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Old Forge biathlete has her own ‘Phan Club’ headed into first Olympics

Maddie Phaneuf, a biathlete from Old Forge, will compete in her first Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, starting Saturday with the women’s sprint. (Photo provided by Nordic Focus/U.S. Biathlon)

After crossing the finish line at the International Biathlon Union Cup in Arber, Germany on Jan. 11, Maddie Phaneuf collapsed in the snow with a huge grin on her face.

She had placed 11th in the 77-woman 15-kilometer individual race, shot cleanly and secured her spot on Team USA for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I remember almost hyperventilating due to the race effort and also just being so happy and excited for what was to come.” Phaneuf wrote in an email to the Enterprise. “It was such an incredible feeling and also a huge weight just lifted off your shoulders.”

Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, and now a resident of Old Forge, Phaneuf, 22, started her biathlon career at the age of 15.

“Old Forge is a major ski town in upstate New York,” Phaneuf wrote. “Almost everybody in town skis, whether it be downhill, nordic, or both. McCauley Mountain and the Town of Webb School has a really great deal where every student gets a free ski pass, and there’s a school bus in the winter that goes directly from the school to the mountain … so there’s really no excuse to be a kid in Old Forge and not know how to ski. Our town makes it very easy to be a part of the ski community.”

An active mom

Phaneuf’s mother, Janine, coaches the Polar Bear Nordic youth ski team in Old Forge.

“Maddie started with the club when she was an 8-year-old kid,” Janine said.

Janine and her family moved to the Adirondacks from South Carolina 15 years ago. They had always been active. They hiked, swam and mountain biked, and they weren’t going to let the North Country’s cold temperatures and thick snowfall stop them from having fun.

“Kids should be in motion,” she said “Every child should be outside.”

The family quickly took up cross-country skiing. It seemed like the safest and most accessible way to introduce parents and young children to winter sports. Now as the head coach of the Polar Bear youth team, Janine travels all over the Adirondacks with her group of skiers ages 13 and under. Just last week they came to Saranac Lake for Dewey Mountain Recreation Center’s paintball biathlon, an event for which plenty of kids showed affinity.

“After the paintball race, a couple of the kids were saying, ‘We want to be just like Maddie,'” Janine said.

Janine said she thinks it’s essential to stay active in a region like this. It keeps kids and adults happy and having fun.

“I couldn’t imagine staying cooped all winter,” she said.

Climbing the biathlon ladder

In her senior year of high school, Maddie competed in the trial races for the IBU Youth/Junior World Championships but didn’t make the team. After graduating in 2013, she started training even more diligently instead of going directly to college.

“It was an exciting time for me, because it was different from all of my classmates and I liked being different,” she wrote. “Now when people find out that I haven’t attended college yet, they assume that means I’m never planning on going to college. I am constantly being told whether or not I made the right decision. Luckily, my life is mine, so it’s really up to me whether I made the right decision or not.”

She missed making the Olympic team four years ago at the age of 18, when she was still competing at a junior level. At the 2016 Junior Biathlon Championships in Cheile Gradistei, Romania, she placed fifth in the individual, seventh in the sprint, ninth in the pursuit and 12th in the relay.

Last year, she made it to the big league. At the 2017 Biathlon World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, she placed 78th in the pursuit, 87th in the individual and 14th in the relay.

“I think I made a pretty awesome decision [not going directly to college],” she wrote, “which led me to competing in my first Olympics.”

Olympic rookie

Going into Pyeongchang, she thinks her aim is solid, but her conditioning needs some work.

“I’m mostly just trying to maintain my great shooting, while trying to get in better race shape,” she wrote. “I haven’t been very happy with my ski speed this season, but it’s still early in the season so I’m hopeful that it will continue to get faster for February and March.”

Maddie was with the rest of her team in Germany when the Enterprise interviewed her in late January, but a stomach flu had muddled things up a bit.

“I’m being isolated so I don’t get anybody else sick while I recover,” she wrote. “So for me, I’m just trying to get better as quick as possible and then I’ll ease back into training!”

She has a dedicated following, a group of people who call themselves her “Phan Club.”

“I’ve been getting so much support ever since I began this journey, and even more now that I’ve reached such a huge goal of mine,” she wrote. “I think everybody is feeling what I’m feeling: excitement, happiness, and pride!”

From first strapping on a pair of skis as a youngster to traveling to Sweden for her first overseas biathlon competition, Maddie looks back on all her memories and achievements and recognizes that they were important stepping stones in helping her reach the Olympics.

“This journey has been incredible,” she wrote. “I cherish every and all of my memories.”

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