Professional Bi Athlete, Olympian, US Biathlon National Team member, NYSEF member
Imagine your whole life leading up to one moment. Some of you may have been there. Maybe it’s your wedding, the big promotion...moving overseas. Or your child’s first soccer game, and being that proud parent.
Could you imagine if it was the Olympics? That’s right, the most prestigious games in the world. No pressure, right? A time to just brush your shoulder off and move on. No...there is so much pressure! All the preparation involved, you are constantly facing your fears and aiming to defeat the best performance you have ever had. As one might say, “Ain’t no thang!” If only that were the reality.
Well, we all know that isn’t true. It's far too often that people idealize Olympians and don’t think of them as human beings. After all, they do exhibit above natural capabilities. We tend to use similar adjectives for them, as we would when describing a Superhero! Athletes live their lives under pressure from their coaches, teammates and also themselves. There is a certain mindset where you think, you can always achieve more, set higher goals, be a better version of yourself. So, when does that break? In reality, humans are people. Not superheroes. There is only so much our bodies and minds can withstand.
We had the pleasure to speak with Maddie Phaneuf, an Olympian. She is currently on the US Biathlon National Team as well as NYSEF which is an organization that provides opportunities for athletes of all ages to reach their potential in snow sports. Being an Olympian, to her, is a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most don’t realize the impact professional sports may have on someone’s well being. Her inspiring outlook towards life hasn’t come easy and with that comes strength and an understanding of the world that most don’t know at such a young age. She remains passionate and strong and through past experiences knows the most important thing in life is to fight for yourself, do what you want to do and what makes you happy.
So here is the tale of an athlete. A timeline of her career thus far. Might I also say now, she has faced many struggles but she has lifted herself up and become stronger than ever.
THE WONDER YEARS
Back in 2003, Joseph Phaneuf, (Maddie’s father) decided he wanted to move his whole family from the mountains of South Carolina to the North East. Growing up in Boston himself, with an appreciation for snow and the outdoors he wanted his children to experience a world of seasonal changes. He found a job working for an organization called the Northeastern Loggers Association, which through their memberships, programs and magazine advocates sustainable and safe practices for the forest industry. He and his wife uprooted their family to the small town in the Adirondacks known as Old Forge, NY. Much of the town’s commerce is built on skiing and the community that surrounds it. Having swam competitively as a child in South Carolina, Phaneuf got right in, joining the Polar Bear Ski Club. This is a local program for alpine, nordic and biathlon skiers where coaches strive teams to achieve a healthy competitive spirit and the love for a lifetime sport. It is such a unique program in today’s world.
Phaneuf said the town is so small that, ‘It’s just what you do’. Everyone skis and if you don’t, well, what are you doing? She excelled in Nordic Skiing. Every year, from 8th to 10th grade she won sectionals. “I was a big fish in a small pond,” says Phaneuf, remarking on how there wasn’t much competition, there were only on average 20 kids to a grade. She remained humble. Up until she was 15 the Biathlon program was pretty much obsolete until a local, Carl Klossner took over. His passions brought the biathlon program to another level and so did it for Phaneuf. Up until then she thought of the sport as being for men and hunters, as those were really the only people she saw that participated. She recalls her feelings the first time she shot a rifle. What she liked about it was that she wasn’t good.
“I realized, ‘This is something I'm not good at’ and I just wanted to get better. I think that is also why I'm still doing it now. There have been a lot of times where I thought I can move on with my life and do something different. The only reason that I keep staying is that I haven’t reached my goals yet and know that I can still get better so I want to see what happens.”
Once she started challenging herself, she gained a more precise marksmanship and she excelled. As she said, a lightbulb turned on and thought,
“There are not many women in the US that do this sport. The Biathlon may offer more opportunities than Nordic skiing.”
She wanted to be part of something bigger that was more challenging for her. She spent her summers at training camps across New York and Vermont. The biathlon for her was something new and exciting. She found a lot of success and knew it could mean more. During her senior year she tried out to qualify for the Junior World Championships and missed it, by one person! She was crushed. Sure, she excelled in other areas in academics, sports and music but Biathlon was her passion. Unclear of what to do after high school she found herself looking at colleges based on their ski programs. It made her realize she wanted to ski.
Despite not making it to Junior World Championships she knew if she focused solely on the sport that she may qualify the next year. It may have been a blessing in disguise that she actually lost a race because it only made her push harder. She found a program for Biathlon and Nordic ski training in Ft. Kent, Maine which is now known as The Outdoor Sports Institute but at the time was called the Mayweather Sports Center. It is designed for athletes post high school. You train full time and live on premises, you live, eat and breathe skiing.
“You only live once. You’re gonna regret the things you don’t take and the opportunities you say no to instead of regretting the things you do try.”
Towards the end of her season she qualified for the Junior World Championships where she finished in fourth. Phanueuf says, “I was mind blown.” Her hard work had paid off. This led her to being invited on the US Biathlon National Team which oddly enough is based out of Lake Placid, NY which is just a couple short hours from her hometown. Now being there for 6 years it has become her home. At the time, her parents were encouraging. They said
"College is always going to be an option but what you're doing right now you can’t really say no to that because you're not going to have the opportunity in five years.”
