By Jamie Organski
They say the resilient spirit of the Adirondacks has a way of seeping into one’s veins, and that certainly is the case for professional biathlete and environmental activist Maddie Phaneuf.
After moving to Old Forge with her family in 2003, Phaneuf competed in Nordic ski competitions until she was introduced to the sport of biathlon at age 15 at McCauley Mountain. Following her high school graduation in 2013, Phaneuf relocated to Maine where she joined the Junior World Championships Team. Phaneuf was then nominated to the US Biathlon National X Team in 2014, relocated to Lake Placid and trained in the Olympic Training Center until 2018 when she qualified for Olympic Team USA.
As she reflects on the past several years of her journey, Phaneuf said one of her most memorable moments is her first international competition, the Junior World Championships in Presque Isle, Maine, in 2014.
“I hit all 10 out of 10 targets and placed fourth,” Phaneuf said. “That was the first time I ever thought, ‘Wow, I deserve to be here and can compete with the best in the world.’”
Far and away, the most surreal experience of her life was when she received word that she would be representing Team USA in the 2018 Winter Olympics, she said.
“During the Opening Ceremonies [was] when it hit me that I was actually at the Olympics,” she said. “It was amazing to see all of the locals and businesses supporting me throughout the Olympics. I’d like to thank everyone who supported me through words of encouragement, donations or sponsorships.”
Her parents, Joe and Janine Phaneuf, are also grateful for the support. “It was a bit overwhelming, to be honest. The outpouring of good wishes and excitement was incredible. Community pride was at a high during that time. Maddie carried forward Old Forge’s Olympic tradition, joining locals Louie Ehrensbeck and Hank Kashiwa to represent our country at the Winter Olympic Games. She’s extremely proud to be part of that select company,” said Janine Phaneuf.
The importance of positive mental health
Following the Winter Olympic Games, Phaneuf took a year off from racing and moved to Boulder, Colorado, relishing a chance to live a “normal life,” and enjoy a mental and physical hiatus. Phaneuf shared that she has experienced mental health challenges for much of her life, and even though she hasn’t figured it all out, she has made strides in the right direction.
“[My greatest challenge has been] dealing with the pressure I put on myself to be the best athlete I can be,” she said. “I found a lot of success in high school, and I realize now that I fed off of how winning made me feel. [Now I] realize how negative it is for my mental health to be basing my self worth off my results, [and] I have gotten better at recognizing that biathlon and racing doesn’t define who I am. Regardless of the result, I am worthy and should be proud of who I am.”
Following a period of rejuvenation and self-reflection, Phaneuf moved back to Lake Placid and joined NYSEF in the spring of 2019. Immersing herself in full-time training, she qualified for the IBU Cup race circuit that winter and rejoined the US Biathlon National Team this past summer.
“I raced at my first World Cup since the 2016-17 season, [and raced] consistently on the IBU Cup where I landed my first podium with a 3rd place finish,” she said.
A longstanding outdoor enthusiast and activist, Phaneuf has been a supporter of environmental sustainability, most notably with her involvement in the nonprofit organization, Protect Our Winters (POW). In April 2018, Phaneuf, alongside fellow Team USA Winter Olympians, addressed Congress about the negative impacts of climate change. This event served as Phaneuf’s first lobbying experience and further ignited her passion in fighting to protect the environment.
“I wanted to use my voice for something that would make a difference, [and] I turned to environmental sustainability because climate change affects everybody, including myself and my sport,” she said.
What does the future look like for winter sports,
with annual snowfall amounts falling across the Adirondacks?
Maddie Phaneuf weighs in, in this recent article by Explorer editor Brandon Loomis
Phaneuf has certainly earned the title of role model among youth in the Old Forge community and beyond. Phaneuf said the most vital piece of advice she can share with young people is to always be confident in being yourself.
“Try to do your own thing and not worry about what other people think of you,” she said. “Especially during your younger years, it’s important to explore and do things you truly are passionate about. Don’t worry if it’s not the ‘cool’ thing to do. If a certain hobby, sport or activity brings you joy, go do that!”
Phaneuf is currently living and training in Lake Placid, adding she looks forward to doing as much adventuring and relaxing as possible during her “off months” of March and April before once again diving into full-time training in May. Those who wish to keep tabs on Phaneuf’s training, traveling, competitions, activism and other updates, are encouraged to visit www.maddiephaneuf.com.