In her unlikely path from APU coach to elite ski racer, Holly Brooks’s career has taken her to some amazing places, namely the 2010 Olympics. But for all her success over the past two years, there was one spot she still hadn’t set foot until this weekend: the top step of the podium at the U.S. National Championships.
In Sunday’s classic sprint in Rumford, Brooks checked another achievement off her list with an emphatic display of skiing. After winning qualifying and cruising through her quarters and semis, Brooks put on a clinic in the finals, topping University of Colorado’s Eliska Hajkova and APU’s Morgan Smyth by nearly ten seconds.
“People in the final stretch said I could slow down, but there was no way. No way in hell was I going to slow down—I’m not taking anything for granted here,” she said. “It all came together, and this is pretty much a perfect day for me.”
With Sadie Bjornsen and Katie Ronsse rounding out the top five, the APU women represented the top four American finishers, making the race look more like an interval session than a national championship. Smyth described the team as a “big group of girls that’s kickin’ ass.”
Indeed, in the morning qualifying round, APU put six of their women in the top ten. Dartmouth and Craftsbury, represented by Sophie Caldwell and Ida Sargent, were the only other clubs to crack the top five.
After a strong start to her season, including a 33rd-place finish in a World Cup sprint in Finland, Sargent should have posed Brooks’s biggest threat on Sunday. But according to Pepa Miloucheva, her coach at Craftsbury, Sargent was still suffering from the effects of a car accident that occurred a few weeks ago—which left her with a concussion, neck soreness, and eight stitches.
Miloucheva said that double-poling, especially, is still bothering Sargent’s neck, so after feeling some pain in the qualifier, she shut things down partway through her first heat.
“She…backed off big time, because we were just still dealing with the situation, and trying to keep it safe,” Miloucheva said.
With Sargent out of commission, Brooks’s biggest obstacles included Bjornsen, Smyth, and Hajkova.
Hajkova, a Czech import who completed the 2008 Tour de Ski, actually topped Brooks in both the quarters in semis. But Brooks was still clearly in control, staking herself to an early lead in each heat; she was never seriously threatened with elimination.
In the finals, she used a quick start to take the hole shot around the first corner, and never looked back. By the time Brooks had reached the finish line, the rest of the women were barely entering the stadium.
But while she showed Sunday that she has plenty of speed, Brooks maintained that she was more of a “hybrid distance-slash-sprinter,” and said that she hadn’t specifically targeted the classic sprint.
“For the last couple weeks, I’ve been puzzled—I couldn’t decide what race I was most excited for, and I couldn’t decide what race I
had the best chance in,” she said. “I don’t really specialize in any one thing—I’m kind of a generalist.”
Brooks will take home $1,200 for her win, but with three more events to go in the championships, she has a legitimate shot at quadrupling her haul—though she’ll have to top U.S. Ski Team members Morgan Arritola and Liz Stephen in the distance races to do so.
A heavy training load heading into the first part of the season left Brooks feeling flat. But she said that she was finally starting to feel sharper on Sunday.
“Now I feel good, and it’s the right time,” she said.
After a tough season in which she struggled with illness, failed to crack the top 10 on the domestic circuit, and was dropped from the U.S. Ski Team, Smyth climbed to the podium for the first time since 2009.
She joined APU in the off-season, where she said she was looking to work with the club’s deep women’s team.
“If you’re going to race with them, you might as well train with them,” she said. “It’s been super-fun—I love it up there. Great coaches, and great teammates.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.