A race for Ellen
“Don’t ever buy new snowboard boots when you have breast cancer,” a smiling Ellen Casey said, as she pulls her boot laces tight atop the Bear Trap race course at Beaver Creek on Friday.
Casey, a ski and snowboard instructor at Beaver Creek who was diagnosed with breast cancer this past May, says that the edema caused by the cancer has made her feet shrink so much that her boots don’t fit anymore.
That doesn’t stop her, though, from being here on this crisp late Friday afternoon ready to drop in on the giant slalom course in the Mary Phillips Snowboard Race series, a 6-year old event that is donating all of this season’s money to Casey’s fight against cancer.
With the lifts already closed, the sun inches towards its bed for the evening, leaving the valley and the empty runs below awash in a stream of pink and orange. The apres crowds are already enjoying their drinks at the bar or the hot tub back at the hotel, but here, Casey’s good friends from the ski school – her second family as she calls them – have gathered to take one last run, all in the interest of helping their friend.
“She’s one of our family,” said Cindy Phillips, a New Zealand native who works as a snowboard instructor at the Beaver Creek ski school and chairs the Mary Phillips Foundation. “Because we’re all internationals, or Americans who are away from home, we’re all here without our families. So, this is our sister.”
Phillips started the foundation in 1997, following the tragic death of her sister Mary and 17 others in the Thredbo Mountain Landslide in Australia.
Mary had been a lively snowboard instructor in Beaver Creek who was cherished by clients and coworkers alike. When Cindy came over from New Zealand to collect her sister’s things, she felt the same tug to the Vail Valley to which Mary had succumbed, and quit her job as a hairdresser back home to follow in her sister’s footsteps.
The foundation at first raised money through donations, until Phillips and some of her ski school friends came up with the idea of starting a race series on Friday afternoons, after the mountain had closed down for the day.
Entry fees were $3 per race or $20 for the whole season with all the money going towards the fund. Sponsors both big and small also chipped in money and swag for raffles at the post race parties, and ski school employees Ashley Muller and Justin Farnell – both from Down Under themselves – helped by setting the course and recording the racers on video.
The only thing that was wrong with the charity was that Phillips, along with Muller and Farnell, could never decide what to do with the money.
Books for college kids? Money for cancer? A scholarship?
The answer hit them dead on, though, after Casey, who has raced in the series since its inception and claimed the women’s title the first two years, was diagnosed last spring.
“We were looking for a cause and our cause was right under our nose,” Phillips said. “The money hadn’t gone anywhere so far. We had given some to the cancer center, but otherwise, it just sat there.”
“It all happened for a reason,” Muller said. “We had a lot of great ideas, but now we’ve got a cause that is more important than any other we could have ever come up with.”
Along with the race proceeds, Casey’s friends also organized a big Australia Day event on Jan. 26 at Bob’s Place in Avon, which netted more than $1,700.
All told, the foundation has raised more than $2,000 just in the last two weeks, which will all go to Casey to help offset the cost of her treatments.
“The biggest thing for me is that it’s been incredibly embarrassing,” said Casey, whose mother and sister have both fought the disease. “I’m not very good at accepting things from other people. A friend of mine said to me, “You’ve created an opportunity for people to give to you and make themselves feel good about what they are doing.’ We have to learn how to receive, in order so that people can give.”
The foundation, along with its sponsors Driza-bone, Transworld Snowboarding, The Boulder Marriot, Bob’s Place, Gorsuch, Coyote Cafe, Beaver Creek Snowboard School, The Other Side, Christy Sports, Blue Moose and Sharpshooter Photography doesn’t plan to stop giving anytime soon – or racing for that matter.
“It’s a whole lot of fun, and it’s good practice as well,” Phillips said. “It takes some work putting it together, but it’s all worth it.”
The cancer has stolen things from Casey, most noticeably her hair, the color in her skin and her energy, but it hasn’t taken away her resolve, nor her beautiful smile.
It has not taken away her racing prowess either, even though she says that getting out of bed for Friday’s race will probably wipe her out for the next two days. On this day, even in her big boots, she is still the fastest woman on the pitch, running a time of 19.85.
The pain in her calves is so intense that it brings a tear to her eye, as she lies on her back and pulls at her laces to ease the pressure.
Still, she never complains. She is still smiling, still reveling in the beautiful sunset and the feel of the fresh air on her skin.
Casey loves to race, and on this day, nothing, not even cancer, can stop her.
If you would like more information regarding donations to the Mary Phillips foundation or the race series, please contact Cindy Phillips at (970) 949-9192.
Nate Peterson is a sports writer for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 608 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org