Rosie Brennan rounds a corner in the women's cross-country sprint free qualification round during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 the Beijing 2022 on Feb. 08, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
The Tour de Ski started on New Year’s Eve with a freestyle sprint in Val Mustair, Switzerland. Brennan qualified for the heats but then did not advance beyond the quarterfinals. She ended up 14th. Even though her quarterfinal time was only a few seconds off race winner Nadine Faehndrich, time bonuses given to the top finishers put Brennan 56 seconds back in the Tour standings.
“The time bonuses can account for quite a lot, like you have to be on the podium,” explained Brennan. “You really have to be able to have some good sprint races [in the Tour]. So, I was definitely nervous about that aspect.”
From the Val Mustair sprint, Brennan’s racing improved. In the 10k classic pursuit the next day, she climbed to seventh overall. A few days later, she finished tenth in the Tour’s second sprint—making the semifinal.
But then on stage 6, she had to face her nemesis: the mass-start classic race at Val di Fiemme, Italy.
It was in this race that disaster struck during the 2021 Tour de Ski. On the second hill of that race, she became entangled in the pack and found herself on the snow. With other competitors skiing over her, she struggled to regain her feet. When she did, she was far behind the leaders. She ended the day in 31st place, two minutes behind the leaders. She had been sitting in second overall behind teammate Diggins—and Brennan was also leading the world cup standings. But after this classic stage, she fell to seventh in the Tour standings, dropped to third in the overall world cup standings, and lost the leader’s bib.
“It was crushing,” Brennan said at the time.
Now, two years later, she was sitting in seventh overall going into this dreaded stage. Would bad luck strike again in 2023?
“I just completely fell apart in that stage two years ago, and it a serious undoing for me,” she said. “Emotionally, that took a really long time to get over. So I was definitely really nervous about that race [this year].”
The Val di Fiemme classic race ended up being Brennan’s best race of the 2022/2023 Tour. She finished fourth in a photo finish for second place and climbed to fifth overall in the Tour standings.
“To have it end up being my best race of the Tour was really something I was proud of and something that made me really encouraged for my classic skiing as well as just for my fitness into the rest of the season,” said Brennan.
Then came the ultimate stage: a mass-start 10k freestyle with the last 3 kilometers straight up an alpine ski trail on Alpe Cermis.
“I've had some strong climbs in the past so I knew anything's possible on that day,” said Brennan. “But I also knew when you're amongst the top 10, everyone's a good climber. So it's hard to really bank on passing people. But I thought if I could put together the best race possible, there was a chance to move up.”
Rosie Brennan of Team United States competes in the women's cross-country sprint free qualification during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 08, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
On the climb, Brennan skied with Diggins and teammate Sophia Laukli, who ended up finishing the stage in third place (her first world cup podium).
“It was really fun to ski with Rosie out there,” said Diggins. “I think we were just helping each other up that climb.”
Brennan in particular found it helpful to race up the Alpe with Diggins. They traded off leads “to try to eke out every little thing we could,” said Brennan. On the steepest parts of the climb, Diggins led the duo.
“It was helpful to know that I've trained a lot with her, I can stay with her, and she is good at keeping a steady pace and isn’t all over the map,” said Brennan. “I felt like if we can just keep climbing together and keep a really steady pace, we can move up.”
Then Brennan heard a time split that indicated she had moved into fourth overall. The news gave her a second wind to make it to the top. But she still had to wait until the race was over before confirming that she had in fact moved into fourth overall—"a huge bonus of the Tour,” she said.
More than the placing, Brennan was happiest to ski with her teammates that day.
“I love [Alpe Cermis] because it just gives you such a sense of accomplishment—to finish the Tour and to do it in such a difficult way,” said Brennan. “That particular day was super fun because I skied so much of it with Sophia and Jesse. And so it really felt like this last hurrah for the American women.”
Brennan’s result was also noteworthy given the problems the entire U.S. team experienced during this year’s Tour. Many on the “team behind the team” fell ill, including coaches and wax techs. Brennan’s boyfriend, skier Tyler Kornfield, stepped in to help test kick wax, Julia Kern’s parents stood along the courses with extra ski poles in case someone broke one, and anyone who was still healthy put in double time to get skis waxed and tested.
“Rosie's boyfriend Tyler's out there testing kick, ruining his hip flexors for the team,” remarked Diggins, who was equally impressed with how everyone pulled together.
“It was a real community effort to get us through those last three stages,” added Brennan. “At that point in the tour, they're probably more tired than we are.”
Diggins ended the Tour in 11th place, Laukli 23rd (matching her finish in 2022), Julia Kern 20th, and Alayna Sonnesyn 36th, a steady progression up from her Tour debut of 48th in 2020.
From Val di Fiemme, Brennan and Kornfield headed to their winter home in the Italian Dolomites for two weeks of recovery. She is hoping that fitness gained from the intensity of the Tour will put her in a good place for the rest of the season.
“So far, my recovery has gone well, so I'm hoping I can continue on this route,” she said. “And then all eyes towards world championships.”
And hopefully Brennan will make the final step from fourth to the podium.