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How Rosie Brennan Persevered Through Injuries, Illness, & Tragedy To Lead The XC Ski World Cup Tour

By Peggy Shinn | Dec. 29, 2020, 9:07 a.m. (ET)

Rosie Brennan competes in the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on March 2, 2019 in Seefeld, Austria.

 

When Rosie Brennan starts the FIS Tour de Ski on January 1, 2021, she will wear the yellow bib of the FIS World Cup leader. No U.S. cross-country skier has ever started the prestigious eight-stage Tour de Ski ranked number one.

Brennan took the lead in mid-December after winning back-to-back world cup races in Davos, Switzerland. Only Olympic gold medalists Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall have won more world cup races for the Americans.

“That was part of the weekend that was totally unexpected!” said Brennan by Zoom from Europe. “But I have to say it's an incredible cherry on top of what was already a dream weekend.”

Brennan, 32, is only the second U.S. woman to wear the cross-country leader’s bib (Sadie Maubet Bjornsen earned it briefly last season after the season’s first races). Prior to this season, Brennan—who perhaps unfairly describes herself as a slow learner—had never ranked higher than 17th in the overall standings. And she was never known as a sprinter on the world cup.

It’s a remarkable season for a skier who has had more than her share of trials. Cut from the U.S. Ski Team twice, she has persevered through injuries, illness, and the unexpected death of her father. 

What has kept her coming back?

Quick Rise Through The Ranks
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Brennan took up cross-country skiing late in life—meaning that she didn’t start around the time she could walk like many of the world’s top cross-country skiers. Initially a gymnast, Brennan started the sport in eighth grade after her mom, Wiggy, encouraged her to try it.

Brennan liked it immediately. The harder she worked, the faster she was.

“Of course, with any sport you have to work hard to get better,” she said. “But it was such a clear path, and it was something I could do on my own. I felt like I was in more control of it. I didn’t really realize how competitive I was until I found endurance sports.”

Despite her late start, Brennan quickly moved up the ranks. Within three years, she was winning at junior nationals and was named to the U.S. Ski Team her senior year in high school.

Bucking Bronco Ride
At the same time, she was accepted at Dartmouth College, which has one of the nation’s best collegiate ski teams. She decided to do both—attend college and ski for the U.S. Ski Team. 

This is where her bucking-bronco ride began. She dealt with an onslaught of injuries, first a fractured vertebrae and torn disk in her back freshman year, then a torn ligament in her knee junior year, then a concussion from a car crash senior year. 

Despite the injuries, Brennan was one of Dartmouth’s top cross-country skiers, rarely finishing off the podium. She also competed in her first world cup races and at junior world championships. It was, she said, overwhelming.

Then after her sophomore year, she lost her nomination to the U.S. Ski Team. She was devastated. 

The car crash was the last straw. Brennan decided to give up skiing. But her college teammates and coach convinced her to stay, and she ended up having another successful winter skiing for the Big Green. 

That spring, she met Erik Flora, head coach of the Alaska Pacific University elite team. Kikkan Randall was a long-time member of the APU team, as was Brennan’s good friend Sadie Bjornsen. Flora convinced Brennan to move to Alaska after college graduation and give ski racing a-go.

“He gave me that belief that I did have the ability to fight my way back, and I could get back on the national team where I wanted to be,” said Brennan.

Even with that belief, it was a slow progression. Her confidence waned after she struggled in a few world cup races, and she missed making the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. She considered moving home to Utah, but then realized that she had everything she needed for success in Alaska, and she still felt like she had yet to reach her potential. She recommitted to the APU program.

Then in August 2014, her father, Tom, suddenly passed away. The Brennans are a close family, and Rosie was devastated. A quiet introspective person, she found solace in the mountains. So she kept skiing; it was an outlet. 

“Breathing hard and being surrounded by the natural environment has allowed for moments of clarity, for escape, for peace, and for meaning,” she wrote in a blog a couple of months later. 

With her stress level pegged, Brennan raced through the emotional fog and somehow had one of her best season’s yet. She was renamed to the U.S. Ski Team in the spring of 2015.

Looking back, she has no idea how she made it through that season. 

But the bucking bronco was not done with her yet. 

In December 2017, as she was gearing up for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, something felt off. She tried to ski, and her legs wouldn’t move. She thought she was overtrained, but the feeling never left her. She only competed in one race at the 2018 Games—the skiathlon—and finished 58th. 

At the end of the season, she was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which she probably caught over Christmas break. Again she was cut from the U.S. Ski Team.

Brennan wondered if skiing still had a place in her life. But with no plan B, she decided to keep going.

“I was in such good shape before I got mono, so I felt like there was still something there,” she said. “Also, I didn’t know what else I was going to do.”

