There was a time during the decades-long career of retired Madawaska High School ski coach Howard Paradis when only boys were allowed to compete on the slopes in Aroostook County.
Paradis, 90, who will be inducted into the Maine Athletic Hall of Fame this fall, was not prepared to heed that rule. He recognized a talented skier when he saw one, regardless of gender.
Paradis was instrumental in the development of the Four Seasons cross-country ski trails in Madawaska. He helped lead the Madawaska girls to 15 championships and the boys to nine, and under his tutelage the school produced 15 Maine Skimeiesters. But he made history decades ago when he let a female student compete in a boys high school ski race.
Girls teams were instituted in Maine in the early 1970s. Before that became reality, Paradis entered a female skier, a freshman, into an Aroostook County meet under a fake male name. Unfortunately, she was discovered as she prepared to leave the starting gate at the top of the hill. Another skier called her out for being a female once he got close enough to have a conversation with her.
The skier took off down the slope nonetheless and placed fifth in the event, despite her young age. A man hosting the meet yelled at Paradis and tore the student’s bib off, making her cry, Paradis said.
“They thought she might get hurt or she would embarrass the boys if she beat all those boys; it was terrible,” Paradis said. “I wasn’t making a political statement or anything. I was trying to win a ski meet, and my best skier happened to be a girl.”
Paradis will not name the athlete now, because he doesn’t want to embarrass her or anyone else involved in the incident. Though he didn’t realize it then, his thinking was ahead of the times.
Paradis had not planned to become a high school ski coach. But when the Madawaska school found itself without a coach in 1960, the athletic director approached Paradis at a party one night and offered him the job. Paradis was a junior high math teacher in the district.
“He found out I was a skier and told me he’d pay me $50 for the year while he would be looking for a real ski coach,” Paradis said. “Every time I asked him if he found one, he said he was working on it. I coached for 35 years.”
Paradis also coached Nordic skiing for part of his career.
Fort Kent Community High School Nordic ski coach Carl Theriault said he has a great deal of respect for the commitment Paradis made to high school cross country skiing for so many years.
“Madawaska was a powerhouse team with Howard at the helm, and his love of the sport showed through his athletes on the trails,” Theriault said.
Paradis first began skiing at about the age of 5 in the backyard of his family home in Frenchville, he said. Money was tight, and his early years were spent surviving the Great Depression.
“In those days skis were homemade. My uncle made me a pair,” Paradis said. “There was a hill behind my house and we would pack that. The kids in town would all meet there and we’d go straight down the hill. We’d build jumps.”
It is almost impossible to be a successful coach without the backing of family, Paradis said.
His wife, Rella Paradis, died in 2009. The couple had two children, Michael Paradis and Karen Paradis. They also have two grandchildren, Curtis and Erin.
“We’re a skiing family to begin with, but they sacrificed a lot because of what I was doing. My wife would always say in November when we started skiing, ‘Well, I’ll see you next spring.’ She was right on that. She was a schoolteacher also,” Paradis said.
Maine Sports Hall of Fame will induct Paradis and nine others during an Oct. 29 ceremony at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.