A life-changing moment
Crystal Phillips moved to Calgary in 2003 to follow her dream of attending the Olympics to represent Canada in speed skating. At the height of her speed skating career, however, she received news that would change her life – and her outlook – forever.
“One day I started to lose feeling in my legs. By day three, I lost feeling from my chest to my toes, lost bladder control and had double vision,” says Phillips.
“I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and was told I would never speed skate again.”
Looking back, Phillips expresses gratitude for the person she was, and the way that she took the news.
“Thankfully, at that time I was a teenager, and not speed skating was not yet a part of my reality. It was all I knew up until that point.”
Determined to get back on the ice
Phillip’s teenage determination fostered a long-lasting persistence and drive that Phillips carries even now. After her diagnosis, Phillips lost no time – she saw chiropractors, physiotherapists, and sport psychologists, and was eventually able to relearn how to walk, bike, and eventually, skate.
“When I raced my first competition the cheers were loud, because the community is small and they were all really affected when I was so sick,” Phillips says of her first skate back after her diagnosis.
Phillips remembers crying herself to sleep that night because her times were so slow compared to before she was sick. She woke up the next morning and the entire left side of her body had gone numb.
“That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t this invincible teenager, I had a serious disease, there has to be other things I can do other than the daily drug injection that was recommended to me by my neurologist.”
Looking for a new solution
Phillips delved into the world of non-traditional medicine, studying nutrition and herbal medicine, and was “essentially a guinea pig for both conventional and unconventional healing.”
Thanks to her efforts, Phillips spent the next five years training and getting back up to a competitive level of speed skating, eventually qualifying for the 2010 Olympic Trials.
After beginning the season, Phillips had another blow. She lost vision in her eye – a common symptom of MS. Her neurologist warned her that she could be in a wheelchair in the next couple of years, and suggested drugs that, while potentially helpful in the short term, had no long-term effects.
“I felt like I had nothing to lose, so I decided to go off of all of my drugs and treat it 100 per cent naturally instead.”
With this new drive and personal commitment to an open-minded approach to health and medicine, Phillips started the Branch Out Neurological Foundation to fund a new field of neurological study.
“We started looking at innovative technologies and non-pharmaceutical approaches to treat, heal, and prevent neurological disorders like MS, Parkinson’s, dementia, depression, epilepsy, and more.”
Successfully branching out
The Branch Out Neurological Foundation raised over $50,000 the first year, and over $3,000,000 to date. They have expanded to have research projects in eight universities across the country.
With Branch Out transitioning away from being a startup, Phillips has decided to apply her talents to a new organization: Thin Air Labs, an organization with the commitment to fund projects that will promote economic diversification in Calgary. Phillips runs Thin Air Lab’s health fund, allowing her to apply her goal of promoting new health solutions in a wide-reaching capacity.
The secret to Phillips’ success is her commitment to playing to her own, and to others, strengths.
“My only problem [with running Branch Out] was that my background was skating in circles for 20 years, not neuroscience or business or charity. So, I learned the valuable lesson of outsourcing your life and playing to your strengths.”
A diverse support system
Phillips exemplifies this lesson as she lives with her diagnosis, when she established Branch Out, and in many other aspects of her life.
“I had to find people who knew about accounting and building a charity and fundraising and even running a bike tour event,” Phillips says.
“Everyone who has mentored or been a part of my journey has been interested in achieving what I wanted to achieve - which was finding new neurological solutions that have a better chance of working. I call them unlike minds because although we’re like interested and want the same thing, we all come from completely different backgrounds.”
She advocates for building a diverse group of people with differing experiences and knowledge, who can give you the most balanced support and help you to learn new things.
“It’s not one mentor that’s going to help you. It’s going to be a collection of unlike minds so that you get a diverse skill set and way of thinking to arm yourself against the challenges that you will face in life.”
Phillips’ unwillingness to yield in the face of challenges and her ability to see the value in varied experiences and knowledge ensure that her projects, and her health, have the support they need to thrive.
This profile was written before the COVID-19 Pandemic made it necessary to close many Alberta businesses and change the way many of us work. We reached back out to Crystal Phillips to see how she and Thin Air Labs have been handling the situation. Phillips provided the following commentary:
“Due to many unknowns,investment and client activity slowed down which provided an opportunity for me and my team to focus on important strategic work. I find this kind of work can often get pushed aside because you're ‘too busy’ with daily work activities. How often do you have the space to do this!? Although times are worrisome for companies, this has been a wonderful silver lining. I'm picturing pulling back a sling shot (with strategy), before launching with more precision and speed once we and the world is ready!
I've been [adapting by]practicing keeping my ears and eyes wide open. Many contrasting ideas, theories and opinions are out there to absorb and consider as we make personal and professional decisions to navigate this new reality.”