Friendship between Serwa, Phelan fuels their way to Olympic glory

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — As she stood in the start gate while the clock ticked down to signal the beginning of her race, Kelsey Serwa could feel her heart beating and she could hear the sound of a heartbeat playing over the loud speakers, too—as she describes it, “bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp.”

Minutes later, after the 28-year-old charged down the ski cross track to become Canada’s 10th Olympic gold medallist, she pulled a heart-shaped rock out of her inside jacket pocket and she waved it in the air and smiled at her family, who had just watched her win the biggest race of her life.

“I have it in my jacket all the time,” Serwa said, of that navy blue sparkly heart-shaped rock.

Before it appeared from that pocket, the Kelowna, B.C., skier had gotten to the bottom of the run, thrown her hands and poles in the air and then stopped and immediately looked behind her to see that her best friend, Brittany Phelan, had come in second: A one-two finish for Canada in women’s ski cross. Then the pair lost it together, hugging, mugging for photos and wrapping themselves in Canada flags.

Serwa stepped onto that top podium step, she did a dance that involved alternating fist pumps and high knees, and then she invited Phelan up there with her, along with bronze medallist, Fanny Smith of Switzerland.

The Canadians who completed two thirds of a podium sweep aren’t just a couple of teammates, women who also happen to be from the same country. They’re roommates here, they’re ‘Kels’ and ‘Brit,’ they’re nearly always together and they both set their alarms for 5 a.m. and headed to the hill together before they won Canada’s 25th and 26th medal of these Games.

This brings Canada’s ski cross medal count to three, after Brady Leman won gold a few days earlier. Said Canadian coach, Stan Hayer, “That race blew my mind.”

He wasn’t alone there.

“It was absolutely insane,” said Phelan, the 25-year-old from Mont Tremblant, Que. “Once I went over the last jump I was like, ‘Oh my god, we did it.’ That was the plan and we did it and it feels so good.”

Serwa, the reigning Olympic silver medallist, described “coming through and then stopping and looking back—I’m like, who’s second, who’s third? To see Brit there, it’s the best ever.”

It matched the result Canada’s women achieved here four years ago. The reigning champion—Marielle Thompson of Whistler, B.C., who tore her ACL and MCL just four months ago—crashed in her first race of the day. The 25-year-old called it “disappointing,” and it certainly was, considering she was first overall after the seeding round.

Thompson isn’t sure if her ski landed on another racer’s or if it was the other way around. “And then I just fell,” she said. “It happens.” It does, in this unpredictable sport, this race to the finish over huge jumps and around tight corners. The fourth Canadian in the field, India Sherret, crashed in her heat and was taken to hospital, where she’s in stable condition.

But, for all the madness of ski cross, sometimes the day works out perfectly, as it did for Serwa and Phelan.

The sport is relatively new to Phelan, who made the switch from alpine back in 2015. It was Serwa who showed her the ropes. “She’s pretty much taught me everything in ski cross,” Phelan said. “Even the other day in training I was struggling a little bit with some of my technique, and she just talked it through and figured it all out.”

Later, at the press conference, Phelan added: “I’m so thankful for Kelsey in my life.”

“Awe,” Serwa said, looking over at her buddy.

The way the newly crowned Olympic champion sees it, the friendship fuels their results.

“Between Brit and I there are no secrets, we work together on the hill, off the hill, we train together, we do everything together, really,” Serwa said. “I think it’s that camaraderie, that friendship, that helped bring us to this spot today. We didn’t come here to participate, we came here to win. And to do it together is unbelievable. I’m so pumped.”

It was Serwa who led the race for much of the way, but Phelan who made a big play in the final stretch to move up from fourth to second. “I knew I was running out of time,” she said. “You try to look through all the chaos that’s happening in front of you and find the opening, and I saw my chance and took it.”

When Phelan said she was “happy” she made that move, Serwa said, “I’m happy, too, Brit.” And then they fist-bumped.

Serwa got to celebrate this win not only with her best pal in skiing, but with her parents, her grandparents and her boyfriend, who were all in the crowd. Stan, her boyfriend of eight years, wasn’t even supposed to be here, as per Serwa’s instructions, which he clearly failed to follow.

She told Stan ahead of the Sochi Olympics that he couldn’t be there because she needed to focus, and after she won silver there, Serwa figured a Stan-free Olympics was the best way to go. When she qualified for Pyeongchang, she told him, “Sorry, I’m not inviting you again.”

Then, two days ago, Serwa spotted Stan in the crowd at the men’s race. “I look and I’m like, ‘Stan!’ What are you doing?!” she said. “So happy to see him—it was perfect. I’m glad he came. I’m like, ‘Thank you for not listening to me. Don’t listen to me.’”

And after that Olympic gold medal win, she added, “I might have to lug him around to all the events.” Kind of like that heart-shaped rock.

The rock collecting and carrying started years ago, after she got on her first world cup podium, and pulled a hard-boiled egg out of her bag. “Like Cool Runnings,” Serwa explained, “the dude always has the egg in his jacket.”

Her mom, Terri, got her a rock the shape of an egg so she could travel with it, but when Serwa’s bag was stolen, Terri bought the heart-shaped one as a replacement. “It’s the perfect size,” Serwa said, putting it back in her pocket, to join her mouth guard and Chap Stick.

It’s the only one she has on her while racing, but Serwa carries two other rocks to all her events, gifts from two other important people in her life: Stan and her buddy, Phelan.

Serwa and Phelan were at a World Cup stop when that rock was purchased. “We just had the time of our lives, we skied so well, we were super happy about the day, and then there was this…” Phelan said, before she cut herself off and turned to her friend. “This is how you got the rock, right?”

“Yeah, the vending machine,” Serwa said, laughing.

Phelan continued. “There was a vending machine for rocks and I was like, ‘Kels, I’m gonna get you a rock…Not entirely sure what the meaning of the rock is, but it was something cool and relatable to that time.”

“Yeah, totally,” Serwa said.

The gold and silver medallists were in stitches at this point, talking rocks in a post-race news conference after each had the race of her life.

“And you know the rocks—oh my god, this sounds so wacky,” Serwa said, laughing so hard she could barely talk. “But they pick you, right?”

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