Motivated by family

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

When she was still in elementary school, Kelsey Phinney would spend hours in the woods outside Boulder, Colo., ignoring the aching muscles and freezing fingers and toes as she kicked and glided on her Nordic skis, following her father deeper into the woods.

Kelsey Phinney bio

Sport, school: Nordic skiing, Middlebury
Class: Sophomore
Academic achievements: Majoring in neuroscience and taking pre-med qualifications
What you didn’t know: Phinney has done a lot of international travelling, including living in Italy with her family for part of her elementary school years. She speaks fluent Italian and is enamored of everything about the country. But she said the most interesting place she’s ever been is the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. “It was so different and so beautiful with the mountains and the cliffs going straight into the water. I’ll always carry that memory with me.”

Phinney’s limbs worked almost without thought. Her brain was mesmerized by the vigilant gnomes guarding marvelous treasures in the trees around her, and mischievous dwarves concocting schemes to take them away. Phinney’s father would weave fantastic tales about their surroundings, enchanting her to keep going, keep moving, keep skiing – because maybe, just maybe, the woodland creatures would meet them at the crest of the next hill. 

Phinney, now a Nordic skier at Middlebury, kept following her father up hills and through forests, as long as he kept telling her stories. In some ways, he’s never stopped motivating her, whether she’s on her skis in competition or studying for her genetics final. 

Phinney’s father, former professional and Olympic cyclist Davis Phinney, inspired not only his daughter’s quest for skiing achievements but also her pursuits in the classroom. When Kelsey Phinney was only 5 years old, her dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder that affects how people move. Her father’s diagnosis came so early in her life that she doesn’t really remember a time when he wasn’t dealing with its effects. But she does remember the experimental deep brain surgery in the summer of 2008 at Stanford University, and the incredible change after a deep brain stimulator, which functions like a pacemaker for the brain, was implanted during the procedure.

The impact of the surgery on her father and their family made a big impression on Kelsey Phinney. Now a sophomore at Middlebury, she is studying neuroscience and taking pre-med requirements in hopes of becoming a doctor and studying Parkinson’s disease.

 “There is no cure, and nothing stops the progression of Parkinson’s right now,” Phinney said. “But it was really amazing when my dad came back from California. He no longer had a tremor. He had a tremor in his hands as far back as I can remember. 

“There is no cure, and nothing stops the progression of Parkinson’s right now,” Phinney said. “But it was really amazing when my dad came back from California. He no longer had a tremor. He had a tremor in his hands as far back as I can remember. 

“We’re incredibly lucky,” she continued. “It was just like a different sort of sparkle in his eye.”

Kelsey Phinney was in middle school when her father went through surgery, and the process fascinated her. She started asking questions. And more questions. She drew pictures of the brain and, through a foundation begun by her father, essentially grew up around people whose lives have been changed by the disease.

“From a scientific standpoint, I thought it was very interesting,” she said. “And from a personal standpoint, I have an additional drive that motivates me.”

The summer before her senior year in high school, she spent time at Stanford shadowing the neurologists and medical students for several weeks. She calls the experience “very powerful.” 

Panther revitalization

The Middlebury Squash Center, which opened in October 2013, serves varsity student-athletes and recreational players on campus.

Middlebury College believes athletics is central to the educational experience, and the athletics department is committed to offering opportunities to all kinds of students. To fulfill that mission, the department is adding new facilities, including the nine-court Squash Center that opened in October 2013 and a 110,000-square-foot Field House set for completion in October 2014.

Both facilities will be connected to the Peterson Family Athletic Complex.

The Field House replaces “The Bubble,” a temporary facility that housed indoor practices for Middlebury’s spring sports beginning in 2002. The new facility will host athletics, intramural, recreational and special events. Features include a rubberized, six-lane 200-meter track, jump facilities and an artificial-turf infield. The new building will also have locker rooms, coaches’ offices, meeting spaces and classrooms, and officials hope it qualifies for gold-level LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Squash Center, already busy on a Tuesday evening less than two months after opening, increased the number of courts and improved the lighting, ventilation and overall experience for both the student-athletes and spectators.

