to financial constraints during the one year the Canadian team played during the Olympics as a demonstration sport.
But for the Howden family unit, it was always about skiing. Both Nancy and her husband were ski instructors, and before the kids were born, they would cross the border to spend the weekend at Mt. Baker, sleeping in the back of their Land Cruiser. It was only natural that as soon as Reece and Jesse turned two, they would be propped up on two skis and sent down the bunny hill.
“They loved it immediately,” Nancy said. The family would spend weekends skiing throughout the boys’ childhood—even when the weather seemed too challenging for the young boys.
Nancy remembered a time at Hemlock Valley in the early 2000s, when the family had taken the hour-long trip up the mountain to ski. Snow began dumping on the mountain, making the powder perfect for the Howden parents. But Nancy worried it was too much for the boys. She suggested they take them to the daycare on site. Three-year-old Jesse was whimpering and wanting to go in. Five-year-old Reece was not.
“Reece was like, ‘No way, I’m loving this and I’m staying out. I’m not going to daycare,’” Nancy remembered. “From that moment on, we knew we created our own monster.”
Over the next two decades, the Howdens supported their boys’ burgeoning ski careers, commuting to Apex Mountain Ski Resort in Penticton every weekend during winter. From late in elementary school onwards, Reece and Jesse missed every Friday of school to ski as part of the Apex team. (Nancy remembers only two teachers having an issue with Reece leaving—the rest gave him homework to complete while he was gone.)
It was a big commitment for the boys, and for the family. But, Nancy said, it was fun.
“We had two families: we had our life at Apex, and then we had our life at home with our friends here,” she said. Now, those two families will be coming together to support Reece during his Olympic debut.
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Because of the pandemic, only residents from mainland China are allowed to attend the Olympics. The rules were heartbreaking for Nancy, who had hoped to attend her son’s first Olympic games. Instead, she saw Reece off in Golden, where he and the rest of the alpine ski team were isolating.
“We said our goodbyes—unfortunately no hugs, just to make sure we didn’t give him any germs—and said our last words of wisdom,” she recalled. “‘Get lots of sleep. Hydrate. Ski like you can ski.’ What else? How proud we were and we just—”
She paused, then said with tears in her voice: “I’m getting emotional. Just a sec.”
“It’s totally different than when he left to go to a World Cup. We didn’t get upset at all,” she continued. “We said to him, ‘You’ve already won by just qualifying to go to the Olympics.’ Then we said goodbye. And he was off.”
Although Nancy and her husband moved from Cultus Lake to the Shuswap in 2019, they have returned to Chilliwack to watch Reece’s Olympic competition. They also brought their son’s truck—a pickup covered in images of him skiing—to his sponsor, Chilliwack Ford, to be on display.
On Thursday, they will gather at a pub with family, Reece’s school friends, his sponsors, and others to watch Reece take to the hill. There, wearing his Team Canada colours with ski poles in hand, he’ll race against competitors from around the world. He’ll crouch low over his skis, building up speed before banking around turns and soaring over jumps.
If Reece wins a medal, his family will watch him step onto the podium to celebrate Canada on the world stage. And if he doesn’t? Well, there’s still more skiing for the Howden family to do.
“I sure as heck didn’t think they’d be better than me when they were 12-years-old, that’s for sure,” Nancy said about her sons. “But it’s so entertaining to ski with them… they’re just so goofy when they ski [for fun].”
“I’m so glad that I can still ski with them, that I have the ability to still ski the runs they ski. It’s super awesome.”
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