Realizing the importance of a having a backup plan, Brennan applied to graduate school. She was accepted by Utah State University and one day plans to pursue a graduate degree in watershed science.

The support of her APU team, plus sponsorships and crowdfunding, kept her afloat—“It speaks volumes to how important the club system is,” she said. But without the support of the U.S. Ski Team, she had to hire her own wax technician and pay for her own travel. 

Fortunately, she was given world cup starts for the start of 2018/2019 season, and again, she began working her way up the world cup rankings. She scored several top-10 finishes that winter and was named to the U.S. Ski Team for the third time. 

At the 2019 World Cup Finals in Quebec City, a group of U.S. women Olympic cross-country skiers—a group called U.S. NOW (U.S. Nordic Olympic Women)—presented Brennan with the Inga Award for her perseverance. 

“I’m honestly shocked,” Brennan said after receiving the award, named for the overlooked mother who helped carry (on skis) her 2-year-old son, Crown Prince Haakon, to safety in 12th-century Norway in the tale of the Birkebeiners. “I’ve had a lot of challenges in my whole career, and to be presented this award from this group of people who have also gone through their own challenges means more than any race ever could.”

Of course, with any sport you have to work hard to get better.

Rosie Brennan, Cross-Country Skiing

World Cup Wins
Brennan started the 2020/2021 season in perhaps the best fitness of her life. With COVID-19 restrictions, she trained uninterrupted all summer with her APU teammates, including 22-year-old Hailey Swirbul, who scored her first world cup podium in the Davos 10km this month. 

“She’s definitely kept me on my toes,” joked Brennan. “When you have someone who’s a decade younger than you challenging you every day, you better get your butt in gear!”

The COVID-19 restrictions were also a “blessing in disguise” for Brennan, an introvert with a big smile. 

“Not being able to travel, my training was consistent,” she said. “No interruptions, no distractions, no weddings, no training camps, no nothing.”

The restrictions did, however, keep the skiers from training on Alaska’s Eagle Glacier. But they were helped by early snow in Anchorage (in October).

“Maybe doing something different this year was what I needed,” she said.

The 2020/2021 world cup season opened in late November with a three-day minitour in Ruka, Finland. A strong classic skier, Brennan made strides in her skate skiing over the summer and was eager to see how she would do. In the 10km freestyle pursuit on the final day, she jumped from 11th to fifth overall after skiing the third-fastest 10km.

“I didn’t really have many expectations, other than feeling good about my skate skiing,” she said. “I was excited to test the waters and see where it really was.”

Two weeks later, the world cup tour headed to Davos, Switzerland—except for the Scandinavian teams. Concerned about the COVID-19 surge, they stayed home.

Brennan led the sprint qualification in Davos. Then in the sprint finals, she surprised everyone when she took the lead on the final climb and held it to the finish.

Known for her distance skiing, Brennan pointed out that her previous breakthroughs have actually come in sprinting. Her best result at world juniors was 10th in the classic sprint in 2007, and two of her four national titles are in the sprint.

“In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve come full circle,” she said.

In the interval start 10km freestyle race the next day, Brennan won again, 40 seconds ahead of Swirbul in third.

Brennan skipped the city sprints in Dresden on December 19-20, 2020. It was her plan all along to skip Dresden and train for the Tour de Ski and world championships, scheduled for February.

Asked what kept her going through setbacks and emotional tailspins, Brennan credited her love for the sport and the goals she had yet to achieve.
“There's just always been something inside of me that has felt I'm capable of more than what I've shown, and I have a really strong desire to prove that mostly to myself,” she said. “As long as that feeling has been there, I've always been able to find a way to fight back.”

Tour de Ski
Brennan’s sprint win in Davos has given her confidence going into the Tour de Ski, which opens on New Year’s Day with a freestyle sprint in Val Müstair, Switzerland.

Last year, she finished 15th overall in the Tour, with her best finishes coming in the 10km stages. Jessie Diggins’s third place in 2018 is the top U.S. overall result in the Tour de Ski. Norway’s Therese Johaug is the defending champion. But due to concerns about the pandemic, the Norwegians are not competing in the Tour this year.

This year, Brennan aims to be in the mix in every race—from the sprints to the final 10km pursuit, with its infamous 3.6-kilometer climb up an alpine ski trail.

“I’ve always wanted to be better at sprinting because I’ve always wanted to be a good tour skier, and I needed to make up more time in the sprints,” she said. “This really gives me hope that I can be competitive in the Tour.”

But Brennan is realistic.

“I can't say I expect to keep [the overall leader’s bib],” she added. “But I certainly hope to put up a good fight and do it proud while I have it. It will be a really cool experience to start the tour with the yellow bib!”

 


Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Rosie Brennan

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