The $46 million price tag is funded by alumni, parents and other donors. The new facilities join an impressive athletics complex that features an 18-hole golf course, the Middlebury Snow Bowl for Alpine skiing and the Carroll and Jane Rikert Ski Touring Center, where Kelsey Phinney trains.

“With our location and weather there are many outdoor recreational opportunities; however, for much of the year, our students need indoor recreational opportunities too,” Athletics Director Erin Quinn said. “We encourage them to develop good health and exercise habits and to stay active all their lives, and this project will afford them many such opportunities.” –M.B.H.

Quick Facts

Location: Middlebury, Vt.
Founded: Middlebury was founded in 1800 by a group of Middlebury residents who wanted to train young men from Vermont and neighboring states for the ministry and other learned professions.
Enrollment: About 2,450 undergraduate students
Nickname: Panthers
Varsity Sports: 29 (15 women’s, 14 men’s)
President: Ronald D. Liebowitz (Bucknell, 1979)
Athletics Director: Erin Quinn (Middlebury, 1986)

And Kelsey Phinney has come back for more, spending portions of the past three summers at the Stanford teaching hospital, where she dons a lab coat and follows neurologists through the clinic while they diagnose and treat patients with different movement disorders.

“It’s been a really nice reminder of what could eventually come out of studying in college and if I go to medical school,” she said. “It’s a nice incentive to keep working hard.” 

Growing up, Kelsey Phinney participated in all kinds of sports in addition to Nordic skiing: soccer, cycling, mountain biking, cross country, hiking, Alpine skiing, even sailing. She found value in endurance sports at an early age and was enthralled by athletes who pushed themselves to their personal limits and collapsed in exhaustion at the finish line. 

College was never a question for her, though her brother never went to college and chose instead to pursue a successful professional cycling career soon after high school. Kelsey Phinney knew she wanted to experience other things and push herself in the classroom as well as competitively. 

Going so far from home for school was not a problem: All four members of the family, including her brother, Tyler Phinney, and mom, Connie Carpenter Phinney ­– both Olympians, like Davis Phinney – travel extensively and stay in close contact, even from different corners of the world. The only time she really misses her mom, she said, is when she’s sick.

She talks to her parents and her brother at least once a week, exchanging funny emails in between phone calls. The tight-knit family is what both grounds her and allows her to spread her wings.

“It’s easier to be far away because I know I have them to rely on if I ever need them,” she said. “They don’t have to be right here.”

So far, Kelsey Phinney has been happy at Middlebury. First-year head Nordic coach Andrew Johnson called Phinney a “low-maintenance kid” who flies under the radar but always shows up ready to perform – and share obscure facts about the brain and how it functions with her teammates.

“She definitely leads by example. She’s young, just a sophomore, but she very much lives by the creed that if you’re going to do something, it’s worth doing well. She’s very thorough in everything she does and exemplifies the model of the student-athlete. She challenges herself both in the classroom and on the field of play,” Johnson said. “She’s a real joy to coach for sure and a great teammate as well.”

Phinney trains with a group of women she calls “amazing,” and they push her to improve.

She hopes she helps them, too. Last spring, she qualified for the National Collegiate Skiing Championships as a freshman. But her teammates do more than push her athletically – they make Middlebury feel like home.

“Having the community of the team was really nice for me coming in last year, immediately having people who I felt were a new family to me and instantly accepted me,” she said. “It was really nice.”

After college, Phinney might try her ski legs on the professional circuit for a few years before pursuing graduate school or medical school. Whatever she decides, the woman Johnson calls the hardest worker on the team will give it her all until she crosses the finish line, exhausted. 

 

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Champion magazine.