Brittany Phelan competed for Canada as an alpine racer at the Sochi Olympics but switched to ski cross in 2015 ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics. She won a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, with the gold medal going to her best friend and training partner Kelsey Serwa. When she's not sending giant jumps on her skis elbow-to-elbow with three other women, Brittany Phelan races enduro for the Juliana SRAM Pro Team. In person, she's modest and laid back, but she has an incredible drive to improve every day.
She's only been racing enduro for a couple years and done four Enduro World Series races, but with an 8th place at the Whistler stop last year, she's one to watch as she heads over to Europe for Rounds 4 and 5 of the EWS. I caught up to her earlier this month to find out how she got into racing bikes, how she balances competing in two sports at the highest level, and how she copes with spending nine months on the road every year.
How did you get into mountain biking?Brittany Phelan:
I got into mountain biking when I was 15 and made the Alpine National team. We were based out of Fernie, B.C., so we all had to have a mountain bike to cross train. One of the first rides I went on I was like 'this is what I want to do for the rest of my life'.
How do you manage to compete in two sports at a high level and not get burnt out?Brittany Phelan:
Having the two sports is really good because by the time I'm getting sick of skiing, it's bike season, and it's been six months since I haven't ridden my bike. There's definitely a lot of time management in the summer, like sometimes I'll miss a few days of skiing here and there, and that's why I just try to make every day that I'm training count. I try to get better every day and minimize any wasted training, every run I take in skiing I try to have a focused plan for it and not just go down the hill.
It's the same thing for biking. For me, cornering in biking is probably the thing that I find the toughest, so I talk to a lot to my teammates or other racers or our manager/coach Kelly Emmett, and ask everyone I can about what they focus on and then try to feel it for myself. So yeah, it's just prioritizing something every day and not having any wasted time.
I really just try to get better, or progress my career, in a small way every single day of my life. As long as I know I'm doing my one hundred percent in everything, then I can kind of be at peace with that.
How much did you mountain bike leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics?Brittany Phelan:
Pretty much all summer. The last race I did was at the beginning of October, which my ski coaches were not too pumped on, because they were like "why are you risking getting injured right before the Olympic season?" For me, there were always more pros than cons to racing my bike, there's always that risk of injury. But just being able to practice being in a race environment year round, and not showing up to the first World Cup at the end of November not knowing what race focus to have, what activation level to have, and how to manage those nerves.
Enduro really allows me to get my race focus and my race mindset down before I get to my ski season. Skiing and biking are so similar - the way you handle terrain, the way you corner and create momentum, carry momentum, and things coming quickly at you, and having a Plan A of what you want to do but then being adaptive to Plan B and Plan C. The two sports complement each other a lot.
Why do you think you're drawn to like two such high-risk sports?Brittany Phelan:
I think it's mostly the adrenaline rush. And just being out in nature, out in the mountains - that's where I always feel my best. And seeing the progress of both sports when you commit all this time and effort. You actually get instant feedback. Mountain biking, whether it's riding a new gnarly trail that you weren't able to ride before but now you're starting to ride, and now you can start to ride it faster, and better, and then try different lines.
It's really the same in skiing, I really like to work as hard as I can at something and get that instant feedback and, I guess, instant reward. They're just both such fun sports and I just really love going fast.
Photo by Robin O'Neill
You've suffered a couple of injuries skiing and mountain biking, how do you deal with that side of the sport?Brittany Phelan:
With both mountain biking and skiing, there's always that risk involved, and it's just all part of it. I think when you're trying to find that limit of control, you're going to crash, and things are going to happen, and that's how you progress in sport, you see it all the time in slopestyle skiers and stuff. They're trying new tricks and they're crashing all the time and adding new rotations. It's just all part of it, to progress yourself you're going to have some crashes. And the more you bike, the more you ski, the more you put yourself at risk.
And that's why we spend so much time in the gym, training and trying to minimize those crashes and minimize those injuries. But it comes with the sport. It's almost like every injury I've had in biking and skiing is like a forced break and it kind of stokes that fire a little more because what you love most is taken away from you right away for a certain amount of time. So I think having that time off is good in a way. I don't regret any of my injuries because they've given me a lot of time to work on other weaknesses that I kind of maybe neglect or maybe don't have time for when I'm full into biking or skiing. It just makes you that much more excited to get back to doing what you love, and it makes you appreciate that time when you're healthy and you're able to push it and do what you love every day.
