When the NorAm season began in Canmore, Alberta, a few months ago, one name jumped out on results as a bit of a surprise. The first race of the year can always produce unexpected performances, but the winner of the women’s 10 k classic was exceptionally so. Brittany Webster, a 25-year-old former Canadian national team member, was winning races again just a year after she’d practically quit the sport.
“I would say I’m surprised,” Webster said in a phone interview in December. “I wouldn’t have expected to come in and start winning NorAms, no.”
The story of Webster’s return to the top of results sheets, if not improbable, is certainly unconventional. It took quitting the sport for her to find a new way to love it; a change in perspective she thinks of as critical to the reignition of her career.
“I came back with a new perspective on training this year: to love the opportunity of being able to ski race in a world that is so fun,” Webster said. “The life of an athlete is great.”
Rewind to her last race of 2011, when at 24 years old the Toronto, Ont., native was burnt out. Webster had gone from posting top-fives at World U23 Championships to skiing inconsistently at the NorAm level. After five years on the national team, the pressure she put on herself to get results had leeched the fun out competing, and her racing suffered.
“I just found that the more pressure I put on myself, the less I actually raced fast,” Webster said. “My results were dismal because I think I was ready to quit.”
And so, just a year after moving to Canmore to train with the Alberta World Cup Academy, Webster took a step back. She got a job, started racing mountain bikes for fun and sought a new way to define herself.
“I just really needed to step away from it to be able to grasp the fact that no, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t my whole life,” Webster explained. “[Skiing] is just something I love to do.”
Still, she didn’t leave the sport behind entirely. The following winter Academy coaches Mike Cavaliere and Chris Jeffries asked Webster if she would come to races to help test skis. She agreed, and it was from the sidelines watching others compete that she realized how much she missed it.
“What really got me was standing on the side of the course and watching everybody else race,” Webster recalled. “And just seeing how much — like, as a racer you can make it into a big deal, but it’s really just fun. All you do, these girls are standing at the start line with a guy who’s timing them, you ski a little loop, and you just go as hard as you can. And I saw that and I was like, ‘Man, if you love skiing it’s so much fun.’ It was just this racing aspect that I needed to get over.”
Another part of Webster’s inspiration was seeing the joy one particular American brought to the racecourse.
“Jessie Diggins was racing [NorAms] at that time and she kind of reminded me of when I was a junior,” Webster said. “She was so sparky; she’d get on the start line and then she’d just go. If she’d been leading by a minute she’d want to lead by two minutes, and it brought back a lot of memories and inspiration to go forward and take that with me.”
Motivated once more, Webster began training again in earnest this past summer. She encountered roadblocks, however, and wasn’t able to do as much as she would have liked. When she started rollerskiing, a metal rod in her leg from an old surgery began to cause uncomfortable bone bruising. Her training was suddenly limited to road biking.
In October Webster underwent surgery to remove the rod, which solved the bruising problem in the long run but put her completely out for another month with only weeks to go to the first race. After a solid four weeks of physical therapy at home in Ontario, Webster returned to Canmore to cram for the season.
“It was fast. From that point in time — late October until the race season started — I just trained really hard.”
In her first month back Webster put in 18- to 20-hour weeks for five weeks in a row. With little time to get herself into race shape before the first NorAm, she had to be extremely efficient with her training.
“If I had two hours on my program I didn’t have any time to waste, so it’s not like I would be out there with my heart rate at 115 the whole time. I’d be working on technique and trying to get things back and working on my left leg, to get it as strong as my right leg,” she said.
Out of necessity as much as preference, she trained mostly on her own. Webster would occasionally join the Academy skiers on workouts but wasn’t officially part of the team. After her surgery Webster needed to stick with her own program, something that was easier done solo.
“Training partners definitely help the time go fast and push you in intensity, but if you’re by yourself the pluses are you can focus a little more,” Webster said. “You can ski at the pace you need to ski at, not slower or faster. And same with intensity; a lot of it was building intensity in zone three, and if you’re doing that with other people it’s kind of hard, because you want to get competitive and push the limits a little bit.”
Whatever it was about her unusual program, it worked. At the Canmore NorAm the first weekend in December, Webster won the 10 k classic by 21 seconds over Japan’s Chisa Obayashi and 28 seconds over the next Canadian, Amanda Ammar. She won the 10 k classic the first day at Sovereign Lake the next weekend and was second the following day to Emily Nishikawa. The results earned her start rights for the Canmore World Cups, where she was 38th in the mass start 10 k classic. Not bad for someone who hadn’t competed much the year before and had surgery in October.
She got sick the night before the Canmore skiathlon and had to skip it, but learned a lot from the one World Cup start.
“The World Cups gave me exactly what I was looking for and felt like I was missing in my racing — really, really skiing to your utmost abilities,” Webster said. “One second in a World Cup generally gives you one placing. It’s tight. So I just took this race as a great reminder of where I want to be, and it showed me exactly how to get there. Ski for every second.”
Like everyone this season Webster’s primary goal is to make Canada’s World Championships team. The team will be announced in late January based on results from Thunder Bay earlier this month and from Duntroon on January 26 and 27. Webster was fourth and fifth in the distance races at Thunder Bay, which alone is likely not enough for a spot on the team, but an outstanding result in Duntroon could get her to Val di Fiemme. And if it doesn’t, Webster said it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“If I make it, that’s spectacular, and if I don’t make it then it’s another opportunity to keep going for that NorAm spot [on the World Cup],” Webster said. “Another thing I’m going to try to implement now that I’ve gotten accustomed to racing is just try to train more throughout the race season. I lost a lot of time this training season.”
Ultimately, Webster has her sights set on a year from now. “You’re looking forward,” she said. “It’s not just this year. The following year is the Olympics.”