She’s very strong both mentally and physically. She takes things in stride, and just deals with them. She never gets too upset about anything. —Rosie Brennan's mother Wiggy
Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the first in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Cut from the U.S. Ski Team and struggling to stay healthy enough to finish her college career, Rosie Brennan wondered if it wasn’t time for her to set aside her Olympic dreams for academic pursuits.
“I was named to the U.S. Ski Team right after I graduated high school,” said the Park City native. “Then I suffered a back injury my freshman year of college, and I was young and immature, and I just didn’t know how to handle it. It kind of plagued me for a long time. I was let go from the U.S. Ski Team after two years.”
Had it not been for her Dartmouth College teammates and coaches, she may not have continued her cross-country career.
“When you’re young, it feels really personal,” she said of being cut. “It felt like the national team has no belief in you. I was really thankful to be in college at that time, and I had coaches and teammates who helped me manage and get through that.”
Just as Brennan was regaining her confidence, she crashed on a mountain bike in Moab, tearing her PCL.
“It was a total freak thing,” she said. “I tried to race that season with it torn, but I felt I could never race like myself. I had surgery that spring. It was intense, and just as I was getting back into things, I totaled my car and got a concussion. It was right before Christmas of my senior year.”
Brennan began wondering if maybe it was time to leave her ski career in the past.
“It seemed like there were so many signs,” she said. “I thought, maybe I should just accept them. I started doing better in school, and I started looking into graduate programs, considering my options, and thinking academics is what I should focus on."
But her college coach convinced her to finish her collegiate career.
“They needed me,” she said. “And the college circuit was fun, low pressure. I slowly got back into shape, and by the end of the season, I was actually racing quite well.”
She competed in nationals, and those childhood dreams started coming back into view.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I do want to keep skiing,’” she said. “Maybe I should just look into it. So I started talking to college coaches who ran post-college programs.”
While affection for the sport always propelled Brennan’s efforts, she was also nagged by the sting of being cut by the U.S. team.
“I always wanted to prove that despite being let go from the ski team, I could compete at the highest level,” Brennan said. “There was always something in me that wanted to prove that. And then, yeah, you come to the realization that you really love racing and skiing.”
As Brennan wrestled with what to do after her collegiate career ended, she consulted longtime friend Sadie Bjornsen. The two met in 2007 at Junior Worlds, and became close when the Washington native came to Park City to train in Brennan’s hometown each summer.
“We’d stayed close even though we went different directions in college,” Brennan said. “I was trying to figure out what to do, and she convinced me to head up to Alaska.”
Dartmouth had offered Brennan something she’d never had growing up.
“I was one of two or three girls who trickled through (developmental) team, but it was much more male dominated,” she said. “I was always chasing the boys. In college, it was the first time I was part of a women’s team and had a women’s coach.
"It was a totally different experience, and I really enjoyed it. It was really different to have a group of women to work with and push each other through every day. That was definitely something I was interested in continuing after college.”
Joining the program at Alaska Pacific University allowed her not just access to the best training and coaching, but also a mentor — five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall.
“I also wanted to see what the best were doing,” she said. “Kikkan has had an incredible impact on my career. Toward the end of my high school career (about 2006), they cut all the women from the U.S. Ski Team. I was wondering, ‘Is there a future in this? What am I going to do?’ By the time I graduated, they had a team again.”
And Brennan was part of it.
It was Randall’s example that showed her a level of commitment that eventually infused the women’s team and has enabled it to break barrier after barrier.
“That whole thing didn’t stop Kikkan in the least,” Brennan said. “She still had her goals in mind, and watching her push through that, and accomplish that, to become the best, it opened all of our eyes to the idea that belief can take you so far. With a little bit of courage and a lot of belief and hard work, she showed us all what we could accomplish. It revamped all of our hopes and dreams.”
Brennan said skiing with APU team allowed her to pursue a graduate degree while chasing an Olympic dream that first took root when she was just a little girl watching the 1996 U.S. gymnastics team win gold.
“I was really into gymnastics at the time, and I was watching at my grandparents' house,” she said. “It was a huge thing. That was the moment when I thought, ‘Wow, I want to go to the Olympics.’ But even at that age, I knew it wasn’t going to be in gymnastics.”
Brennan participated in a number of sports growing up, but nothing really captivated her. Interestingly, Brennan’s family went to the cross-country events when Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002.
“My mom had picked up cross-country later in life, and she kept suggesting it,” Brennan said. “I’d gone with her once or twice, but it wasn’t until I was in eighth grade that I really started taking it serious. I didn’t have anything going on, and my mom said I had to find some activity to do during the winter. I think I got bored enough that I said, ‘OK, sign me up.’ I loved it right away. It was an instant hit.”
Rosie's mom, Wiggy, said the reality of her daughter’s potential came slowly with each step in her career.
“It’s been kind of an incremental thing,” Wiggy said. “There were a lot of ups and downs, injuries, thinking of quitting, and we’ve kind of had to sit back and let her live her life, make her decisions. Is she still loving what she’s doing? Should she still do it? When she has bad races, it’s really hard. When she has good races, it’s really fun.”
Wiggy said her daughter is “quietly competitive.”
“She’s very strong both mentally and physically,” she said. “She takes things in stride, and just deals with them. She never gets too upset about anything.”
Being part of her first Olympics is both surreal and something she believes her daughter expected to someday achieve. Rosie said that as she competed on the World Cup circuit, her confidence grew and her goals became loftier.
“The more success I had, the more I thought, ‘OK, yes, I can do this. I do belong racing in Europe,’” she said.
As for the reality of making her first Olympic team, it still feels like a bit of a dream, she says, even as her first race looms Saturday. “It still does,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s incredible the number of people from home who reach out to you. It’s a really cool thing.”