Anchorage-based nordic skier Rosie Brennan skied to victory in back-to-back World Cup races over the weekend in Switzerland.
Brennan’s victories came in a race circuit profoundly changed by the coronavirus pandemic, with several top teams sitting out the races. But U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said the victories are still a big deal.
“You have to look at all these other nations, 15 other nations, all sending their best athletes. There’s nothing given away at this World Cup weekend,” he said.
And Whitcomb pointed out that Brennan’s two nearest competitors in Saturday’s race were both previous World Cup winners. With the victory, Brennan took the coveted yellow bib of the overall World Cup leader.
Brennan’s successes on the international ski circuit have been gradual. Before this year, her top result was a sixth-place finish. But the first weekend of racing this year showed her potential when she clocked the third-fastest time in a pursuit race in Finland.
Still, Saturday’s sprint wasn’t expected to be her strongest event. The 32-year-old is known for her long-distance skiing over 5 and 10 kilometer races, not the three minute effort of sprint racing.
With a couple smart tactical moves and a powerful surge on a steep 40-foot climb, Brennan put herself in the lead on the short downhill section right before the finish. But with just a 100-yard straightaway to go, Brennan said, she still had her doubts.
“I was like, well, this is going to go one of two ways: Either everyone’s gonna pass me in the finish or I’m gonna hold on for dear life,” she recalled from her apartment in Switzerland. “Fortunately it was the latter.”
At the finish, there were no fans cheering, no champagne or cake to celebrate. Brennan has rented a separate apartment from the rest of her team to reduce some of the stress and COVID risk. In any case, U.S. team policies prevented indoor gathering with anyone but immediate roommates.
“I was definitely on this weird high of like, ‘What just happened? I don’t even know.’ It was not my best night of sleep, I will admit,” she said.
After showing her fitness on Saturday, Brennan’s victory in Sunday’s 10-kilometer skate race seemed like a foregone conclusion. Racers started at 30-second intervals, and coach Whitcomb said just a few kilometers into the race he looked at his timer and saw Brennan was already 10 seconds up on her closest competitor.
“Rosie didn’t need splits at all, she had already done the damage without hearing from any of us. This one was all on her. And by the end, it was — I mean, she won by more than a football field,” he said.
While Brennan’s Sunday result was less of a surprise, her 22-year-old teammate Hailey Swirbul shocked the field by skiing to a third-place finish, her first podium. Swirbul said she was surprised to have such a good result. She said she just focused on finding small things to make her happy.
“As simple as it sounds, I was actually looking forward to my warmup yesterday a lot, because it’s just a time where I can actually just be happy to be outside and enjoying the beautiful snow and scenery. And it kind of helps me take the pressure off the race,” she said.
Fast skis and an extra week to let her body acclimatize to the high altitude of the Alps helped, too. And after falling behind her teammate Brennan throughout training in the fall, it was a bit of a relief to see that she was going up against one of the best in the world.
“I think all of our team feel good about Rosie just crushing us this fall in a sense because she’s clearly on her best game, and on a really high level of skiing,” she said.
COVID worries have kept several of the top ski teams in the world from coming to the races in Switzerland, which has been one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe. Scandinavian powerhouses Norway, Finland and Sweden all sat out the weekend of racing, citing concerns about racer safety.
Swirbul and Brennan both said they’re skipping next weekend’s World Cups in Germany to avoid some of that stress. But they’ll be back later in the year. Whitcomb said taking breaks and figuring out a way to deal with the stress is something that will be a challenge for all the athletes throughout the rest of this strange year of racing.
“It’s not easy to be focused these days,” he said. “To stay sane is actually pretty hard.”
Brennan is hoping a short break can help her keep some of that sanity and keep her winning streak going once she gets back into her race bib after the holidays.