Young and empowered. Twenty-three-old Maddie Phaneuf, a 2018 Olympic biathlete and member of the US Biathlon’s national team, has been finding her voice this short offseason as she lobbied members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on April 25. Phaneuf, along with 2018 U.S. Winter Olympians Jessie Diggins, Arielle Gold (snowboarding), David Wise (freestyle skiing), and Stacey Cook (alpine skiing), spoke in D.C. on behalf of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Protect Our Winters (POW).
“I have been working with POW for about a year now,” Phaneuf explained on the phone on April 24. “I have been helping them out as a winter-sports athlete giving presentations to schools and teaching kids about climate change and its impact.”
Phaneuf may have been destined for winter sports, but until the age of 8, her life was a snow-void. Phaneuf was born in Virginia and spent her early childhood in South Carolina. Her limited exposure to snow consisted of a single freak snowfall where the snow melted within a day. Fortunately for US Biathlon, Phaneuf said her father wanted his children to experience the full spectrum of the seasons and relocated the family to Old Forge, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains.
“The whole town is really into skiing, whether it be downhill or nordic,” Phaneuf said of Old Forge, where her parents still reside. “So my parents wanted us to get into that because it would be a great way to experience winter in the Adirondacks, and for us kids to stay active.”
Nominated to US Biathlon’s X-Team in 2014, Phaneuf climbed the ranks and to reach A-team status last season. Last month, she was named to the B-team, part of the US Biathlon’s top-tier High Performance Team. While continuing to train and race with the national team, she planned to move from Lake Placid, N.Y., to her new training base in Boulder, Colorado, this summer.
New York’s North Country, where Old Forge is located, is a reliably conservative region. At least on electoral maps, the politics can skew towards an anti-climate-change perspective. However, Phaneuf said she has felt backed by Old Forge as she explains her point of view to others.
“My hometown is very supportive of me,” Phaneuf said. “I went into the local school and they were excited to learn about my climate-change presentation. But I am sure there are parents that don’t necessarily agree with what I am saying, but they are not going after me.”
Politics and athletics can be a non-starter for athletes. Being outspoken about a cause, in particular, one as divisive as climate change, can alienate an athlete — especially on social media. But Phaneuf has used the resilience she has developed in the fickle sport of biathlon to weather the storm and move forward with her activism.
Phaneuf admits she is still learning how to navigate the potential minefield of exercising her free speech. This past February, Phaneuf penned an op-ed piece for Syracuse.com, expressing her belief that change must be enacted to save winter, and by extension, our ability to sustain the winter sport economic engine and way of life in places like the North Country.
Phaneuf was eventually alerted to the many negative comments her piece received when she posted it on her personal Facebook page.
“I went to the article and 90% of the comments were bashing me,” Phaneuf explained. “Saying I am too young, I have never experienced anything — what am I talking about? Not even bashing climate change but bashing me personally … When I shared the climate-change article I wrote, one guy replied something like, ‘What’s up? You are not posting things about the Olympics. This is bullshit. I don’t want to read this. I want to follow you.’ I replied, ‘OK, the Olympics are over. It’s my offseason. I think it is irrelevant to post things about the Olympics right now because we aren’t there. And I want to show my followers what I do in my free time. Just because you are an athlete doesn’t mean you can only post about training and racing.”
Phaneuf recognizes that her Olympic-team nomination has given her more exposure. She said her Facebook page went from 1,000 to 4,000 likes during the 2018 Olympics in February. As she had matured, Phaneuf explained she’s become wiser when it comes to engaging detractors.
“I have been trying better than in the past,” Phaneuf said. “In the past, I would reply to all the comments kind of aggressively, like ‘what do you mean?’ But now I take a step back and simply read the comments. I understand everyone on the internet is human and all have their own opinion. I just try to not respond unless they are trying to put words in my mouth or saying other things about me, then I will respond and clarify the facts in a respectful way.”
The halls of Congress, on most days, are not the wild west of internet commenting. The tone is soberer. There is the understanding that change comes about from the steady persistence of advocacy, lobbying and voting at the ballot box.
Two weeks ago in D.C., the talking points for Phaneuf and the other athletes present were clear They were to speak about the following: What impacts have they witnessed regarding climate change? How is climate change impacting their sport? How might climate change impact future Winter Olympics?
The athletes also spoke of the regional economic boost snow availability brings certain regions across the U.S. (POW and Citizens’ Climate Lobby cite that in New York alone, the outdoor-recreation economy contributes $41.8 billion dollars and provides 313,000 jobs.)
The Congressional briefing was a bipartisan event sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and Senator Susan Collins of Maine. The athletes also met with Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Phaneuf’s district in New York, Congressman Scott Tipton of Colorado, and Congressman Mark Amodei of Nevada.
“It was good,” Phaneuf said on April 26, the day after her D.C. experience. “I was definitely nervous going into it. I had never been in the position of talking directly to congresspeople or senators. They definitely heard our message. It was definitely more chill than I expected it to be. I was afraid it was going to be judgmental and scary. … The biggest part of our day was simply talking about our own experiences with climate change. And not getting too much into the politics.”
Although Phaneuf has chosen to emulate a long line of athlete activist, her biathlon career remains a priority as she transitions from upstate New York and her residency at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center to her new base in Boulder.
Phaneuf’s B-Team status comes on the heels of what she calls her “worst season ever”. Although qualifying for Olympics, Phaneuf said she struggled before the Olympics and spent her time in PyeongChang, South Korea, bedridden.
“I struggled a lot with fitness last summer and lost tons of training,” Phaneuf said of the start to her 2017/2018 racing season. “Then I didn’t make the World Cup team in the first period, and then I made the IBU Cup team, but was not performing well and barely made the Olympic team. [In PyeongChang] I got sick the day of my first race and got strep throat and a virus on top of that. I was totally out for two weeks. Being at the Olympics and being around that atmosphere and being so close to racing — having that stripped away from me, made we want to figure how to get better at training and do a lifestyle change. This is why I am moving to Boulder.”
A new training season has begun for Phaneuf. In the meantime, she’ll be juggling her sport with her more seasoned political voice.
“I don’t think I have ever voted in midterm elections,” Phaneuf said of the midterm elections set for this November. “I don’t think I ever thought of it as a big deal. So we are are trying to get the word out because it is a big deal. We want to elect people who will actually listen to us.”