ELY — Ely Nordic skier Jasper Johnston could not have asked for a more challenging senior season.
With COVID-19 changing the length of the season and the way meets were run, as well as the Timberwolves varsity team consisting of just four boys as opposed to the usual 10, Johnston’s high school swan song was unique in many ways.
What wasn’t unique, however, was Johnston’s ability to excel on the trails as he skated his way to a fifth place finish at the State Nordic Ski Meet, capping off his high school career with his fourth straight All-State selection and his second finish inside the top five (fourth in 2020).
For his decorated career as an Nordic skier, Johnston has been named the All-Iron Range Boys’ Nordic Skier of the Year by the Mesabi Tribune and the Grand Rapids Herald-Review.
While COVID-19 placed the official start of the ski season on Jan. 4, Johnston had begun getting into race form back in November. The season typically ends the second week of February, but this year it ended the second week of March, adding another challenge to an already difficult season.
Despite all of this, Johnston found a way to succeed. Looking back on what made it all click, it was a simple answer from the Timberwolves standout.
“It’s a sport that I love and something that all of my friends do as well,” Johnston said Monday at the Ely High School. “It’s given me a lot of opportunities to travel around and meet a lot of really cool people. I love being able to push myself as hard as I can and I think that’s the biggest thing. I love the competition and I love trying to improve and get better.”
Since joining the varsity squad as an eighth grader, Johnston has put countless hours into the sport both in season and in the offseason.
“I take skiing into account with every decision I make, especially in the winter time. Training during the winter 10-12 hours a week, then 10-14 hours a week in the summer, that takes up a lot of time. I work a lot in the summer as well to make sure I can ski all winter long.”
The sport has even forced Johnston’s social life to take a hit, something that he accepts when it comes to becoming a better skier.
“I’ve only ever been to two high school dances. Every other dance has either been canceled by COVID or I’ve had a ski meet the weekend leading up to that. I miss out on quite a few social events. It definitely requires some focus and a little bit of perseverance, especially when things get tougher.”
Johnston’s coach Paula Anderson calls him a model leader, one that was key to keeping the entire team positive during the COVID season.
“He was great,” Anderson said. “He was the one trying to stay positive through it all and keeping everyone upbeat. He and the other seniors led by example and went out and had fun every single day. That’s the most important part, the practices every day. The races at the end of the season are the icing on the cake, but the day-to-day is where the memories come from and they did a great job of helping make those memories.”
At this year’s state meet, Johnston competed as an individual for the first time ever. Normally advancing to state as a team. Ely missed out on qualifying together by one point. With COVID restrictions changing how things were run, Johnston said competing as an individual was somewhat disappointing, but still fitting considering the limitations placed on the rest of the season.
“Normally we get a hotel room and everyone on the team is there celebrating the end of the season,” Johhston said. “Lots of people hit their goals by making it to state so it was just a great experience to be there as a team. This year, everything felt more individual. We had a smaller team and the meets were smaller and even state just felt different. There was no big award ceremony after everything and it just didn’t feel like the end of the season.”
Finishing the state meet in fifth place and just 1.4 seconds out of the top three, Johnston had hoped to do better but knew this year was more competitive than years prior.
“It felt like I moved back a little bit but we were all so close in times. It took a little bit for it to set in that it was over but after a while I was happy and could look back on things positively.”
Johnston’s ski career isn’t over, however, as he’s set to join the Nordic ski team at Division II Michigan Tech, where he’ll major in forestry. Being the fastest skier in the Ely program for the last three seasons, Anderson says it’s become more difficult for other skiers on the team to push Johnston, which makes his collegiate endeavors all the more interesting.
“High school is just the beginning for him,” Anderson said. “I’m excited to see what he can do at Michigan Tech. He’s been the fastest kid on the team for some time now and that’s tough when you don’t have anyone to push you and make you faster. Now he’s going to have all the boys on this new team to train with and to make him faster and compete with so that’ll be exciting.”
On choosing Michigan Tech, Johnston says there were numerous factors that went into his decision to attend the school located in Houghton, Michigan.
“They get tons of snow in Houghton, way more snow than we get here which is quite a bit,” Johnston said. “That was one of the biggest pieces for me. The training will be consistent with all that snow. The second thing was that they had the exact program I wanted in forestry. It’s not a super common major so finding a school that had both skiing and forestry really narrowed down my options.”
Johnston said that he toured the school in the fall of 2019 and that’s when he really began to get excited about joining the Huskies.
“I didn’t know much about it before I toured there but after that tour I was pretty set on going there. I just really liked it there and the coaches are great and the team has exactly what I’m looking for.”
The high school chapter in Johnston’s skiing career closed, Anderson says he’s the most successful boys’ skier she’s ever coached and has a skill ceiling that is not even close to being reached.
“He really has a chance to do something special in college, more than I think any other male skier I’ve ever had. His whole skiing career, he’s been splitting his focus between so many different activities when some of his biggest competitors only train for skiing year round. He’s not like that to just do one thing. None of our Ely athletes do that and as coaches we like that they do a lot of things.
“Going to college, he won’t be burnt out on skiing and he still has some untapped potential to be reached. It’s going to be an exciting time for him and he still has so much room to improve.”
Ultimately, Johnston himself will take quite a bit away from his career at Ely, growing each year while acknowledging the role his teammates, coaches and family played in getting him where he is.
“Skiing has probably had more impact on my life than anything else I’ve ever done. Every year it felt like exactly what I needed. As a freshman, the team was super supportive and that’s what I needed at the time. In the year’s after we had a really competitive team and I got so much better in that environment. This year was challenging because it was nothing like I had ever done before. It challenged me in ways that made me a better skier and a better athlete.
“And none of this would’ve been possible without my parents or my coaches Paula and Tyler Fish. They’ve all supported me a ton throughout my high school career.”
In addition to Johnston, the All-Iron Range Boys’ Nordic Ski Team includes: Gabriel Pointer and Jon Hakala, Ely; Matej Cervenka, Sam Stertz and Joshua Timm, Grand Rapids and Connor Matschiner, Mesabi East Area.