Whitehorse, Yukon is known as the least polluted city in the world, and also the driest in Canada. It was the birthplace of Pierre Berton, federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin, and Yukon bard Robert Service.

It is also the home of Rachel Pettitt, the first Yukon born athlete to win a national skating title. She won a gold medal in the novice women’s category at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Kingston, ON, in January.

In a town of 25,000 (largest in Northern Canada), with three ball diamonds, a Canada Games multiplex (with pools, ice rinks, a fieldhouse, and a fitness centre,) three golf courses and a bowling alley, it was the Arctic Edge Skating Club where Pettitt’s mother, Trish, caught the skating bug first.

Rachel’s three older brothers started out in CanSkate, with Trish coaching it. “My family was all on the ice, so they got to put me on and see how it goes,” Rachel said. “And then I loved it. I loved spinning and jumping.”

While Trish may have hoped her sons would become figure skaters, they turned into hockey players. After all, father Kerry is a hockey coach when he’s not working for Northwestel, a telecommunications company serving the north.

Trish was born in Whitehorse, skated with her sisters, and then went off to Vancouver for a while to hone those skills. Now she’s a coach. And Rachel has followed in her footsteps by moving to Kelowna B.C., where she works with coaches Karen and Jason Mongrain.

In Whitehorse, Rachel learned all the fundamentals. She achieved all her gold tests there for skills, interpretive, and free skate. The dancing skills that she learned in Whitehorse also really helped. “I always did off-ice dance, off-ice ballet,” she said.

“I loved training in Whitehorse,” said Rachel. “But now that I’m older, I needed to move on, and get some real training in.” That meant, at first, Calgary, which she came to love. There she worked with Scott Davis and the late Sharon Lariviere. “She was amazing,” Rachel said. “I give a lot of credit to her. My mom got coached by her too and a lot of my cousins. I learned the basics from her. I learned a lot about posture, a lot about your lines. I learned a lot of jumps, spinning. She did everything for me.”

By the time she was 11, Rachel had moved to Kelowna, and it was scary at first, she said, living by herself, boarding with a family. When she was in grade eight, she returned to Whitehorse, because it was difficult to be away from her family. “I struggled,” she said.

As a grade nine student, she returned to Kelowna. Sometimes her parents would visit, but it takes two full days of driving to travel between the two cities.

“She was always a very bubbly kid,” said Jason Mongrain. “She had a lot of personality. She had a lot of intensity on her presentation side. And she was coordinated in terms of her jumps. She was always a very good spinner too.”

From the Mongrains, Rachel has learned three triples: toe loop, Salchow and loop. Now the push will be on to teach Rachel the triple flip and Lutz. “There’s definitely a lot of work that still needs to go into those jumps…. There’s a lot of fine-tuning, drills and exercises she has to do to become automatic at it.”

Still, she’s buoyed by the memories of last season, when she won the national novice gold medal. She had been third after the short program, and for the long, she skated to Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago, floating about in a white dress with white illusion sleeves and white fur about her neck. It was a triumph just getting to that event. The previous year she hadn’t even qualified for Challenge. This past season, she finished second at Challenge.

“I was thrilled going to Canadians,” she said. “I felt a little bit of pressure on myself…But by the time the long came, I was like: “I’m just going to go out and skate my best. Whatever happens, happens. It was amazing.” She was overwhelmed with the marks she got. “I just knew I gave it my all, and whether I got a medal or not, I was pleased with how I skated,” she said.

This earned her a berth at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, B.C., where she also won a gold medal. “That was such an amazing experience,” she said. “I got to share it with a lot of Kelowna skaters. It was so much fun. Jason and my mom were the coaches for Team Yukon and I was representing Team Yukon.”

She knew it was her last skate in that white dress, and vowed she’d go and skate the way she could again, a clean program ensued. She doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to get rid of that white dress. “I have so many good memories with it,” she said.

Jason says the Canada Winter Games were a big step for Rachel, because although she had a great performance on a national stage in Kingston, the “Canada Games was a different animal.”

“There was almost more pressure on her at Canada Games because of the results she got at Canadians,” he said. “So she went into that competition as a clear favourite. She definitely wasn’t a clear favourite at Canadians. She was one of a handful of skaters that had the opportunity and ability to win, and she was a skater that laid down what she had to do to win that day.”

She’ll compete at the junior level this coming season, and aside from gaining triples, the Mongrains are helping her increase her program components. She’s strong in that area, but Jason says they want to exploit her strengths. “We have to find new ways of challenging her so she has two new programs which are very demanding,” he said.

Karen has choreographed the short, Jason the long. There will be more intricate steps, and there’s not a lot of rest time. There will be less setup time for her triples and her double Axel.

“We’re trying to achieve a more senior level of skating even though she’s moving into junior,” Jason said. It’s all a sign that good skaters can come from anywhere.