Canadian speed skater Crystal Phillips organizing team for MS Bike Tour

Article by Jolanda Abbes - After successfully organizing a team for the MS Bike Tour for the first time last year, Crystal Phillips is looking forward to making this year’s team an even bigger success. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis herself only a little over a year ago, the 21-year-old speed skater is determined to not let the disease get her down and hopes this Bike Tour, which is a two-day 180-km trip from Airdrie to Olds and back, will help build more awareness of MS and will help raise as much money as possible for MS research.

Last year’s MS Bike Tour was a great success for the MS Helia team organized by Crystal Phillips. It was the first year she organized a team for the Tour, but that team was able to raise $55,000, which is the most a rookie team ever raised. As a result the team won the title of Top Fundraising Rookie Team of the year 2006. These great results stimulated her to start organizing a team again for the same Tour, which this year will take place on June 9 and 10. But there is more to this success story than meets the eye.

The past two years have not been kind to Phillips, who had her first ‘attack’ in June 2005, at the age of only 19, and was officially diagnosed with MS in February last year. She is suffering from relapsing remitting MS, which means she can have an attack and then recover from it and go into remission. She has had three major attacks and after her second relapse she started taking injections to help minimize the number and severity of the attacks. “In the first attack, I lost all feeling from my toes to my chest and had double vision in my left eye. It took about four months to recover, but then I was able to start training, continue my studies and work again. My second attack was two months later. I lost all feeling in the entire left side of my body. I couldn’t even smell from my left nostril or taste on the left part of my mouth. My last relapse was in October last year. I lost sensation in both my legs for about two months. Since my last relapse, I have made many dietary changes and continue to take an injection every day.”

Since November 2006 she has been in remission. “I am really happy with how I recovered and was able to skate this year, considering my condition. When I am in remission, I am able to skate, work and go to school. I still deal with symptoms that come and go on a day-to-day basis like fatigue, sensory changes, muscle spasms and numbness in my legs. The more tired I am, the more predominant the symptoms are.”

Despite a couple of very difficult years, Phillips has not given up her hopes of continuing her speed skating career and furthermore is planning to let the MS affect her life as little as possible. Still, sometimes this is easier said than done: “After a relapse, it is really hard and frustrating returning to training because I have to take things very slow and be very patient. This year I had Kevin Crockett as my coach and could not have been happier with how we worked together as a team and communicated to achieve the perfect training program that fit to me and my MS. Once I have made a full recovery from my attack, I have to be extra cautious about overtraining, but I still feel like I can reach my same potential as from before I was sick. I look forward to next year with Kevin and believe that I can have a ‘relapse free’ year as long as I am patient with listening to my body.”

After what she has been through, it is amazing how positive an outlook Phillips still has. She looks forward to making the most of her speed skating career: “I believe I can, once again, represent Canada in my sport.” On top of that, she manages to see the positive things about her situation: “I am thankful for the mental strengths that I have gained through coping with MS, because I have learned how to use them in every area of my life. I really do believe that things happen for a reason. I have learned a lot about myself and embrace and learn from, rather than fight the challenges that MS brings.”

One way of embracing these challenges was to get involved in organizing a team for the MS Bike Tour last year. Ironically, Phillips participated in the MS Bike Tour for the first time about eight years ago with some friends and family. “Ever since then, because it was such a fun time and we enjoyed supporting such a good cause, me, my sisters, and some friends continued to ride in the Tour, not knowing anyone with MS or even what MS was. After my diagnosis, the MS Bike Tour meant a lot more to me and I was overwhelmed with the support I received from all my family, friends, and teammates who also wanted to take part in the Tour and raise money for MS. Before I knew it, I had the second-largest team in Canada.” That team consisted of 80 members, mostly speed skaters, including five Olympians, and family and friends.

Among the members of the first MS Helia team was Olympic silver-medalist speed skater Denny Morrison: “Crystal told me about the Bike Tour last year, and after having witnessed how MS can affect the life of an individual in such a way, and considering how well she handled the situations that it put her in, I was inspired to participate. Besides, it’s a lot of fun too!” That indeed the fun along the way was of importance as well, shows his description of last year’s Tour: “At last year’s Tour, we biked into a headwind 95% of the way from Airdrie to Olds, but we were able to stop several times for food and drinks along the way. It was a fun day because we all just took our time and made it a good social bike ride. Day 2 started off a little more fatigued, but luckily the headwind was now a tail wind, so it was a very easy ride back to Airdrie where we were provided with a true Albertan beef barbecue!”

This year the bar will be raised even higher for the team in terms of numbers of participants and money being raised. Phillips: “My goals for this year’s Tour are to have 100 members, raise $65,000, and continue to build more awareness with new fundraising events. My team will consist of national and provincial level speed skaters, lugers, ski jumpers, skiers, hockey players, bobsledders and, of course, all of my friends, family, co-workers and potentially my doctor.” And even the participants are aiming higher than last year. Morrison raised just over $1,000 last year, but is planning to raise at least $1,250 this year: “I am just trying to support a good cause in any way that I can.”

So in addition to the challenges Crystal Phillips was forced to deal with in her everyday life and in terms of speed skating after her diagnosis, she has found an inspiring challenge in organizing the MS Bike Tour, which has become very important to her: “A lot of organizing, time and energy goes into organizing a team. I’m very proud of my accomplishments and my team’s accomplishments so far, and want to continue setting new records and goals every year.”

For more information on the MS Helia team, see:
Anyone interested in helping Denny Morrison reach his goal of raising $1,250, see:

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