What are some of the injuries that you've had?Brittany Phelan:
So biking I dislocated my elbow, a couple of years ago. That was pretty bad, and that actually took a while to come back from. It was a stupid mistake, so it was a good reminder not to get complacent. I think that happens a lot in biking, you're riding well, you're getting faster, everything's going well, you're not crashing, and everything just feels great, and then all of a sudden you're on the ground and it's like "Oh yeah, I'm not invincible." You can't get complacent. It's the same thing in skiing, it's like this vicious cycle and I feel like I've been going through it my whole life. It's like you start getting better, you start getting faster, everything is going well, and then you take a slam, and then you're kind of rebuilding from there.
Skiing I've broken my pelvis before, I've broken my hands like nine times I think, wrist, hand, thumbs, and then had a decent concussion in skiing once. Other than that it's been not too bad, just the usual bruises and road rash kind of thing.
What does a typical day of training look like in the summer?Brittany Phelan:
I get up pretty early and I head to the gym as quickly as possible. Often we'll have gymnastics from 7:30 until 9:00. Trampoline and air awareness stuff, just getting comfortable in the air. Then after that, we'll go straight to the gym and do more Olympic weightlifting, and speed agility quickness stuff. I usually get done at the gym around noon or 12:30 and then head home.
I'll have lunch, chill for a bit, and then I have the rest of the day to ride my bike. Usually, I'll try to go on a more of an XC ride, so ride up a hill, straight up and then straight down, and then I'll try to ride the park around 5:00 until like 7:00 or something. So it's pretty full on days. I mean obviously not every day, we don't have gymnastics every day, and some gym days are more movement stuff so pretty mellow, but I try to ride every single day. Sometimes it will be a big gym session and if my legs are pretty tired from that then I'll just go ride the park try to work on stuff.
How did your life change after you won an Olympic medal?Brittany Phelan:
I think a lot of stress was taken off after winning an Olympic medal. My whole life felt like kind of this crazy goose chase, and there were so many times where I was like, 'Frick, am I actually making it, am I going to do it?' I'm working so hard at this thing but everyone else is working so hard as well. You have to almost be at peace with the fact that your dreams might never come true, and just enjoy the journey and know that that process and everything you did was worth it.
So yeah, just actually knowing that everything I had done in my life is validated, that it wasn't this crazy wild goose chase I was on. That's been pretty cool. And just knowing that no matter what happens for the rest of my life, I'll always have this thing that I worked hard for and that I achieved. And I got to do it with my best friend, so just having that whole journey and everything we did leading up to the event. To have everything come together on the most important day of our life was a pretty awesome thing.
What are some of the goals that you have in mountain biking and ski racing now?Brittany Phelan:
I mean, first of all, go to the next Olympic Winter Games, in Beijing in 2022, and get the right color. Get the gold medal. That would be, obviously, number one. Before the Olympics, it was like, "If I get any Olympic medal, that will be more than enough." But then once you achieve your dream, it's like, "What's next?" Right?
So that's the big one. I'm definitely going to do everything I can to make that a reality. Then in biking this year I'm going to the rest of the EWS circuit. I just kind of want to dip my toes in there and try to get more experience. I've never biked in Europe or really outside of North America, so I'm looking forward to getting more experience there and not putting too much pressure on myself. Just try to get better on my bike and see what I can do there.
Then, at the Whistler stop, or my home trails, I want to try to get a top five. I mean trail knowledge is huge and I know all those trails like the back of my hand. I was fourth on a couple of the stages last year, and then lost a bit of time on Top of the World. But other than that I was pretty much top five all day. I'm just trying to get better in the park and get comfier on those faster trails that are more built in, more like park stuff.
Hopefully next year I can do the whole EWS circuit and just keep racing and riding my bike and just getting better.
What are the most important things that you bring from your ski racing background that help you in enduro racing?Brittany Phelan:
I think they both compliment each other really well. I think the biggest thing is my race mindset. I'm usually pretty calm and I kind of manage race stress just with my preparation, knowing that I'm prepared. I'm not going into any race being like, "Well I don't know how this is gonna go, I'm just going to send it." It's not really calculated, but I know what I'm going to do. I know the tracks, there's never a gamble. It's kind of like, "I have my race plan and yeah, things are gonna change, but I can be adaptable to that."
