Mikayla Briere ’14 tries to beat the Russians
Thursday, Feb 16, 2012
Geology major takes time away from her studies to compete in the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup, hosted by the US Paralympics.
She’s not like most Whitman students. Four years ago a degenerative disease put Mikayla Briere in a wheel chair.
But it’s not her chair that separates her from her fellow students. In fact, Briere is dismissive about her condition, saying she’s “over the fact that I’m in a wheel chair.”
When asked the name of her disease, she waves her hand almost as an after thought, and scoffs, “I couldn’t pull that name out of my behind. I just call it a degenerative skeletal disease.”
What makes Briere different than most of her Whitman contemporaries is that she’s training to make the U.S. national Paralympic team in cross-country skiing.
And training to defeat the Russians.
“My coaches told me to beat the Russians,” Briere said, remembering her coach’s final instructions before competing in the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup, a qualifying event for the U.S. Paralympics, held in Cable Wis., and Minneapolis, Minn. on Jan. 29-Feb. 3, 2012.
“The Russians are the ones to beat,” she said, pointing out how excited she and her coaches were when she finished fourth in the one-kilometer sprint, beating some of the world’s top athletes.
“I was competing against the best of the best,” she said.
Briere only started cross-country skiing last Thanksgiving break after an outdoor environmental leadership grant funded her trip to a training camp in West Yellowstone. At the camp, she quickly showed her potential, and took a step towards world-class status by competing at the World Cup, all while keeping up with her studies thanks to email and Skype.
“The other athletes chuckled when I told them I had to stop training and study, or Skype into a lecture.”
The training schedule was brutal. Breakfast, followed by two hours of skiing. After a quick nap, and lunch, it was back to the slopes for more training, if she wasn’t actually racing. Then at night there was dinner and a team meeting. Briere, who fuelled her body with lots of peanut butter and bananas, would squeeze in her studies during the afternoon, or at night before crashing to sleep, exhausted.
“When competing or training you hit this point called the ‘pain-cave.’ But you push through it because you want to win.”
The intense training is necessary if she wants to build the strength to push through her pain-cave and make the US team. After two, 12th-place finishes in sprints and the 5km, plus her 4th in the 1k, she’s on her way.
“My coaches have faith in me, but I have a lot of work ahead of me,” she said.
Her Whitman professors also have faith in Briere. “Her choice to compete shows how hard she can work,” said Machelle Hartman, chemistry professor. “It is difficult to travel and keep up with classes. She is very committed to her education and her sport.”
Hartman said that her student made sure she had all the handouts and could access lecture notes on CLEo while away. And despite a few connection glitches with Skype, Hartman was excited Briere was able to compete at the World Cup.
“I thought that this was an awesome opportunity for her,” Hartman said. “I am proud that our students can participate in national events.”
Briere is awed by the support she receives from her professors. “They were always checking in to see how I was doing,” she said, adding that this teacher-student relationship is emblematic of Whitman.
While determined to earn enough World Cup points to qualify for the Paralympics, this wilderness enthusiast is not about to give up on her education. She sees a future degree in geology as her front-row ticket to the natural world.
“I’m a geology major because geology brings you into the outdoors and there is nothing I want more than to play outside.”
And to have the opportunity to beat the Russians and, perhaps, win a gold medal.
By Edward Weinman