Cross-country skier and four-time Olympian Devon Kershaw thought he was just heading to the FireRock Lounge to grab a casual Friday night drink and catch up with a friend.
Instead, what he stumbled upon was a group of his closest friends, teammates and family—many of whom flew across the country for the occasion—chanting his name, champagne flutes in hand and ready to cheers in honour of Kershaw's wildly successful career.
"I was surprised, very surprised," said the 35-year-old from Sudbury, Ont., who retired from the sport in the spring after 15 years spent representing Canada on the world stage.
"This is incredibly meaningful."
Over his career, Kershaw collected 14 World Cup medals, including gold at the World Championship in Oslo in 2011 alongside teammate Alex Harvey. That win made them the first Canadian men to ever stand on a world championship podium in cross-country skiing, a sport historically dominated by the Scandinavians.
A year before, in 2010, Kershaw helped achieve the best ever Olympic result by a team of Canadian male cross-country skiers when he partnered with Harvey for a fourth-place finish in the team sprint. He also ranked second in the world in the overall standings in 2012.
Despite the results and accolades, "These guys are the highlight," Kershaw said, gesturing to the crowd of friends gathered behind him during his retirement party. "Travelling the world with them and seeing the most beautiful places, and being able to ski from the Alps to Japan to Russia, all over North America and all over Scandinavia—to see the world with your best friends and to do that for the better part of 17, 18 years, that's a crazy experience."
Kershaw, who now lives in Norway with his wife and daughter, was in Whistler to share some of that experience with young cross-country skiers as a guest coach at the annual Teck Regional Fall Dryland Training Camp, held in Whistler Sept. 21 to 23.
"I just feel so honoured for the opportunity to come help," he said. "It's really fun to see the excitement in the kids' eyes, it's great."
About 60 Sea to Sky cross-country ski athletes aged nine to 23, as well as eight UBC athletes, attended the camp. Kershaw reached out to North Vancouver's Hollyburn Cross Country Ski Club looking to get involved.
Continued success for Canada in international competition has "got to start with the youth," Kershaw explained.
"To have the opportunity for them to ask questions and learn from people like me who have raced internationally, that's how you get better," he said. "You need to have people that have had success or have had experience to pay that forward to the next generation."
Kershaw "is very passionate that Canada needs to use its retired high-level athletes more than they have in the past as resources and coaches," explained Jake Weaver, the dryland camp's head coach.
"It's really inspiring for the athletes and even the coaches, too. He's won world championships and won medals on the World Cup repeatedly. He's one of our best athletes ever, one of our top three or four (cross-country ski) athletes that the country's ever produced. That was inspiring, just to have interaction with him, but he also has a lot to offer as far as his knowledge of technique and training methods."
Kershaw was a very hands-on coach with all ages of athletes at the camp, said Weaver.
"That was really meaningful for everybody."
Although some of the campers "were definitely awestruck" by Kershaw, "I think they really appreciated that he seemed like a normal guy," Weaver said. "They feel, when they meet someone who's achieved that level (of success), just through meeting him and talking to him that he's not too different from them, and what he has achieved is something worth trying to strive for."
Kershaw acknowledged just how limited the time he had available to help coach was while he was actively competing. "I didn't have really any time, so it's really fun to give back to the next generation," he said. "It's really, really, really inspiring ... I'm so psyched for cross-country skiing."
So does that mean Kershaw's retirement plans include a foray into ski coaching? "I don't plan to be a professional ski coach, but I would love to give back in any way that I can to help Canada continue having international success," he said.