I work pretty hard and I try to dot my I's and cross my T's so when it comes to race day, it's just about letting go and having fun. And that's the biggest thing that's changed for me the last couple of years in ski racing. I used to get so stressed at races and I was like, "This is horrible. I just can't wait until the day's over and I have my results." As I get older in my career, I'm just like, "This is what you do, this is what you work hard for, enjoy it."
Because it's such a short window too. Being an athlete. It's such a small time of your life. So yeah, you might as well enjoy it, work hard for it, and then once the work's done, just enjoy the race. So I think that mindset has helped my racing a lot too. If you're nervous skiing then your legs are stiff, and you're just not in that flow state. And it's the same on the bike. If you're nervous on a bike, it's horrible. You ride so stiff, and you're probably crashing, and you're just not having a good time.
Have you worked with sports psychologist on managing that stress?Brittany Phelan:
Yeah, quite a bit actually. Kelsey and I actually, my teammate who won gold, we actually have the same sports psychologist, and she was at the Olympics, and we actually got to talk to her in between every heat. Karen McNeil, she's been with our team for a number of years, and she's just a real person, you know? She'll drop f-bombs, and she's just so relatable. And if you're pissed off, she's like, "Yeah, that's fine."
She was really helpful, showing us how to really be present in the moment. A race can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. It's a lot of time to be focused and not have your mind drift away to "Oh, what if I do this? What if I mess up?" Or "What if I win?" She was really good at just helping us stay in the moment, and not get ahead of ourselves, and not worry about stuff.
How did you become a Juliana SRAM Pro rider and what's that relationship like?Brittany Phelan:
I got involved with Juliana, actually thanks to Kelsey, my teammate and best friend. She was going to one of the Juliana Ride Outs that they were putting on during Crankworx. I didn't sign up but Kelsey kind of dragged me to it. She's a lululemon ambassador and Juliana was putting on the event with lululemon. She was like, "You have to come with me. I don't know anyone." I was like, "I don't know. It'll be more fun if we just go ride with our crew. I don't know those people, I don't want to do that." I also hate yoga. I try to do it cause I know it's very beneficial and great for me, but I can't stand it. But yeah, Kelsey was like, "You're coming, I signed you up."
I ended up going on a ride with Sarah Leishman, who at the time was on the Juliana SRAM Pro team. I ended up riding with her a bit and she was like, "Do you race? You need to get a better bike." And I was like, "No, I don't race at all I love riding." She's like, "First of all you need to start racing, but you need to get a better bike. I'm going to try to get you on the grassroots program. I'm going to talk to the Juliana crew about you and get you set up." A couple of months later I got an email from Katie Zaffke, Brand Manager for Juliana, and she was like, "Hey, we want to get you a discount on a bike." At the time I was like, "Oh, I don't know, it's still a lot of money. I have this pretty decent, kind of clapped out bike, but whatever it works for me."
It actually took me six or eight months before I was like, "Okay, yeah, actually..." Once my bike started really falling apart. I ended up getting a bike, and started doing some races, and did pretty decently. And then, then they started our Juliana Free Agent team. I was lucky enough to be a part of that with four other girls and I raced a couple of EWS's throughout the years. Then this year we graduated to the Juliana-SRAM Pro Team. Just trying to do more elite level races every year.
Juliana's been super helpful and very accommodating to my somewhat chaotic schedule. They understand that I have to go six months of the year without riding my bike and they're totally cool with that. It's a cool family to be a part of. It's a pretty small crew. Everyone knows everyone and it feels like a big family, which is really cool. Pretty grateful and excited to be a part of it and glad that Kelsey dragged me to that yoga and all girl's bike ride a couple of years ago.
When did you move to Whistler? Why do you like living there?Brittany Phelan:
The biggest reason about why I moved to Whistler was because most of the ski cross team is based out of there. When I switched from alpine skiing in 2015 to ski cross, I moved from Calgary, where I'd been living for about 10 years with the Alpine team, to Whistler. I thought I was a pretty good bike rider, and then I showed up at Whistler, and I was like, "Wow, this is a little different." It took about a year or two with a lot of crashing, and a lot of trial and error to get comfy on Whistler trails. Now I absolutely love it. Every time I come back to Whistler from a ski trip or from a training camp, I'm just so happy when I pull into Whistler. I mean it's the bike hub of the world. So if you're a bike rider it's the best place.
And my best friend and teammate Kelsey lives there and most of the team. And we have our training facility there so everything's right there. I don't have to drive anywhere, and there's no shortage of people to go riding with. And yeah, just the best trails in the world.
