November 2016 - ATHLETE PROFILE
By Alex Kochon
Family: Janine and Joe (parents),
Matt (25), Sam (24), Olivia (18)
Residence: Lake Placid
Occupation: Professional Biathlete
Primary Sport: Biathlon
Secondary Sport: Rock Climbing
There’s a running theme when you talk to Madeleine (Maddie) Phaneuf, a 21-year-old US Biathlon ‘A’ team member, about her ski career so far. It grew out of her desire to never want to lose, it fueled her to fourth place in her first international race two years ago, and three top ten finishes at Junior World Championships last January.
She caught the bug as an eighth grader on the varsity Nordic team in Old Forge. Maddie recalled being one of the two best skiers on the high school circuit that year. The other was a senior. “I just remember having so much motivation to want to beat the senior because she was so much older than me,” she said. That year, in eighth grade, Maddie won her first sectional title. “That was motivation to want to never be beat again in our high school circuit,” she said.
She racked up four more Section 3 titles in grades 9, 10, 11 and 12, and never lost another race until her senior year. “That’s when I was like, ‘Man, skiing is really awesome when you can win!’” she said with a laugh. “I was just so competitive, I didn’t want to lose.”
Soon after trying biathlon at age 15, she realized that the lower level of participation in that sport – which combines cross country skiing with target shooting – improved her chances of winning. But shooting gave her some trouble. “I actually kind of hated it because I was so bad,” she said. “My very first biathlon race I missed, like, 18 out of 20 shots, so I had to do 18 penalty loops and I was dead last, and I just remember being so sad that I was at the end of the results rather than the top.”
Rather than quit, she committed to working her way back up. “By the time I was a senior in high school, I was mostly focused on biathlon races,” she explained. “I was trying to qualify for the Biathlon Junior World Championships that year and then I didn’t make the team. I missed it by only 1% back, so that’s when the motivation kicked in even more to want to make that team, because I just didn’t like to be the one who doesn’t make her goal.”
Maddie wasn’t necessarily born with an aptitude for winter sports. Born in Virginia, she spent most of her early childhood in South Carolina, where her parents moved to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Washington D.C. area. When she was eight, her family, including her two older brothers and younger sister, moved north to Old Forge in the Adirondacks. The Phaneufs wanted their children to experience four seasons. “In South Carolina, it snowed once when I was there and it was maybe, like, half an inch,” Maddie recalled.
Her dad, Joe, took a job with the Northeastern Loggers’ Association, where he still works as executive director. Her mom, Janine, is a teacher’s aide at the elementary and high schools, town crossing guard, and local Bill Koch You Ski League coach.
Thinking back to her first winter in Old Forge, Maddie remembered an incredible amount of snow. “In a photo of one of my first Bill Koch races, I’m wearing snow pants, huge puffy coat, hat, buff, mittens, just like totally bundled and probably freezing,” she said with a laugh. “But I remember being so in awe of the snow; there’s so much of this stuff.”
Snow would become her livelihood, as Maddie made the jump to skiing full-time upon graduating high school in 2013. She moved to the northeastern tip of Maine to join the Maine Winter Sports Center elite biathlon team. “I didn’t want to give up on that goal of mine,” she said of her resolution to reach the Biathlon World Championships.
To do so, Maddie decided to drop everything but biathlon. She was a three-season athlete, competing in cross country running, soccer, cross country skiing, biathlon, and track in high school – and she worked in the summer. Maddie was unsure what to study in college, so she hoped a year of concentrating on one sport would help her realize her potential. “I figured that was the perfect time to see where I was at with biathlon, and if I actually put 100% of my energy towards it,” she said.
In her first season with the MWSC, she qualified for 2014 Youth World Championships at her “home” course in Presque Isle, Maine. There, she placed fourth with perfect shooting, hitting ten of ten targets in the 6K sprint. “It’s so crazy, that was my very first international race and I shot clean for the very first time in an event,” she recalled. “Coming into the Youth/Junior World Championships I was definitely nervous and also really excited, and I remember being like, ‘OK, this is your first race. No one is expecting you to win… Just do what you know you can do.’”
