by Ashley Lodato
One look at the radiant mud-spattered face of Bronwen Jewelry's newest Global Ambassador Chelsey Magness and you can see echoes of the little girl she once was, making dirt pies and building tree forts in the Alaska wilderness. But that's who she remains at heart, despite the intervening years, the recent motherhood, and the seminal events that have shaped her adult life. As an athlete and adventurer who has built her life and career around racing and hard-core sports, Chelsey has always been a gal whose heart beats faster and whose mind is sharper when she's pushing her limits, and that began with her early years in Anchorage.
"I think for many kids in Alaska," says Chelsey, "being outside was kind of the main activity, if not the only one. From when school got out until dinner we weren't allowed indoors; we were always told 'go outside.'" So play outside they did, Chelsey and all the other kids she knew. In the winter they dug tunnels and snow caves; in the summer they built tree houses and forts. And every weekend Chelsey went camping with her family, exploring Alaska's vast wild places.
"That was a real foundation for me," Chelsey says, "that time of exploring and running around and adventuring in the mountains." So when Chelsey got her driver's license, instead of motoring around to parties like many other high schoolers were doing, she loaded up her car with friends and went hiking and camping whenever she could.
Chelsey dabbled in organized sports--Nordic skiing, cross country running, soccer--but says she did it more to be social than out of a real love of mainstream athletic competition. "When I had free time," she says, "I spent it out in the woods."
Chelsey's competitive side didn't really emerge until college, when she found herself lured to mountain bike racing by the promise of free food. "I was underage," she says, "but at the end of these mountain bike competitions all the racers got free beer and pizza. No one ever questioned my age." Chelsey was surprised to learn that she was actually a pretty decent mountain bike racer. Better than decent, even; she started appearing as a regular on the podium on the amateur racing circuit, and after just one year went professional.
When Chelsey met her husband, Jason (now her business/athletic partner as well as parenting and life partner), in Tucson a few years later, she was delighted to learn more about his passion: adventure racing. "Adventure races combined all of the components that I love to do," Chelsey says. "Mountain biking, whitewater, running, just being out there in the woods or backcountry." Jason and Chelsey entered an adventure race together on their 4th date and Chelsey found herself feeling anxious and excited at the start line. "I didn't know that feeling," she says. It was the feeling of wanting to win.
Chelsey and Jason ended up winning that adventure race, and many that followed it, including the prestigious Patagonia Expedition Race, also known as the Last Wild Race, in 2018. Both are members of Bend Racing, a team that is consistently ranked in the top 15 worldwide. There is hardly a sport these two don't practice, and they balance (pun intended) all the fast-twitch athletic endeavors with acro-yoga, a partner activity that combines yoga and acrobatics.
A description of Chelsey's daily workouts coupled with a demanding travel schedule and grueling line-up of adventure races is enough to make anyone else feel exhausted. Add to this a 3-year-old and 7-month-old in the house, and you begin to wonder how Chelsey is actually standing upright, let alone winning elite-level races. She's a bit of a modern-day Renaissance woman in this regard. Chelsey says that motherhood has caused her to become very efficient with fitting in her workouts and trainings, so that she can focus on being an awesome mom in the rest of her time.
Meditation now plays a role in Chelsey's daily life as well, grounding her and giving her access to her inner self. Three years ago, Chelsey and her husband were preparing for the birth of their twin sons when their doctor gave them the heartbreaking news that the second twin no longer had a heartbeat. The first twin, Max, was born healthy and strong, but Spirit B, his brother, did not survive. After 24 hours with both beautiful babies, Chelsey and Jason faced the agonizing trauma of releasing their little boy into the spirit world.