How much time, in a typical year, are you on the road?Brittany Phelan:
Probably about nine months, I'd say, between skiing and biking. My boyfriend and I live in Whistler together, but we only hold rent for six months of the year in Whistler because he's a ski guide in the Monashees. So on a similar schedule to me, living up the lodge in the winter. Then during the summer then it's traveling for ski camps, and traveling for bike races. So I'm actually not in Whistler that much. It'd be interesting to add up the days. I try to take advantage of every day I'm home and I really try to appreciate it. But I love being on the road. I love traveling, I love being on the move, and doing different stuff.
I feel pretty fortunate to be able to travel for both, the two sports that I love most. I know it's not going to always be like this, so I'm truly trying to appreciate all these opportunities and all these races, and pretty much everything I do with skiing and biking.
What tips do you have for being on the road, food, jet lag, etc.? What have you learned?Brittany Phelan:
Sleep when you can. If you're on the plane, sleep. If you're in a car ride, sleep. For me it's like I can't get enough sleep, and I know I'm going to have times where it's just so crazy that whenever you can chill, chill. And a neck pillow. Neck pillows are key. The greatest, whatever, $40 or however much they are, money you'll ever spend.
Another thing, Bose sleep pods. They play white noise. Often as a team you're going to have roommates in your room. And some people are louder than others when they sleep. So these little sleep pods play white noise all night and it's like the greatest thing.
Snacks for traveling too. It's always good to have a bar or two.
And how do you manage that nutrition? How do you manage in all these different countries throughout the year?Brittany Phelan:
I've been a vegetarian for a number of years, so sometimes that can get complicated depending on where you are in Europe. Like in Austria they're not super into that vegetarian lifestyle. So I travel with supplements. I take a multivitamin every day. Iron supplement too, just being a vegetarian sometimes on the road it's hard to get enough iron. Vitamin D too, just in the winter time. Being fully covered, helmet on, probably a face mask, you're outside but you're not getting much sunlight. So I take a few supplements like that. And then, of course, I travel with a protein powder too, just in case. Sometimes on the road, if you're a vegetarian you're getting plain pasta. We have a few places that are notoriously just not awesome food. We just try to eat as healthy as possible. But I try to be pretty easy about it too because I don't want to be stressing about "I'm not going to do well the race because I don't have, you know, whatever pre-race meal."
Sometimes we're staying in these less than ideal places and you just have to go with the flow and just try to make whatever the situation is that you're in work. So I try to have all these snacks with me. And Kelsey is actually sponsored by a protein bar company so I just steal those.
Or we'll have long travel days and where you're eating road food and it's not awesome. But yeah, in the summer when we're home, we always eat as healthy as possible and yeah, you just manage it as well as you can, and if it's not perfect, don't freak out about it.
So what's your favorite place you've ever raced? Biking and skiing?Brittany Phelan:
Biking, Whistler because it's my home trails and it's just so cool having the whole Juliana team there. And for me to be able to show them all the trails and Whistler life. And then for skiing, I would probably say Blue Mountain, Ontario. We had a World Cup there this year, and two years ago. We have one Canadian stop every year and it swaps between Nakiska, Alberta or Blue Mountain, Ontario. And we have a lot of ski racers that come out of the Collingwood area so we always have a lot of kids that come to this race and all the corporate sponsors from Toronto.
So, everyone comes there to see the Canadian team - there are seven or eight of us. We have thousands of people that just come to watch us race. And the hills really good too. For Ski Cross, we don't need these huge gnarly hills. It's kind of like flatter is better so we can build big jumps and stuff. It's always a really good course, really fun, and yeah, just to have that Canadian home crowd. Whereas Nakiska is also a really fun race, fun home race, but it's kind of a bit out there so people don't make the track as much, I want to say. So yeah, Blue Mountain for ski racing.
How long have you been a professional athlete and what's your favorite part about the profession? Brittany Phelan:
My whole life pretty much. I made the Alpine National Team when I was 15 and yeah, that's all I've done my whole life and yeah. I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. I think I just really like the opportunity to solely focus on getting better at something every day and to see the progression. I think a lot of professions, and a lot of jobs out there, you kind of just go through the motions, and you can kind of just coast. But yeah, in skiing I've been working on it my whole life and there's still so much to learn every single day and that's really cool. Just to be working on this one thing your whole life and knowing that you're never going to be perfect at it and there's always something to learn is pretty cool.
