Consistency Marked Rosie Brennan’s Olympic Cross-Country Ski Season
by Peggy Shinn
Rosie Brennan competes during the women's cross-country team sprint classic semifinals at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 16, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
If there were an Olympic medal for overall consistency in cross-country skiing, Rosie Brennan would have received a silver.
One of the few women to compete in all six cross-country ski events at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, Brennan finished consistently better than everyone except her teammate Jessie Diggins. And Brennan narrowly missed the podium in three races: freestyle sprint (fourth), team sprint with Diggins (fifth) and the 30-kilometer freestyle race on the final day of the Games (sixth).
Those finishes were bittersweet for Brennan. But she still smiled after each one, finding a reason to be happy. In many ways, her 2022 Olympic experience was a microcosm of her entire season.
In her second Olympic Games, Brennan’s goal was to compete in all six races and “not be like a sinking ship but to feel strong through all the races.”
Brennan, 33, set this goal last spring as she looked at the 2022 Olympic program and tried to decide on which of the six races to focus — the 15k skiathlon (7.5k of classic skiing, then 7.5k of freestyle), individual freestyle sprint, 10k classic, or 30k freestyle. Then she would hopefully be selected to compete in the team sprint and relay.
“I was having a hard time picking out what my best event would be,” she said from her home in Alaska. “I felt like I honestly had a chance in all of them.”
An all-around skier, Brennan had made the world cup podium in every distance from the sprint to 10k. She had also tallied several top 15 finishes in 30k races in the past three years. And at the previous two world championships, she had competed in four events in one week. At the Olympic Games, the cross-country races would be spread over two weeks.
“I thought it was possible,” she said.
So Brennan and her coach put together a plan. She competed on the world cup tour until the Holidays, then skipped the multistage Tour de Ski to recharge at home in Alaska.
In early January, she won her fifth national title, taking first in the women’s 20k freestyle and crossing the finish line almost a minute-and-a-half ahead of Olympians Rosie Frankowski and Caitlin Patterson. Ten days later, she won two Super Tour races (a 5k freestyle and 10k classic).
But over in Europe, the world cup tour was on hold due to COVID-19. By the time the athletes arrived in Beijing in late January, many had not raced in almost a month.
Rosie Brennan competes during the women's cross-country 4x5-kilometer relay at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on March 4, 2021 in Oberstdorf, Germany.
The first Olympic race — the skiathlon — was a chance to shake off the rust. Brennan hung with the leaders for several kilometers but ended up finishing 14th. Although she was disappointed, the race had its positive side. At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Brennan had finished almost last in the skiathlon. It was her only race at the PyeongChang Olympic Games. She was suffering from mononucleosis at the time and did not yet know it.
“I had a demon in the back of my mind that I needed to get rid of,” admitted Brennan after the race. “To be in a better place today, even if it wasn’t my best, was a step in the right direction and something that I’m proud of.”
Three days later, Brennan and Diggins made the sprint freestyle finals, giving the U.S. a good chance of winning a medal. But it was Diggins who claimed the bronze, with Brennan crossing under one second back in fourth.
Heartbreaking, yes. But again she was proud of her race.
Over the next 12 days, Brennan scored three more top-six finishes, and on the final day of the Games, she skied a strong 30k, often leading the pack that chased Norway’s Therese Johaug (who won gold) and Diggins, who claimed silver.
Of the handful of women who competed in all six Olympic cross-country ski races, only Diggins and Brennan finished in the top 15 of all of them.
“Successfully doing all the races, not just being on a downward spiral and having a crash and burn sort of situation, that really showed that I was able to handle that load effectively,” she said. “To be competitive in all the events and to really be an all-around ski racer, that’s something that I’m very proud of.”
World Cup Season
Brennan’s consistency was not just confined to the Olympic Games. From the first world cup races in late November to the final races in mid-March, Brennan finished in the top 10 two-thirds of the time and no lower than 17th.
“I’m super happy to have that kind of consistency,” she said. “It’s definitely something that I’ve been trying to figure out how to do better and improve on.”
Last season, her highs were very high last year — finishing on the podium four times, including twice during the Tour de Ski, and leading the overall world cup tour for almost a month — her lows were lower. A the end of the season, Brennan fell out of the top three in the overall standings.
“Having massive lows can be pretty draining,” she explained. “It’s hard to get going again. That’s something that had a negative impact on some of my seasons previously.”
“I really hope I can keep this kind of consistency,” she added, “then build on some of the top-end as well and then have some standout results.”
Rosie Brennan competes during the women's cross-country 7.5-kilometer + 7.5-kilometer skiathlon at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 5, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Mixed Relay Win
One of the season’s standout results came on the final day of the world cup season in the first-ever mixed 4 x 5km relay. The U.S. fielded Brennan and Diggins, along with Olympian Scott Patterson and 24-year-old Zak Ketterson, competing in his second year on the world cup.
At first, Brennan figured it would just be fun to experience this new event. But then Patterson and Ketterson had best-ever results in the 15k race the day before the relay, and suddenly, they realized that they might have a good day in the relay.
It turned out to be a very good day. Brennan, Ketterson and Patterson kept the team in contention, then Diggins — one of the fastest 5k skiers in the world — crossed the line first, beating strong teams from Finland and Norway.
“It was really unexpected and fun and exciting,” said Brennan. “It’s helpful to leave the world cup on such a happy note, with good memories. It motivates you to keep going.”
Adding To Her Bucket List
But Brennan’s season was not over yet. After the mixed relay, she traveled to Norway for the 2022 Norwegian Birkebeiner.
A bucket-list item for Brennan, the Birkebeinerrennet is a 54k classic ski marathon that crosses two mountains. The course crosses the same landscape over which Birkebeiner loyalists carried the king's son to safety in the 13th century. To mimic the weight of carrying the baby, racers must wear a backpack weighing 3.5 kilograms (7.72 pounds). They must also carry survival gear (extra clothes, ski wax, food, water, etc.) because the course is so remote.
Brennan loaded her Camelbak with the required gear but still came up short on weight. So she added a 1.25 kilo metal weight to her bag, plus lighter weights on the outside to compensate for the food and water she would consume during the race.
“I will not lie, I was outrageously sore for three of four days afterwards,” Brennan confessed with a laugh.
The women’s race has never been won by a competitor double poling. So Brennan competed with kick wax on her skis. But the top six (including Johaug and Olympic legend Marit Bjoergen) completed the entire 54k course by only double poling. Brennan finished seventh.
“I was the first person on kick wax [to finish], so I was happy about that,” she said.
As for what’s next, Brennan plans to stay at home in Alaska this spring and take advantage of all the adventures the state has to offer. Then she will plan for next season.
“I don’t know exactly what it’s doing to look like,” she said. “But I do plan to race.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered seven Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.