LUST OF THE UNKNOWN (Seasons 2014-2015, 2015-2016)
So here she was at 19, setting out to the unknown world, filled with innocence and lust for the unknown. Her and fellow teammate Sean Dougherty, were asked to join and create a new division of the US Biathlon team called the ‘X’ team. Prior to that year the US National Team only had an ‘A’ and ‘B’ team. The introduction of this was for up and coming juniors or new biathletes, to train in hopes to become part of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams. Looking back on it Phaneuf said maybe it wasn't the best idea to join, as the women she was skiing with were the top in the world and much more seasoned. They had so much experience and astute sportsmanship. Although they were very encouraging of her she put a lot of pressure on herself to excel and get better. This in turn paid off and within a couple years she athletically skyrocketed. By the end of the second season she was asked to join the ‘B’ team for a year then later, moved to the ‘A’ team for two more.
GROWTH AND DISCOVERY (Season 2016 - 2017)
Having been in the sport now for a number of years, Phaneuf found herself at a crossroads. Finally, here she was, on the ‘A’ Team of the US Biathlon Program. Sounds like a dream, right? Well, it was becoming something far from that. She became unsure if she even wanted to be a biathlete. It’s what she knew and what she was good at, but she was no longer happy. She recalls bringing this up to her coach whose reaction was something along the lines of, “Why stop now, you are likely going to qualify for the Olympics. Just keep pushing. Everything will be fine.” She thought her coach cared about her wellbeing but it became apparent, that wasn’t the case. She was at a breaking point. It was a time of unclarity and pushing through that season only made her more unstable. She felt like it was the right thing to do, for her coaches, her family and had convinced herself it was best for her. Mentally, she wasn’t ok.
You have to think, she had been living in a dormitory at the Olympic training center for 4 years, with only one real purpose, one goal. Most people her age are off on the path in pursuit of discovering themselves through college or traveling...laughing with friends...goofing off, living the simple life. Not her, she never had that opportunity. Even though she was there by choice, she felt depressed and was just going through the motions of skiing and doing what she felt she had to do. Her life became more about pleasing others and not herself.
THE BIG PUSH (Season 2017-2018)
Moving forward, she decided to go all in, this was the year of the last Winter Olympics. If she was going to be there, she was going to play hard. The Olympics have a variety of qualification tiers. Early in the year two women bi athletes qualified to compete in South Korea. It came down to Phaneuf and three other women who won races at the US qualifying events which led them to the next round in Europe. They all knew one woman wouldn’t make it to the Olympics. It was very awkward and stressful as they had become very close. You are so close to that dream, the dream you all share and one won’t make it!?
She was neck and neck for all of the races except the last, one race called, ‘The Individual.’ The format is a bit different than the others and most emphasis is on your marksmanship. She hit all of her targets and qualified for the Olympics! This, as you could imagine, was quite the moment, when a dream became a reality. As much as she had sympathy for her teammate she was overfilled with joy and shared her successes.
“It was cool to see how many people were excited for me.”
She knew that she had the support of others but it wasn't until that moment that she truly knew how many people were following her journey. It was inspiring. It’s amazing how much confidence the encouragement of others can give you.
THE PEAK (2017-2018)
“Everyone here is an Olympian, everyone here is at the best of their sport which was very surreal.”
She had no words to describe the feeling of the opening ceremony. It was that moment in life. A moment of purity. A time that all one could hope for, is to stand still. She wanted to put a pause on life and soak up all that she could.
In total, there were five US women who went to South Korea that year for Biathlon. Having been the 5th qualifier, she was named The Alternate. This is the person who will race only if there is an injury or someone gets sick. Heading into the Olympics, she held no expectations of actually racing. During training she was ‘peaking’, which in athletics means the moment when 'everything is coming together and you are the best you are going to be for your whole season.' It is your goal for the whole year. When her coaches saw that she was outperforming her fellow teammates, they pulled her aside and asked her to race an event. She was over the moon. She would be competing, something she figured wouldn’t even happen.
Well long story short, sadly within 24 hours she came down with strep throat and no longer was able to race. Her coach said something along the lines of, “It’s the Olympics, we only put our best people in and you are sick.” He told her to rest and recover and maybe by the end of the week she could race in another event.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions. I was like, ‘Okay, but it’s the Olympics.’ I can talk about it now because I had to go through therapy to deal with it.”
Her strep only continued to get worse and on top of that, she caught a flu virus. Phaneuf said that to this day, it was the sickest she has ever been. During the closing ceremony, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach paid tribute to the athletes during his speech. Phaneuf couldn’t remember his exact words but it went something along the lines of,
“Many of you have experienced so many different things during the Olympics. Some of you have gotten gold medals, some of you have had the best experiences of your life, some of you got an injury or gotten sick, or had the worst races of your life. But...you are ALL STILL OLYMPIANS!!”
(When Phaneuf told me this, we were both shedding tears.)
CAN THERE BE LIGHT (2018 - 2019)
After returning home Phaneuf became very depressed, she needed a break. Everything came crashing down. She was already mentally checked out pre Olympics, and now it was only worse. Her outlook on life was completely debunked and she couldn’t get past the shame. Only she was giving this guilt to herself. Her family, friends, colleagues, everyone...the townies, the little kids that looked up to her...everyone was praising her. It was so hard for her to be happy with them.
“I just wasted four years of my life to do what. I was already not happy doing it, then I felt forced then THAT happened, I felt ungrateful for going...it was just a whole thing.”
She had reached her lowest point and couldn’t rise above her own thoughts. She held a party in Old Forge at the hometown ski resort, McCauley Mountain. She wanted to host a thank you party for all the support of her community. It was very hard on her, she needed to keep a sm