Parkite Rosie Brennan takes on the World
Nordic skier makes way on and off national team
February 17, 2017
Rosie Brennan didn't have anything to do the winter she was in eighth grade. Her mom suggested she try Nordic skiing, and what started as an activity to get her out of the house — and her mom's hair — has blossomed into a career as a World Cup skier. Considering the current level of American women in Nordic skiing, that was no small feat. And like most endurance athletes, it wasn't an overnight success story.
"I won my very first ski race, a Wasatch Citizens race, and there was only one other girl in my age group. However silly that race was, it was enough to give me a taste of competitive skiing and know that was something I wanted to pursue."
She joined the Park City team, under the TUNA umbrella, with coach John Callahan. Soon afterwards, as Park City Nordic became part of the National Sports Foundation, she began working with Gordon Lang. She says this is where the "real work began."
"I had fallen in love with Nordic racing and wanted to make the next steps. Gordon was the perfect coach for me and helped me see my potential, pushed me to train harder, and believed in me the whole way."
After her initial success in the WCS, she still had to rise to the level as a national junior skier.
"It took me another year to even qualify for Junior Nationals and another year after that to be very competitive at the junior level," she recalls. Her performance as a junior led her to a National Team nomination in 2007, her senior year of high school.
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Her junior results also earned her a spot skiing for national powerhouse Dartmouth College, and it was there she discovered that in addition to good coaching, a positive team environment can contribute to overall athlete development.
"I went to Dartmouth College because I believed the program there was best designed to help foster my development as a racer, and they had a strong team. Cami (Thompson) led a very strong and dedicated women's team, something I had never experienced, as the Park City team was mostly boys. It was an incredible experience and I learned a lot about the power of a team," she says. "It is always challenging to leave home in the beginning, but I learned so much about myself and that has ultimately made me a stronger racer."
Once again, the road to excellence was full of hurdles. She lost her U.S. National Team spot in 2009. Then, in her senior year of college, she suffered a series of injuries and a concussion from a car accident. She had all but decided to graduate from skiing with college, and began to pursue graduate programs. However, as things began to take a brighter turn, a conversation with a future World Cup teammate ended up steering her in a slightly different direction.
"After a conversation with Sadie Bjornsen, who had become a close friend during our junior years and was currently having a standout year with APU, I suddenly felt that APU might be the best option. I looked at a few different club programs, but none had the strong women's team that APU had, which was something I had grown to value during my time at Dartmouth."
The day after graduating from Dartmouth she flew to Alaska and began pursuing a post-graduate degree and professional ski career.
The next step for American skiers after college is the SuperTour Series. A skier who leads the series earns the opportunity to test their mettle at the World Cup. Already named to the U.S. National Team after her success as a senior at Dartmouth, Brennan joined a few races on the world stage. Again, when she stepped up a level, success was not immediate.
"I did period 4 and period 1 in 2013, and was disheartened by my results. I started questioning all my training and even if APU was the right place to be." As she returned to Alaska with the idea of tying up loose ends and returning home to Park City, she realized mid-flight, that maybe she should stick it out.
"I landed, called my coach, Erik Flora, and told him I wanted to stay. He said that would be alright, but I needed to fully commit, and after I decided to be 'all in' with APU and truly believe in my training there, I started seeing huge improvements."
Brennan started again with the SuperTour series and U.S. Nationals. For her, the second time was the charm. She was able to find success on the World Cup and race the World Championships, and find her way to the World Cup full-time following that. She regained her status as a member of the U.S. National Team in 2015, and with the strongest team in American history, Brennan has finally hit her stride amongst the group
"As with any team, it takes some time to find your place. As a relative newcomer to the U.S. team, I am finally in a place where I feel like an important part of the team, and this is something I truly enjoy," she says. "It's not always easy to make a team work, but if everyone is committed to trying, the impact that team will have on each other is huge. We are lucky to have a role model in Kikkan (Randall), who brought this idea of team together and continually shows us how to be the best kind of teammate.
Nordic skiing is often thought of as an individual sport. The recent successes throughout the U.S. team have shown that is not always true, and Brennan draws strength from that team. However, there are also times when an athlete needs to focus on their own needs. She recently set aside some solo time after becoming one of only a few Americans to finish the grueling Tour de Ski.
"I am also a very independent person, so living on the road all winter provides its challenges for me," she relates. "As a result, I decided to travel on my own after the Tour de Ski to recoup and get some training in by myself. It was one of the best decisions I have made and I will likely continue to do this in future years."
Brennan used her time alone to focus on her own training needs, without the temptation to follow her experienced teammates in their training. She gained confidence, and when she joined her teammates again, it was in a coveted relay spot on USA I in Ulriceham, Sweden. She joined Sadie Bjornsen, the friend who encouraged her to come to APU, Liz Stephan, and Jessie Diggins, to ski to fourth place there against a full World Cup roster. The result, and their reaction to it, underscores just how strong this current group of Americans is.
"When I started skiing, there were no women on the U.S. Ski Team. Fortunately, Utah is an easy place to find role models despite this, so I still had people to look up to, such as Wendy Wagner. What Kikkan showed all of us is that hard training and a lot of belief can take you places no one else thought possible," Brennan says.
"It was not that long ago that a 4th place would have been a historic best," she recounts, citing that the recent relay 4th was a slight disappointment by today's standards. "We went from one woman with a podium to five, plus relay medals, in 4 years." They also had eight women — enough to field two entire relay teams. The only other countries who have this many athletes are Norway, Sweden, and Russia.
While skiers from those traditional Nordic countries can make a decent living from skiing, the Americans often struggle. They have to choose between staying far from home most of the winter, to braving expensive flights and jet lag to come back. Additionally, the life of a full-time skier is not sustainable financially, even for an athlete with World Cup points like Brennan.
"Some of my teammates have been more successful in making this profitable, but I still struggle with this. It is extremely hard to have to make decisions based on money instead of what is best for you and your career. I am very lucky to have support from my family that has allowed me to continue on this path," Brennan acknowledges. "It is fantastic that we have clubs that give skiers an option to continue racing outside of school. I hope that continues into the future, and that someday these clubs are strong enough to offer full financial support as well."
The National Nordic Foundation (NNF) helps skiers like Brennan, who as a member of the USSA B team receives limited funding from the national team. Like most American skiers, she has an education to back her up later, and Brennan intends to put that to use.
"As for my future, I have been studying education, so I am looking into becoming a teacher, but I am also a sucker for school and could see myself heading back to school as well. My undergrad is in geography and I would love to study that further."
For now, though, Rosie will join that now famous U.S. Team for the World Championships in Falun, Sweden. Independent as she is, her outlook still includes her teammates as she sets new goals.
"I would love to see an Olympic medal and a relay medal from World Championships or the Olympics. I would also love to see the men have similar success." Judging from the recent improvement rate and success of the current team, those medals could well be hers.
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