Speedskater won't let MS stop her

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:24 AM ET

How much pain will an athlete endure for a friend's good cause?

Rip, rip, rip. Last weekend Olympic gold medallist speed skater Denny Morrison had his legs waxed with about 30 painful strips, at a fundraiser for fellow speedskater Crystal Phillips, who has multiple sclerosis.

"He was a trooper," Phillips said, laughing. "He waxed his legs for the crowd. Whenever he got to $100 [in donations] he would tear off a strip off the leg."

Phillips, 24, is an Alberta long-track speedskater whose Olympic aspirations were rattled five years ago with the first signs of multiple sclerosis. One spring morning in June 2005, tingles in her foot progressed up both legs to her chest, causing her to lose all feeling and mobility from chest to toes, for four months. Since then, Phillips has had two more numbness episodes and lost vision in her left eye.

But what she hasn't lost is her Olympic dream and her drive. Phillips -- a former junior national team member -- has raised more than $250,000 for MS through an annual bike ride, plus $30,000 for her trip to India this month for treatment. She also sells bedazzled eye patches on her website, www.crystalpatches.com -- a friend's idea after Phillips' vision loss a month and a half ago.

Fellow athletes are in awe of her spirit and more than willing to help.

"She has approached MS just like she did speed skating, as any athlete would: All out," said Trevor White, a 2010 Olympian in alpine skiing. "She is the meaning of inspiration."

Multiple sclerosis most often is diagnosed in young adults aged 15 to 40. It can cause loss of balance, impaired speech, extreme fatigue, double vision and paralysis. There is no cure.

But some are finding relief from a controversial therapy called the "Liberation treatment," not approved in Canada or the U.S. The therapy dilates narrowed or blocked veins from the brain to the heart. Phillips leaves June 20 for her treatment in Delhi, India.

"After reading all of the information about this treatment, I would be kicking myself in the butt years down the road if I didn't try," said Phillips, who has also been helped by holistic nutrition. "I am at risk of developing progressive MS and if I could just alleviate some of these symptoms, it would give me a better chance when I'm racing against Kristina Groves. With a numb leg, it's just not ideal."

At the 2009 Canadian single distance championships last December, Phillips placed 10th in the 1,000 metres in 1:18.73. Groves won in 1:15.74 and went on to win two medals in Vancouver.

"This year I had a lot of personal best times," Phillips said. "I'm still doing quite well in skating, but I'm always a couple steps behind. And I have no doubt it has a lot to do with my MS."

This weekend, Morrison and several speedskaters will participate in the MS Bike Tour, a two-day, 180-km trip from Airdrie, Alta., to Olds, Alta., and back. Other athletes supporting Phillips include luger Jeff Christie and one of Phillips' best friends, speedskater Shannon Rempel, whose mother has MS.

"I could understand what she was going through," said Rempel, who will accompany Phillips to India. "I would do anything to help make sure she can live MS-free."

Phillips works as a nutritionist and is training for the summer at the Athletes Nation facility in St. Albert, Alta. She plans to return to Calgary's Olympic Oval this fall -- as probably the only MS patient aiming for the Olympics.

"I know all the coaches and they're all really positive and curious to see how I'll do," Phillips said. "They're definitely really excited for me."


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