For many racers, Sea Otter is the season kick-off--a time to shake off the cobwebs and switch back into competitive mode--but for Brittany Phelan, it was more of a victory lap after a career-best year that landed her on the world's most prestigious podium. The 26-year-old Juliana Bicycles' Free Agent racer is also a professional skier who won the Olympic silver medal in ski cross in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and wrapped up the World Cup season with a career-high ranking of third in the world.
After all the stress of training, traveling, racing, qualifying and ultimately landing on the world's most prestigious podium, one would think Phelan might retreat to her Whistler, British Columbia, home and stare at the wall for a few months. Not a chance, says Phelan.
"This is the first year in five years that I haven't been injured at the end of the ski season so I was very stressed at our last race this year. I was like, 'Don't mess this up, you're going to Sea Otter this year.' The past four years my plan was to go to Sea Otter so finally it's happening," Phelan said from Santa Cruz, where she spent the days before Sea Otter at a Juliana team camp.
Phelan, 26, thrives on competition, and feels fortunate to race year-round in two sports she loves so much. She suited up for the enduro, downhill and her first-ever dual slalom at Sea Otter, and plans to race as much as she can this summer alongside her Juliana Free Agent teammates, with her primary target being redemption at the Crankworx Whistler EWS, where a mechanical last year landed her in 17th place.
Although mountain biking definitely plays second fiddle to ski training and racing, Phelan's experience in the dirt is crucial to her success on the snow. She credits last summer's race season as a top factor in her winning the silver medal over the winter, having worked on her mental game by staying loose and relaxed on the bike and calming her nerves on-course, all techniques that translate to ski cross.
"It hasn't always been like this, but this year I loved being in the start gate. Sometimes if you're nervous, you have to remind yourself: This is what I love, and I honestly think you only have to be nervous if you don't know what you're doing. I prepare so much for every single race that there's never a doubt in my mind like, 'Oh did I do this properly, did I do that properly?'"
Phelan was born into a skiing family in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, and knew from an early age that she wanted to be an Olympian. Her dedication reaped quick rewards; at 15, she made the national alpine team and moved to Calgary to train with the team. It was there that Phelan picked up a mountain bike as a cross-training tool for skiing, and it was love at first ride.
"It always felt super similar to skiing for me, that's what I loved about it. I just loved being out in the mountains and you can go for a bike ride with a bunch of friends, or you can go on your own, you just never have a bad bike ride. We spent so many hours in the gym every day and I could kind of cope with that knowing that I was going to ride my bike later, so that was kind of my whole life," she says.
Her skiing kept progressing and she was named as an alternative athlete at the Vancouver Olympics then made the team four years later, competing in slalom in Sochi, Russia. At the time, she was ranked 30th in the world and finished with a strong 15th place. While it seemed like her career was poised to take off, Phelan, then 22, was already plotting a change in course. She told her parents the day after her Sochi race that she wanted to pursue ski cross, a discipline in which skiers descend side-by-side through courses marked by big-air jumps and banked turns.
"My parents and coach were like, 'Are you insane? You just did your first Olympics, you're just starting to get good results in the World Cup and now you want to completely switch sports?' Like any sport, there's a timeline to it and there's an end to it and I knew that every year that I was getting older was less chances for me to kind of be where I wanted to be. Once I saw what ski cross was--it only debuted at the Olympics in 2010--that's when I was intrigued by the sport. I felt like I had a lot of skills that would be better utilized in that sport than in slalom."
She compromised and focused on alpine skiing for one more year before a calf tear took her off the snow and into contemplation mode.
"Once that happened I had a lot of time to think and I was like, 'This is it.' I wasn't happy where I was anymore, knew every year that went by was less chance to make it in this new sport because it was going to take a lot of time and commitment to understand the sport fully and progress fully."
Phelan moved to Whistler, where the Canadian national ski cross team trains, and began working toward making the Pyeongchang Olympic team, which she went into ranked 4th in the world. She also continued mountain biking in the off-season and happened to meet Juliana athlete Sarah Leishman at a local event. Leishman took note of Phelan's talent, and was able to get her set up on a Juliana bike. Phelan scored a wild card into the Crankworx enduro, and signed up for a few other races in the Sea to Sky. In 2017, she entered the Cascadia Dirt Cup at Dry Hill the day before leaving for Europe for ski cross training camp, and nabbed her best results to-date: second place in both the enduro, finishing behind Jill Kintner, and the DH. Her decision to race her bike the day before fall camp leading up to the World Cup and an Olympic year certainly raised some eyebrows among her ski cross coaches, but it wasn't Phelan's style to take the conservative line.
"The pros outweighed the cons. I was riding really well, the race was close by, it was one last race weekend with my team before I left. If I get injured at these races, that's on me. It's a decision I made and I have to be OK with that," she says.
Aside from competing in an entirely different sport, Phelan is busy this spring doing the usual sorts of things Olympian medalists do when they get back home--media interviews, giving the commencement address at her old high school and fielding calls from reality tv show producers--but her focus won't stray from the next ski career benchmark for long. Beijing 2022 is on the horizon, and Phelan plans to be there.
"I got the wrong color, right? Gotta go back."