She started by hitting all five targets on her first shooting stage – prone, where racers lie on their stomach and aim at five targets 50 meters away. Great, she thought, ‘I’m going to have a good race because I can’t really mess up that much.’ One lap later, she was back in the range for the standing stage, where she faced windy conditions. After a few deep breaths and positive self-talk, she hit all five targets again. “I thought, ‘Oh my, that’s awesome! I don’t think I’ve ever done that before,’” she laughed. On the final lap, her coaches and teammates called out that she was in third place. She couldn’t believe it. Maddie finished fourth, and her result stood.
To this day, it’s her career best at a youth or junior world championship – she’s been to three, total. “Everyone was hugging me and taking my photo. All the local news sources were interviewing me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’” she said. “I was so nervous to talk to people, like, ‘Yeah, it was a really good race, I just didn’t want to get last place!’”
Following those world championship races, Maddie sat down with her parents. Up to that point, she hadn’t been sure about continuing biathlon. “My parents were like, ‘Look, obviously you did really well. We’re really happy for you. If this is something you want to keep doing and pursue, that’s totally fine, we’ll support you,’” she recalled. “‘You don’t have to rush into college if you don’t know what you want to study. You just do what you want to do; you’re never going to have this opportunity again.’”
In the months that followed, Maddie was named to US Biathlon’s brand-new ‘X’ team, a development group. She stuck with the MWSC while living and training with the national team at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. “That was definitely a turning point, just realizing where biathlon could take me and having all these opportunities,” she said. “It was a really interesting first-year as a biathlete.”
After two years on the ‘X’ team, Maddie was named to the US Biathlon’s ‘A’ team this spring. “My season went surprisingly well,” she said of last winter. As a second-year junior, she notched her best International Biathlon Union Cup results – one tier below the World Cup: 14th, 19th and 21st. She qualified for 2016 Junior World Championships in Romania, where she placed fifth, seventh and ninth.
“I definitely expected to be named to the national team again. I just assumed I’d be named to the ‘X’ team for a third year,” said Maddie, now a first-year senior. “But when I saw I was named to the ‘A’ team, I was so surprised and also pretty happy… Just having more opportunities to train with the ‘A’ team women and more chances to go to cool camps… It was definitely a really exciting difference this season!”
Maddie’s coaching and team affiliations have changed slightly since her beginnings in the sport. After starting with Old Forge’s Polar Bear Biathlon Club, becoming a professional racer with the MWSC, and spending the last three years in Lake Placid, she will once again represent the Polar Bears when she’s not wearing the colors of Team USA – the MWSC changed its name and shifted its focus away from its elite ski teams.
US Biathlon development coach, Jean Paquet, and women’s coach, Jonne Kähkönen, are currently her main coaches. She credits her success in skiing to them as well as her first ski coach, Marie Birtle; high school coaches Bill Brooker and John Leach; Carl Klossner of the Polar Bear Biathlon Club; and elite-level coaches Art Stegan and Algis Shalna. This summer, she spent three weeks at an ‘A’ team training camp in Germany, and as a member of that team, she has her room and board paid for in Lake Placid.
Looking ahead to this season, Maddie is focused on reaching the World Cup. She made her debut last year in Presque Isle, placing 65th in a sprint. “I really want to make a pursuit this year on the World Cup, because last year in Presque Isle I was so close. I was 65th and they take the top 60 to the pursuit,” she explained. “My goal is to race more World Cups, try to make my first pursuit, and prove to myself that I’m a good part of the team to be sent to the World Championships.”
Beyond her first senior World Championships, which will be held February in Hochfilzen, Austria, Maddie is eyeing late-season World Cups in places like Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. “I’m not sure where it’s going to take me yet, but I definitely want to be a 2018 Olympian,” she said of biathlon. “That’s the number one goal right now. Then kind of just see where I’m at, whether I need to take a little break, do something new, or just keep going with it.”
For more about Maddie, follow her online: maddiephaneuf.wix.com/maddie-biathlon.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) of Gansevoort is the managing editor at FasterSkier.com and to most people’s surprise, not a guy. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s chasing her one-year-old, and in her spare time, adventuring in the Adirondacks.