Chelsey says that her athletics and passion for outdoor exploration have been critical to helping her mourn. "Meditation and getting outside are my primary pillars in getting through my grief," she says. "I meditate every morning and speak to Spirit B." Sometimes Chelsey will see a hawk or a butterfly when she's communicating with her son, and this brings her peace. "When I heard stories like that from others who had lost loved ones, I thought it was grasping for signs," she says. "But now I realize that it's my story. Everyone has their own experiences and things they find healing. This is my story."
The sad irony, says Chelsey, is that during her pregnancy, she and Jason talked a lot about how they were going to handle life with twins. "Everyone told us it was going to be living hell for the first 3 years, dealing with 2 babies," she says. "So we talked extensively about how we were still going to support each other in following our passions." Although the birth of their boys and the death of Spirit B was unimaginably different than what Jason and Chelsey had planned, these talks about their values served them well in coping with their grief. "We knew we needed to get back outside," Chelsey says. "We needed to get back into the things that brought us joy, even in this time of sorrow."
Chelsey has found double solace in the outdoors, as it has become the place she feels most connected to Spirit B, who often comes to her during a tough workout or adventure race. "I speak to Spirit B when I'm outside," she says.
Chelsey and Jason talk openly to Max about Spirit B as well. Every morning and evening they take Max outside and they all look up at the sky. "Good morning Spirit B," they say. "Goodnight Spirit B, we love you." Max shoots up his little hand and waves toward the sky, toward the brother whose body wrapped around his own for 9 months in the womb.
Moments like this are painful, but also beautiful. That's what this journey of grief is like, says Chelsey. "We have the darkness with the light. We have to try to walk this beautiful path."
These days, the beautiful path for Chelsey and Jason includes outdoor expeditions and day trips with 3-year-old Max and 7-month-old Revel. During both of her pregnancies, Chelsey says, friends warned them that parenthood would be the end of life as they knew it, a curtailing of the adventures that feed their souls. “I never believed that was our path,” says Chelsey, “I didn’t think the next phase needed to be all about a regular schedule and a slowing down.”
Like other parents, Jason and Chelsey want to do what’s best for their kids. “And what’s best for our kids is that we are showing them who we are and how we make ourselves happy. This lifestyle makes us happy, and by showing our kids who we are at our cores, we are giving them tools and permission to choose their own paths and follow their own happiness. We’re making them more resilient.”
As elite adventure racers, Jason and Chelsey are well-aware of the importance of resiliency. Having selected two of the most difficult activities on the planet—parenthood and adventure racing—as their passions, Jason and Chelsey find that both can be approached with similar strategies. “How we are raising our kids and how we strategize for adventure races are very much the same. We have to work together as a team. We have to show respect for our partner, we have to communicate through really difficult times,” she says. “Trust is essential.”
Like adventure racing, parenthood “brings out roadblocks in relationships,” says Chelsey. “You’re sleep deprived, you’re hungry, you’re never alone, and you don’t have the time or energy to filter your communication. You just have to drop the ego and work it out.”
Her background in adventure racing also gives Chelsey empathy for her children. “On an adventure race when you’re hungry and tired, you basically are a 3-year-old trying not to melt down. Emotions are high.” Chelsey reminds herself of this constantly, making sure she notices when it’s time to say to Max and Revel, “Let’s chill out and have some food and water.” Before she had kids, Chelsey says she wasn’t sure she wanted to. “But adventure racing helped me see I could handle hard things.”
The Last Wild Race
Thanks to a recent documentary about Chelsey, Bend Racing, and the Patagonia Expedition Race, audiences can now see Chelsey handling hard things: getting blown off her feet on windswept summits, post-holing down snowy slopes, slogging through swamps, yes, but also the harder stuff; chiefly, dealing with her grief about Spirit B. Sponsored by Bronwen Jewelry, Gear Junkie, and others, “With Spirit” is a film created by adventure and brand filmmaker Scott Almendinger McGrath.
