Rosie Brennan chose to go sledding as her way of celebrating her back-to-back World Cup cross country skiing victories last week. And that seems like a perfect metaphor for how she came to own the No. 1 overall World Cup ranking, plus two wooden Swiss sleds, in the first place.
Sledding is about trudging to the highest point possible, often slipping backward for a few steps at a time along the way. Then, once there, it’s about settling in and letting nature take its course.
That’s basically what Brennan, a Park City High graduate, did last weekend in Davos, Switzerland. She’d pushed through myriad setbacks throughout her career — injuries, a bout with mononucleosis at the 2018 Olympics, two cuts from the national team and, of course, training complications from the coronavirus pandemic — to arrive at her peak fitness. Then she skied up to the start line for Saturday’s race, pushed off and enjoyed the adrenaline rush.
After a wild 2 minute, 27.36 second ride, the 32-year-old long-distance specialist earned her first World Cup victory, a freestyle sprint.
“I honestly don’t know what happened,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It was one of those, I mean, I guess this is what every athlete dreams of. It was just one of those days where, like, everything clicks and it was subconscious. I didn’t have to make choices, my body just knew what to do.
“That’s just, like, such a rare thing that you’re just always striving for and trying to find it. And I guess I was just lucky enough to have it that day.”
The following day, she topped the podium again. This time it was in her specialty, the 10-kilometer freestyle, which she won by 34 seconds.
Together the victories made her just the second American cross-country skier, male or female, to win back-to-back World Cup events (Her former teammate, Salt Lake City native Kikkan Randall, first did it in 2011.) Combined with a fifth-place overall finish in the opener in November, they also lifted her to the top of both disciplines and the overall in the World Cup standings. The only other American woman to hold the No. 1 overall rank was Sadie Maubet Bjornsen after last year’s opener.
Prior to this season, Brennan had never been ranked higher than 10th in the World Cup standings.
“Her performances were really impressive,” Randall said of Brennan. “I mean, to win the qualifier and the final in the sprint and to stomp the field by so much in Sunday’s race, I’m so excited for my teammate.”
Athletes from three of the sport’s most dominant countries — Norway, Sweden and Finland, which have more World Cup victories among them than all other countries combined — did not compete in Davos out of concerns about COVID-19. Brennan wondered if that would cause the cross country community to put an unspoken asterisk on her accomplishments. She said as far as she can tell it has not.
“It was a weaker field, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, I’m realistic about that,” she said. “But it’s also, you know, it’s still the World Cup and you have to show up to win.”
She almost didn’t show up, actually. Brennan, too, considered skipping the early-season World Cup races because of the coronavirus. When her boyfriend, Tyler Kornfield, was presented with his first opportunity to start for the men’s team, though, they decided at the last minute to brave the trip from Anchorage, where both live and train.
Other factors played into the decision as well. For one, Brennan gets her health insurance through the U.S. Olympic Committee, and she feared losing it if didn’t compete and was cut again. She had already been dropped from the team twice. The first was in 2015 after she incurred a series of injuries. The most recent was in 2018 after her disappointing, mono-sabotaged Olympic debut.
Secondly, she said she is in the best shape of her life. In part, that’s because she deals with stress by exercising. The disruption of the end of the last World Cup season because of the coronavirus, the pandemic and overarching concerns about the future have provided plenty of motivation. Plus, as part of the sport’s older wave of competitors, she said she has a deeper base fitness that makes her less vulnerable to the limits to gym access and training facilities that athletes have faced this year.
She’s had backward slips, but she’s steadied herself and kept trudging up the hill.
“Winning is obviously the goal. That’s why you race is to win,” she said. “But the positive feelings and, like, the satisfaction that I get come from just knowing, like, all the obstacles I faced to get here and then just proving to myself that I knew I could do this and that I did it.
“That just kind of just gives me this really happy feeling to know, ‘OK, I set out and there were like so many things that went poorly, but I didn’t give up and eventually I got here.’”
Brennan plans to continue on her upward trajectory. She’s sure she’ll have a few more slips, but she’s also confident she can keep going. And if she can’t, as prizes for winning last week’s races, she has her pick of two wooden Swiss sleds she can ride back down.