Karina Harjo he had never been a professional alpine skier and seemed destined for a scientific career as a scientist or doctor.
But her passion for the sport saw her end up pioneering women’s ski coaching.
He recalls: “I have been skiing practically since I was born. You know, my parents were Norwegian. It was something I always did with my family.”
As of March 2022, she is Harjo head coach of the Canadian women’s team making her the only woman to have a role in an elite alpine skiing World Cup.
The only coach in history to date was a two-time Olympic champion Marie Theres Nadig which led the Swiss in 2004.
“It was never something I pursued, but it was never something I thought was impossible,” he says.
“My philosophy was that I focused on being the best where I could be, where I was and whatever it was. And with this philosophy, you’re really happy with what you’re doing. And when you’re the best at what you do, other doors usually open up.”
“I love skiing and honestly, being able to share something you’re so passionate about with someone and help them improve never gets old. Really not. And that’s why you get up every day.” – Karina Harjo
Karin Harjo: She chooses skiing over a “very good” job in a research lab
Harjo was born in Tokyo and grew up in a multicultural environment: “We moved a lot because my parents were missionaries,” she said.
“They worked for the Norwegian mission outside Oslo, Japan. In fact, they’ve been working for this mission for 25 years. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time living between countries, between Norway and Japan. I think the experience itself just led to, you know, being exposed to all sorts of fun places to ski and play.
She then moved to the US to study, first to a boarding school in Minnesota, and then to St Washington University in Seattle.
She took it in college Molecular biology and started working in a research laboratory. She taught skiing on weekends so she could continue to enjoy the sport.
“I wanted to go into medicine, whether it was research or being a real doctor. I haven’t quite decided. But I would come back and spend every weekend in the mountains and be like, ‘Oh my God, I love it!’ he admits.
Just before graduation, Harjo was offered a full-time job in a university laboratory. After talking to a mentor, she realized that being a full-time ski instructor was what she really wanted and quit her job at the lab.
“I told everyone what I was going to do, and they thought I was crazy,” she recalls with a smile.
“They thought I had fallen off the deep end, you know, leaving a really good job, leaving a very good potential profession to live off the car and teach winter skiing. And I’ve never regretted that choice.”
Karin Harjo: What I learned from Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin
Since making this life-changing decision, Harjo has dedicated herself to a coaching career.
She has passed every ski instructor certification in the United States and has taken every possible coaching course that has helped her gain more knowledge.
“It was just something I was obsessed with. I loved learning and growing this way. A lot of times I joke and say, ‘I have a master’s degree in skiing’ after graduating from university,” she says.
Now she spent over 20 years in business and trained at all levels, from teaching kids and seniors to working with top American speed and technical skiers such as Lindsey Vonn AND Mikaela Shiffrin.
“I learned more from both of them than I ever taught them. I can tell you that, she confessed. “I just watched how they operate, how they do their daily tasks every day, commitment, attention to detail … and it always struck me that every little detail has meaning and consistency in those details.”
In 2016, Flachau stayed in the slalom one of the few women who set the course for the World Cupand her height was recognized last March when she was appointed head coach of the Canadian women’s alpine ski team.
In her first season, Horji was already successful and Valerie Grenier became the first Canadian to win a World Cup giant slalom in 49 years.
After moving to Canada, she explained, “I love challenges and I love new opportunities. And so, with each new position I took, I took it for two reasons. First, the challenge it can offer, but also the people you can work with. And that really matters. It was never about the title.”
Karin Harjo: How a grassroots initiative can help increase women’s participation in elite coaching
Coaches in sports at a high level remain a rarity. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, only 13 percent of coaches were women, compared to 11 percent at Rio 2016.
The numbers in alpine skiing are similar, and Harjo is only one of the few coaches on the World Cup circuit. Another notable exception is Eileen Shiffrin who is part of her daughter’s band.
When asked why the numbers remain low, Harjo replies: “I don’t know. I wish I had a really good answer to this question, but I don’t.
“If you look around, there are plenty of women training at the junior level all the time, at least in ski racing.”
And she hopes her example will encourage other young women to reach the highest levels in coaching.
She said, “Maybe the message everyone needs to hear is, ‘If you want to do it, go ahead and do it.’ Look for it and find it. And then you can do it.” And that’s what I love to say to anyone trying to get to the top level in this sport. You can get an education… look for it, learn it, learn how to be the best and be hungry for it. And just like anything, the better you are, the more doors will open.”
“Go out and try, and anything is possible. If you want to do it at the highest level, you can. Don’t be afraid and follow your heart.” – Karina Harjo
The International Olympic Committee has funded the four-year Women in High Performance Sport (WISH) pathway program. equip about 100 women to train at the elite level.
“I think the WISH program is a great example of providing women with opportunities to network, get to know each other and grow,” commented Harjo.
“Programs like WISH are amazing because they give women the opportunity to step up and start. And that’s often the hardest thing to find and do.
“Besides, I think the IOC and other organizations like the FIS, with the many initiatives they have, are starting to bring more and more awareness about greater gender equality and inclusion for diversity.
“I would say the best way is to just look for the most qualified people and not turn a blind eye to anyone because of race, gender or orientation. But look at the best qualified people. And I think it’s going to raise the bar for everyone.”
Karin Harjo: The Art and Science of Coaching
Harjo, whose husband Randy Pelkey also a ski coach, she admits she feels “blessed” growing up in two cultures – Norwegian and North American – that support women in sports and in every endeavor: “I never thought I couldn’t because I’m a girl,” she said.
She also believes that as a woman, she doesn’t necessarily bring something different to her profession: “I think coaching is about who you are as a person and is something that transcends all genders and races.
“It’s about the human connection and what you bring each day as a human to help someone else is the differentiator. Because at the end of the day, as a coach, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to help people be better.
“And that’s a huge responsibility. This is something that can never be taken for granted or taken lightly, because the words you say in someone’s life have a huge impact for good and for bad. So I think having that awareness and that kind of ability is unique to each person. But I don’t think that means you have to be male or female to have the qualities that make you successful.”
The willingness to help people improve themselves AND passion for sports are ultimately what brought her to perfection:
“The art and science of coaching is my favorite part because there are so many technical aspects, studies and analysis that can be done to find hundredths to get an edge. But the artistic side is really amazing. This is what distinguishes her because you are dealing with a human, not a machine.
“It’s not like you can just program someone to do something and they’ll do it. You’re dealing with a human being, and you have to help them learn, change, formulate, and become their best in some way. And that requires all sorts of skills, I guess.”