Tom Kelly: The art of perseverance
It’s a bluebird day as Parkite Rosie Brennan strides up the snow-covered trail alongside a mountain stream. It’s a special place for her. The Dischmatal, or Dischma Valley, winds to the north from Davos, Switzerland, eventually crossing a medieval route over the Scaletta Pass to the Engadin. Standing out is the towering Schwarzhorn, a sentinel along the ridgeline, much like Jupiter Peak back home.
“I like it because it’s a wide valley and gets lots of sun. We call it Sun Valley,” Brennan said.
As a World Cup cross-country ski racer, Brennan’s home is Davos most Decembers. It’s one of the more gorgeous stops on the tour with an elevation much like Park City. Some of her foreign competitors aren’t all that comfortable with the altitude. But it suits Brennan just fine. It’s just like home. Anchored in Europe now, she’ll spend Christmas there next week.
For a decade, Brennan has been a journeyman on the World Cup tour. Now 32, she got payback last weekend. On Saturday, in the most unlikely event — a freestyle sprint — she won. The next day was her preferred distance — a 10k freestyle. She won again. Today, she’s the World Cup leader — on top of the overall, distance and sprint rankings five races into the season.
“I set my goals in the spring for the 10k — the sprint race was just a complete surprise,” she said. “I had zero expectations for that. I was really doing it as a prep for the distance race, so that one was just shocking.”
Brennan’s career as a skier has been far from typical. Living in Park City, she and her family alpine skied on weekends for fun. But mom had a rule. The kids needed at least one organized activity outside school. “I had a lot of energy as a kid, so I think I was driving her absolutely nuts,” laughed Brennan. Her mother, Wiggy, suggested cross-country skiing.
As a 14-year-old, Brennan gave it a try. Her first fall outing was on roller skis. Then coach John Callahan took her up to West Yellowstone, Montana, for early-season snow.
“Moms always know best,” Brennan said. “It was a perfect fit. I loved it immediately. I was just captivated and the team was awesome and so much fun. I just wanted to do anything I could to be able to keep up with them and get better as quickly as I could.”
Skiing the White Pine Touring Center trails, she rose quickly through the ranks, guided now by coach Gordon Lange. It was a formative time for the cross-country program in Park City as she trained alongside future Olympic medalists like Billy Demong. In just a few years, from middle school to high school, she was on a pathway to the top.
Life is about choices — some you make and some are made for you. Her career has met many forks in the road. She’s somehow made it through all of them and still has that passion she felt as a teen.
As expected, coming out of high school, she had an offer to join the national team. It was a dream come true. But she chose Dartmouth and became a four-time All-American skier under coach Cami Thompson-Graves. Then it was off to Anchorage to work with coach Erik Flora at Alaska Pacific University, alongside her friend Sadie Bjornsen and the incomparable Kikkan Randall, whose career was burgeoning.
Her pathway was never easy. A back injury in college, a mountain bike crash in Moab, the sudden death of her father, Tom, and an on-and-off standing with the U.S. Ski Team. Finally, in 2018, she made the Olympic team. But a month before PyeongChang, she felt a bit off. Good early-season results trailed off deeply in January. It was not the Olympics she had hoped for.
She would later learn that she had mononucleosis. That spring, she was not renominated to the U.S. Ski Team. In characteristic Rosie Brennan fashion, she fought back with results on her own, making the team again the next year and rising to become one of its leaders.
If patience and perseverance are hallmarks of great athletes, Brennan has been the poster child. Through thick and thin, though, she’s come out better and still with a big smile on her face.
“It’s probably my stubbornness,” she said. “The interesting part is that I don’t really know what it is. There have been moments where I’ve definitely questioned whether or not I want to be doing this and even gone as far as quitting for like a month and really taking some time to think if this is really what I want to do.
“But for whatever reason, there’s just been something in me that really has felt like I hadn’t achieved what I was capable of. I just couldn’t stop trying until I could show myself that I was actually capable of what I thought it was.”
She reflects back on the pathway that brought her to this point where, for at least the time being, she’s the FIS cross-country World Cup leader. “Maybe some of it’s just luck, but I feel so fortunate to have had the coaches I have had — all just truly remarkable people. Every single one has just seen something in me. I don’t know what it is that they just feel, but they have just always had my back and and continued to push me to strive for more and believed that I have more in me.”
Brennan will sit out this weekend’s city sprint in Dresden, Germany, to spend a quiet Christmas in Davos. On New Year’s Day, she’ll be over the mountain from Davos in tiny Val Müstair, Switzerland, on the Italian border for the start of the grueling 10-day Tour de Ski.
Looking back on all the choices across her decade-and-a-half as an elite cross country ski racer, Rosie Brennan is in a good place. She has a degree from Dartmouth, a masters in education, a couple World Cup wins and right now is the best women’s ski racer in the world.
As she skis back through the Dischmatal towards Davos with the sun dropping below the ridgeline, it’s nice to think of how far she has come from that first experience at White Pine Touring in Park City.
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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