Skiing, swimming, mountain biking, running, alpine hiking, roller skiing, the arts and academics. Are Mae and her three daughters up for the challenge? You bet.
Mae Hooper is a stunning combination of positive attitude, incredible work ethic, boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm. Tree planting, ski instructing, alpine hiking, roller skiing, flying small planes, winning a Silver medal at the World Masters Cross Country Skiing championships in 2011; Mae gives it her all. But she considers being a mom her most important role.
I first met Mae 20 years ago, before she had children, on a five-day Nordic ski instructor’s course at Hollyburn cross country area in North Vancouver. After eight hours every day on the snow, I was tired. However when the examiner said, “Mae, do you want to ski another few laps, she invariably answered, “You bet.”
Today, it is the same. Mae, now 50, and her husband John Mehain, have three dynamic daughters with the same can-do outlook.
Born in Red Deer, Alberta, the eldest of five siblings, Mae moved to the Enderby area at age one. “We worked hard. There were lots of farm chores to do, shovelling the barn, feeding the chickens,” says Mae, who liked the outdoor chores the best. Mae laboured dutifully but once chores were finished she had fun. She has fond memories of playing outside with her brothers, tunneling in the snow to build forts, skating on the pond, sliding down snowy hills on washing machine saucers and moonlight tobogganing. “We had free run of the countryside,” she says.
Those years provided a solid training base, but it was teachers along the way who fueled her passion for endurance sports. With no opportunity for team sports because she was bussed to school, Mae tried cross-country running. “I had old runners that flopped when I ran, but one of the female coaches was really encouraging,” she says with a laugh. “ When I was running, I felt like a deer.”
One teacher in particular opened up the world of skiing and alpine hiking for Mae, a connection that changed her life. While studying sciences at Okanagan College Mae met Biology and Chemistry professor Tom Crowley. “Tom was an outdoorsman and environmentalist, and often talked about outdoor trips, backpacking and skiing,” she says. “When I was 18 he introduced me to hiking and backpacking in the high mountains in summer and telemark skiing in winter,” Mae says. “He and his wife took me to Salmon Arm to buy my first pair of cross country skis. They took me on ski trips every weekend, to Larch Hills and deep backcountry snow in the Rockies.” That’s where Mae got the nickname Caesar, because she loved to go first, breaking trail for others.
“To this day I am grateful to him for taking the extra time to encourage and nurture a love I obviously had inside me, but didn’t know existed,” says Mae.
At 24, Mae met another outdoorsman, Kamloops forester John Mehain, a downhill ski instructor and member of the Silver Star ski patrol. This meeting led to three daughters, Mae qualifying as a downhill ski instructor and gaining her pilot’s license. The couple has owned several planes over the years.
“We bought the first plane the day Heather, our oldest daughter, was born.”Mae and John have always shared the mountain environment with their girls. “Ever since they could make their way up the mountain under their own power, I’ve been taking them,” Mae says. “The neatest trips of all were overnight trips.” Joined by Dawn, John’s eldest from a previous marriage, Mae would pack up daughters Heather, Sarah and Hannah and head for the hills. “Girls only,” says Mae. “John worked his whole career in forestry and the last thing he wanted to do was go hiking."
Can stubbornness and fortitude be inherited? You’d almost think so with Mae’s girls. From the get go they insisted on carrying their own sleeping bag and mat, clothes and some snacks. Sarah, who was born with hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that affects one arm and one leg on the same side of the body, was no exception. “Sarah had incredible determination. She had good hiking shoes with a lift. We’d find her a wooden walking stick and be off,” says Mae.
One time, close to their destination, Mae noticed little Hannah lagging behind. Greatly insulted when Mae offered to shoulder some of her load, she refused to continue until she could carry all her own gear. “Hannah was very strong,” Mae says, with a laugh.
