A case of pure chance or product of greater forces?
One thing was for certain: Stephanie Kovala definitely had her late father, John, in mind when home in Sault Ste. Marie visiting family and friends for Christmas 2017. A graduate student at London School of Economics at the time, Kovala’s Christmas Eve day included an early morning trip to the cemetery with an uncle to shovel a path to her father’s grave to allow for a family visit that evening, following a Finnish custom of placing a candle on a loved one’s tombstone.
But it was an encounter that afternoon when Kovala and a friend hit Hiawatha Highlands’s cross-country trails that “nearly knocked me off my skis.” Taking the Mockingbird Hill Extension off the main Pinder trail, the pair encountered two men, one of whom she heard speaking Finnish. Chit-chat led to the man identifying himself as Timo Tikka, also visiting for the holidays. What left Kovala gobsmacked was the fact Tikka not only knew her father, but had cross-country skied with him competitively on a Northern Ontario biathlon team that, in the 1980s, captured a Canadian crown. The pair also shared spots on Canada’s national biathlon squad.
“Everything that happened that day, it sort of all just culminated to that moment on the ski trail,” Kovala told The Sault Star in a recent telephone interview from Toronto, where she works as a project manager with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. “And maybe had those other things not happened, I wouldn’t have been thinking that way.”
Kovala knew her father had been a “very accomplished skier” but was not aware of the fine details of his deeds.
“That is pretty special,” she said.
The group chatted and Tikka promised to look for photographs of Kovala’s father and him during their cross-country glory says; he contacted Kovala later to indicate the search came up dry.
But the event moved Kovala so much she decided to put pen to paper and write an account of the encounter for publication. Encouragement came via an aunt who had “gotten really into writing” in recent years and had submitted a story to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series detailing her grandfather’s concentration camp experience.
Kovala first submitted a longer account to a Christmas in Canada edition, which was not published.
“I still really wanted to share the story,” she said.
She took the scalpel out, trimmed the story somewhat, and a year later pitched Synchronicity on the Ski Trail to Angels All Around.
“I thought this might be fitting,” Kovala said.
This time, the Chicken Soup response was warmer and Kovala’s story was published in the 2019 edition.
Angels All Around contains 101 “fascinating tales” that the publisher says demonstrate how “miracles can happen when and how we least expect them.”
Was Kovala’s encounter with her father’s former teammate an example of “divine intervention,” as Chicken Soup publishers paint the inspiration for much of the franchise’s material?
Kovala goes this far: “I think why it was so striking to me is because I maybe am not necessarily someone who is super spiritual,” she said. “The situation was so surreal that I just couldn’t ignore it. I think what I was trying to say in the story is that no matter who you are or what you believe, if you are open to the world, the world is going to be open to you.”
Skiing had much to do with John Kovala’s life; it’s also affiliated with his untimely 2004 death.
The 41-year-old was cross-country skiing on a frozen section of Red Lake, north of Kenora, when he was struck by a snow machine. The geologist, who was doing consulting work there for Gold Corp., was killed instantly.
Losing a loved one in such tragic circumstances skiing may sour many to the sport.
Not Kovala, 29, a teen when her dad died.
“It’s kind of hard not to be into skiing because I grew up at Searchmont and Hiawatha,” she said. “I think you could go one of two ways with that, and I think for me continuing to ski helped me still feel close to my dad.”
As for submitting more stories for publication, Kovala concedes she likely hasn’t caught the writing bug.
“I think maybe this was just a one-off,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not necessary a writer. I just had to get this story out.”