Unlike some of her peers, like Americans Simi Hamilton and Ida Sargent, Brittany Webster’s rise has not been meteoric. She’s never been on the podium at a major international race, and she has only contested four World Cups—all of which were in her home country of Canada. She doesn’t even have her own website like many of her compatriots—just a plain, infrequently updated blog on WordPress.
But of all the North American athletes competing in last year’s U-23 and Junior World Championships in Germany, guess who had the top distance result? Not Hamilton or Sargent. Instead, it was Webster, 23, whose fifth place in the 10 k classic left her just 30 seconds from a medal.
As she explains below, Webster struggled through the rest of the season, fighting off illness and anxiety. But her results over the past five years—four top-tens at the World Junior and U-23 Championships; numerous podiums at Canadian Nationals—have established her as one of Canada’s best hopes for the next decade. She caught up with FasterSkier about her last season, her new team, and Cross-Country Canada’s strategy for improving the results of its women.
FasterSkier: How has your training been going this year?
Brittany Webster: I switched teams [from the Canadian National Development Team to the Alberta World Cup Academy] in the springtime—I thought it was time for a change. I’ve been really happy with it. I haven’t really felt as tired as I have in the past—I’ve had good energy the whole time. That was sort of one of my goals—I’ve had a few bumps in the road, but overall I think it’s been going great. It always takes a little bit of time to get used to a new coach, but I think Mike [Cavaliere] and I work well together.
FS: Have you been doing anything differently from last year?
BW: There’s a lot of things. In terms of technique, I’ve been working a lot more on my skating. We had Peter Larsson, the Swedish skier, come out for about a week—he did some technique with us. That combined with Mike and [Coach] Chris Jeffries’ effort—I feel like my skating’s been coming along quite well.
FS: What, specifically, have you been working on?
BW: I found that it was kind of funny when I was doing my offset [V1] technique. I was actually trying to get my power from the wrong side. If you’re offsetting on the left and you plant your poles and your leg on your left side—I was actually tying to jump off my left and using that side for power. Peter told me that was kind of backwards. I’ve had quite a bit of trouble climbing in the past few years since I broke my leg, [and] I found that actually made quite a big difference in my ability to climb. I would have a lot more power for a longer period of time.
The other thing, too, was always finding ways to bring my hips forward and up—a big thing Chris and Mike have been working on with me is throwing my hands up way higher, and putting my hands up on top of my poles. I found that was quite a big difference as well. It’s just little things, but as a skier, it takes so long to break habits. Focusing on those two things has my mind stirring during workouts.
FS: I hear you’re a pretty avid trainer—what kind of hours are you doing this year?
BW: I’m on about a 700-hour plan. I had a couple bumps in the road in the springtime. When I get sort of overtired and overtrained, just sort of on the edge, I get this feeling like my world is spinning. Instead of being able to sleep more and being more tired, my whole nervous system gets so spun that I have trouble controlling that, and everything kind of goes out of control. We’ve been training hard up until that point, and monitoring that, and if it hasn’t gone away then we shut down. I found that…it’s a very individualized program, but that’s been the key with me, in terms of my training—being able to watch that. That’s how my training has been based the whole summer, and it made a huge difference. I thought I was the only one who had that going on [the response to overtraining], but a lot of people do–some people shut down, and some people get spun and really energized. It depends on the person.
FS: While we’re on the topic of training—I know this is a bit of a non-sequitur, but I heard an interesting story from back when you broke your leg in 2008—it sounded like you came up with some fairly interesting ways to stay in shape?
BW: Definitely. I look back and I have to laugh now. I definitely would take it a lot differently [now]—I would not do the same things I did then. My recovery process, because of it, was just epic.
I decided, in order to get a workout, that it was probably best—this was before I could even crutch around—I would sit in my wheelchair and try to go around the neighborhood. I decided I really liked climbing hills in my wheelchair, and one day I went down this massive hill, and I got stuck and I couldn’t get back up. I crutched back up to the top, left my wheelchair, got back to my house and told [my roommates] to go fetch it. It turns out someone had taken the wheelchair, and returned it to the lady I rented it from.
As soon as I could crutch properly, I took to taking walks around with my crutches. There’s a big hill next to me that’s called Silver Tip Road. It takes 10 minutes to bike up. I decided I would take to crutching up the hill some days, so I did that once or twice a week, if I felt like it. I used double-poling machines; Dan Roycroft had a double-poling machine with a TV that he set up in front of it. I’m pretty inventive with my workouts—I’ve had my fair share of injuries, but I’ve always ended up figuring out how to get around things.