Beautifully filmed and emotionally raw, “With Spirit” follows Chelsey’s journey not just through the brutally gorgeous Patagonian wilderness, but also through her ongoing grief process. It wasn’t Chelsey’s first time being filmed in an adventure race, but it was the first time a videographer had accompanied the team on its entire trek. “When Scott first came to me with his idea,” says Chelsey, “I was both honored and scared shitless. I knew that the more vulnerable and real I could be, the more it would heal both myself and hopefully many others who connected with my story. Recounting my story on camera almost three years after the loss of Spirit B was both cathartic and beautiful. It felt amazing and like the correct thing to honor him and our journey through grief by sharing my story.”
Chelsey calls the Patagonia Expedition Race "my soul race," noting, "I really peel back the onion layers on that one." The filmmaker, Scott, was there all the time, she continues, “so he captured us at our best and our worst. We think that by showing who we really are at all times, it helps us connect to people and helps people connect to us.”
Chelsey’s emotional vulnerability is a connection point as well. She speaks openly and joyfully about Spirit B, who has become “an over-arching guardian” for the family. “He comes to me frequently,” Chelsey says. “And it was Spirit B who told me that I was pregnant with Revel, in the form of a rainbow. I told Jason and he said ‘There’s no way.’ I had plenty of energy and felt great, so I didn’t know it at the time and it was way too early for a test, but in the end Spirit B was right.”
Photos of Chelsey often show her wearing one of Bronwen Jewelry's feather necklaces. "When I was pregnant I had a turquoise feather and I wore it constantly," she says. "It was pretty and simple and comfortable. I didn't assign any special meaning to it."
But when Chelsey lost the necklace on a highline, she found herself missing it immensely. So she reached out to Bronwen and acquired another feather, this one in lapis lazuli, a rich deep blue. "I touched the feather a lot throughout my pregnancies," she says. "It brought me peace." Chelsey didn't know that lapis has been long believed to have healing powers associated with the 3rd eye chakra, offering peace as well as openness to the spirit world; she just knew that when she touched the stone, she felt calmer.
When Max was born, Chelsey says, he went straight to her feather. "He was always grabbing it," she says. The feather became significant to Chelsey through Spirit B as well. "When Spirit B passed," she says, "all these ideas came flooding in. I saw Spirit B in the form of a bird, specifically a hawk or a Steller's Jay. So the feather is related to the birds. The color blue, like the lapis and the sky—all these symbols became symbols of Spirit B for me."
On a practical as well as a spiritual level, the feather necklace works well for Chelsey. "I'm so active, my jewelry has to be light," she says. "It has to be simple. It has to be able to be worn for days or weeks on end. It has to get wet. Bronwen Jewelry is all that." The "With Spirit" necklace is a salute to Chelsey's journey and a talisman for others who wear the necklace for the spiritual healing it brings to their lives.
Chelsey is the gal with exactly the lifestyle we envisioned when we designed our active jewelry. Mud? No problem. Sweat? Trivial. Grime? Just wear it in the shower.
Chelsey says she loves Bronwen Jewelry's aesthetic as much as she loves its functionality. "It fits with everything," she says. "I give Tiny Charm Necklaces as gifts to all the women in my life," she says, "and I see all these active women wearing them all the time, never taking them off."
"I'm really particular about what I put in my house and on my body," says Chelsey. "And Bronwen necklaces--I never take mine off, during slacklining, whitewater, these long races. They fit my lifestyle well."
Chelsey is never one to sit still for long, but the spring 2020 coronavirus situation has forced the postponement and cancellation of some of the events, workshops, and retreats that she and Jason offer. “We had to postpone our biggest race of the year, Expedition Oregon,” she says, “and we’re still mourning that. But in the meantime, we’re going out with our kids a lot, taking this time to focus on our family.”
They’ll be in the mountains, of course, and on rivers and trails. “We’ll get off the beaten path,” Chelsey says. “When we’re out together riding or climbing or hiking we are a very creative couple. We have goals, we come up with a lot of ideas when we’re outside.”
We can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.