It's really the same in biking. It's just seeing that progress, and always having something to strive for, always something to work for. Yeah, it's really cool. And just that instant feedback, right? If you fall you know you did something wrong. If you're slow, you're doing something wrong. And it's like this huge puzzle, and there are so many pieces. It's like this ongoing puzzle that you're always trying to get a little closer to completing.
What is your least favourite part of being a professional athlete?Brittany Phelan:
Least favorite part? I mean, as bad as it sounds, probably sponsor events and stuff, and just having to give more of my time than I'd like to doing things that are necessary with the job, and go hand in hand with it, and finance it really. But yeah, just crazy travel days, and events that kind of take away from me progressing myself in my sport. But at the same time very thankful for all the support. And that people value me enough to have me go to these events and stuff. But yeah, I guess just going from pre-Olympic results and post-Olympic result, there's a lot more of that. I don't like the whole aspect of, not selling yourself but you know, kind of putting yourself out there. You're your own business really, and yourself is your business. So, I don't really like that part. I don't like any of the brown nosing, for lack of a better word, right? I try to be as honest to myself as possible and just be 100% me. And not seek out anything that I don't 100% have a strong affinity for.
Who are some of the athletes that you look up to most?Brittany Phelan:
The number one athlete look up to most is my best friend and teammate, Kelsey Serwa. She has an unreal work ethic in everything she does. She's in school right now for Human Kinetics. She did a fall semester last year and I was like, "Hey, can I call you?" And she was like, "No, I'm studying." I was like, "Okay, can I call you in an hour?" She's like, "No, I have an exam in three days." I was like, "So I can call you like after that?" She's like, "Yeah." I was like, "Okay." I think she got a 98% average. In anything she does, she applies herself 100%, and for me to be able to have seen that leading up to the Olympics made me try to work as hard as she did.
And she's just a very solid, real person too. She probably is the most successful Ski Cross athlete of all time. She's the only athlete to have to two Olympic medals, and she's been a World Champion, and won God knows how many races and stuff, and she's still just such a normal person, super modest. If you met her she'd never talk about herself or anything, so I really admire that.
Another is hometown boy Eric Guay from Mont-Tremblant. He recently retired but he's the most successful Alpine Skier from Canada. He was always around when I was a little kid, and he'd always come to the local ski club and hang out with all the kids, and sign autographs, sign helmets, and stuff... It was cool to have this dream, and see that it was possible being from where I was, and just seeing that it wasn't this crazy... He wasn't this guy that was not relatable. He showed the progression of how to make your dream come true.
And so, it was always like a very obvious path for me.
What's your favorite thing to you outside of sports?Brittany Phelan:
Outside of sports? That's tough... Outside of racing my favorite thing to do is sports. My family still lives in Quebec and Mont-Tremblant. So, if I do have time off, like during Christmas, I always go home to Mont-Tremblant, or my boyfriend's family who lives in Ontario. So I really cherish those chill days when I just get to spend time with my family and not skiing or biking. If I'm not working on skiing or biking, I'm spending time with my family.
So what do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a professional Ski Cross racer?Brittany Phelan:
A professional biker? I grew up in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec being a skier obviously, and moved out west and got into biking. I have this feeling that if I was born and raised in Whistler, I might just be solely a biker because skiing has a lot of great days, but a lot of weather days skiing are absolutely horrible. Like flat light when you're trying to train or it's freezing out and you're just out in race boots. Anyone who race boots knows that they're not the most comfortable thing to spend half your life in. Whereas, biking, even if it's pouring rain or it's cold, you just bike faster, you wear more layers, and you slide around in the mud. The worst weather days biking they seem to be a lot better than skiing.
Have you thought about what you want to do when you retire from being a professional athlete?Brittany Phelan:
I definitely want to stay in the industry, being skiing and biking. I want to stay with Juliana, with the brand, and hopefully do something there. But definitely for the first couple of years after I retire from ski racing I definitely want to coach because I have a ridiculous amount of experience, both on the Alpine side and Ski Cross side at this point, and a lot to give back. When I think back to the best coaches I've had they've been recent athletes out of the sport. The ones who are very current and kind of know what you're feeling, and just have a very current eye for things.
I've thought a bit about going into ski guiding, because I want to be skiing for the rest of my life. And the unfortunate thing about being a Ski Cross racer is that once you retire, you can't just be a recreational Ski Cross skier. I think it would be hard to just leave the sport 100%. I want to be outside on my bike and on my skis in some capacity.Follow Brittany Phelan on Instagram