Fast forward to the present. It’s no surprise all three girls are involved in endurance sports at a high level. Heather, 20, is a cross country racer, Sarah,16, is a paralympic swimmer and Hannah,14, is a competitive swimmer, cross country skier and budding triathlete.Heather, a second year science student at Okanagan College, is well on her way to her ultimate goal of a cross-country ski medal at the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Her latest accomplishment, a gold medal in the 2011 Nationals in Canmore is just one step in a carefully crafted plan she has posted on the fridge in the family kitchen. Next up, qualifying for the World Under 23 Championships in Erzurum, Turkey, then a place on the 2014 Olympic team, working toward a medal in 2018.
Sounds simple but it entails 13 to 20 hours of training per week. “Summer dryland workouts include mountain biking, hiking, strength training and roller skiing, often with mom. When the snow flies she’s on the trails at Sovereign Lake Nordic Club with coach and former Olympian Darren Derochie. “But it was mom who really got me started. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she says. “When we were little she made skiing fun with Easter egg hunts, snowball fights and Halloween costume ski events.”
Not one to neglect her academics, Heather hopes to qualify for the Alberta World Cup Academy in Canmore and finish her science degree through Athabasca University Distance Education.Sarah, a feisty 16-year old isn’t likely to be outdone by her old sister. A member of the Vernon Kokanee Swim Club, her long-term goal is a medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Short term she is working with coach Renata Terpstra specializing in the 50-metre fly and the 200-metre individual medley in preparation for the Olympic trials at the end of March in Montreal. John remembers her first swim race at the age of four. “She could barely stay above water, but she was determined and finished to a standing ovation from the crowd,” he says.
“I train 6 days a week, 16 and a half hours in the pool, then dryland running, weights, and strength training before each practice,” she says. She still somehow maintains good marks at WL Seaton where at this point she favours sciences and math but wants to keep her post secondary options open.Hannah, 14, close on the heels of her older sisters, has both their sports covered. Determination is evident in her eyes as she describes one of her first cross-country ski races at age five.
“Just before the finish I was trying to beat another girl. Both of us fell. We got up and sprinted and she just beat me by a bit,” she says, with a laugh but her underlying tone tells me she won’t let that happen again. “Mom was my first coach. She always encouraged me, working with me on technique and giving me the opportunity to go to races.”
Now also coached by Darren Derochie at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Club she has just qualified for the BC Winter Games, favouring longer events. “ I also love to run,” she says. She does it well, first in her age group in the Vernon District in both 800 metres and 1500 metres. In the pool, with coach Renata Terpstra at the Kokanee Swim Club, she specializes in the 100 m breaststroke, recently making the top level Triple A qualifying time of the Canadian Swimming Time Standards.
Their lives might so far appear a bit one sided, but not so, as a visit to their semi-rural TV-free Vernon home proved. Workouts completed for the week, the family took time out on a Sunday evening for a visit and concert. Hannah, on violin, and Heather, a grade 10 conservatory pianist, played a couple of classical duets. A sample of one of Hannah’s oil pastels hung over the piano. Sarah, no doubt fatigued from training and taking care of her two horses the family keeps on the property, was downstairs completing homework.
Apparently she plays a mean fiddle.
Too regimented a life? Are they missing out?
“No way. You develop an ability to focus,” says Heather. “It’s an advantage to have the opportunity to be active, musical and excel, not wasting time,” adds Hannah. Perhaps more forthright, Sarah says, “Sure I miss out. I’d like to do more riding and hanging out with friends. But when I get in the pool I know it’s worth it and I don’t regret it.”
Not that life is challenge free. Mae works as a cross-country ski instructor at Sovereign, sometimes 8-hour days. “I fit in training between lessons. Sometimes I need three changes of clothes a day. I’m training for the 2013 Cross-Country World Masters in Italy.”
“Keeping enough groceries in the house is a huge job,” says Mae. “And, of course travel expenses for races can be astronomical, but I have friends everywhere who are willing to billet us.”Through it all, semi-retired John, understandably proud of his girls, provides a solid home base and drives the girls to events. They all agree on the best lesson learned from Mae, “Never give up.”