My motto was kind of train harder, and all the time. Everybody kept telling me, ‘it’s going to catch up you’—it took me to break my leg [to realize that]. I
kept improving for four years, and then I got tired. I was on crutches for 11-and-a-half months. I couldn’t walk, because my leg wasn’t healing. It happens to quite a few people with tibial fractures—you get non-union, and mine was because I was overstressing it. I’ve definitely learned—I would probably go take a holiday now instead, or submerse myself into a university environment for a year. I’ve learned that you can come back from this sort of stuff, but the less patient you are, the more time it’s going to take.
FS: Do you know what kind of a schedule you’re going to be racing this year?
BW: Last year was my last year of U-23. I’m kind of sad to wave it goodbye, but I’m looking forward to being able to compete a little more on the World Cup. I think it will be good for me to race domestically for the first part of the season. After Christmas, we have World Championships trials in Thunder Bay—my plan is that if all goes well, I will qualify for those and hopefully race well, and I’m hoping that will kick me onto the World Cup for the rest of the season. If I’m in good shape, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be there, so that’s the plan.
FS: Can you talk about your last season a little bit? You had those pretty solid results at U-23’s.
BW: Looking back on the season, I had some stellar races and some not-so-stellar races—pretty inconsistent, and that’s not something I wanted. But I can attribute that to sickness and anxiety I’ve been dealing with. Basically, there wasn’t one week where I was sleeping well and stuff—I basically had to narrow my focus down to a few specific races. My goal was to try to qualify for the Olympics, and I knew I had to race well at trials and perform well at U-23s. I was lucky, because I wasn’t in great form at the beginning of the season, but I kicked it up a notch from the 30 k trials, and my shape seemed to hold for a couple months. I had some good racing in those periods, even though I was sick half the time and not sleeping half the time. I was really happy with my performance, given I was going through that at the same time. With [a] top five or six at U-23s, I can’t be too critical of the season.
FS: I know the Olympics were pretty tough for you [Webster made the team, but never ended up starting a race in Vancouver]—are there some lessons you were able to draw from the experience?
BW: There’s definitely a bunch of things that I took from that. You probably heard that I got quite sick at the Olympics, as per usual. I was sort of battling that, and it made me realize who was there for you. My parents and my sister were there, and they couldn’t have been happier to just spend time with me at the Olympics. It really made me realize how crucial those people are…They couldn’t care whether I raced, or whether I didn’t—they just wanted to be there for me.
I went over [to Whistler, and] I was sort of kicked out when I got sick—I was expected to fly back home. I sort of thought a smarter decision, from the athlete’s perspective, would have been to stay in Whistler, but of course, they didn’t want me around the athletes. I decided, while I was getting better, to stay with my parents—it wasn’t a great decision in the end, but they were happy just to have me.
I also realized how much people had control over my life, and [how] a lot of my skiing for the last few years was revolving around other peoples’ expectations. I started skiing for other people, and it felt like my life revolved around results—and if I wasn’t skiing fast, it would be the end of the world. That led to me trying to take matters into my own hands after the Olympics. After the coaches decided I couldn’t race, I was like, ‘I want to be able to control my life again,’ and that was starting with me controlling my own environment—switching to Alberta World Cup Academy.
FS: I know Cross-Country Canada is making an effort to develop strong female skiers with their Female Talent Squad. You’ve been one of their most successful young women, especially in distance. What do you think of the initiative they’ve been pushing?
BW: I think that is really great. I’m one of the mentors for the Female Talent Squad—it’s just so fun to be with younger girls and talk about your life, and the trials and tribulations of being an athlete. They’re so keen and so interested. When I look back on being that young—if I had a national team athlete that I could go and e-mail and ask for advice whenever I wanted, that would have helped me make some critical decisions. I think it’s really important to have something like that. We kind of forget that maybe to some people we are a bit intimidating—it’s great to have contact with these people and for them to know that we’re human.
FS: Is the Female Talent Squad enough? What else does Canada have to do to develop more fast women?
BW: I think the next part is that once those girls get there and are dedicated, hopefully we can spur on some desire in them to keep them in the sport. That’s what we need—the more women we can get in the sport, the better. After that is just making sure we keep a European tour going for juniors and U-23’s, and always taking a full team of women. It’s the experience—racing in Europe is way different than racing in Canada. It’s a big jump that people need the opportunity to get. That’s the second step, to have the opportunity, and to know that the teams are always going to be full.
FS: Was that European experience crucial for you?
BW: For sure. My first year at World Juniors, I went to Europe and it was a different scene of racing. In Canada, there’s only a few women that can push you, but in Europe, you’re still 20th, even though you know you’re going as fast as you possibly can. That really helped—just experiencing the fact that you have to push and dig the whole time. Also [it gave] my parents a little bit of perspective. They weren’t so keen on my being a full-time skier and going to a training center, but that helped them to realize, ‘oh, this is important to you; you have the potential, and you’ve already raced in Europe.’ It gives that more elite status than just racing domestically.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.