RUMFORD, Maine — Most Olympic athletes were child prodigies in their respective sports. Or at least offered glimpses of future greatness — like a podium finish at nationals.
Not Holly Brooks.
The 28-year-old cross-country skier finished in the latter half of results through college. Not once did she qualify for NCAAs, and her best finish at the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Championships in 2004 — the only year she competed at that level during college — was 49th.
“I would look from the bottom up on results lists to see where I finished that day,” she says. “I was really mediocre.”
Now, Brooks could be the hero for middle-of-the-pack athletes who harbor Olympic Dreams.
“I never made world juniors, I never made U23s, I never made the Scando trip, nothing,” she says. (The Scando trip is an annual rite for developing cross-country skiers to compete in the Scandinavian countries.)
Six years after she graduated from college — and after only five months of full-time training — Brooks made the Olympics.
Now, fresh off her first national crown — the sprint classic title which she won on January 2 at 2011 U.S. Cross-Country Ski Championships at Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine — Brooks wants to represent the U.S. again, this time at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Norway, in February.
So how did Brooks go from mediocrity to Olympic athlete in the span of six years?
Her story starts on Snoqualmie Pass, east of Seattle where she grew up. Her parents were Nordic ski instructors there, and they put Brooks and her triplet siblings on skis when they were two or three years old, recalls Brooks.
Competition wasn’t as much a part of the Brooks’ family plan as enjoying the outdoors and teaching others to enjoy it as well. At night, they would ski to the family cabin, spend the night, and ski out the next day.
“It was only three kilometers (to the cabin),” says Brooks. “But when you’re a kid, that’s a big deal.”
By age 12, she was helping her parents teach skiing.
“I had this instructor coat,” Brooks says. “I still remember it. I was so proud of it. It was royal blue, neon pink, and neon orange, and it came down to my knees.”
Skiing was limited to weekends and an occasional weeknight. In high school, she started racing, and when she entered Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2000, she joined the soccer, track, and ski teams. At the time, Whitman skiers competed in the USCSA (U.S. Collegiate Ski Association), not the NCAA.
Before Brooks’ junior year, Whitman’s ski team joined the NCAA and began competing against the best college racers — many recruited from Europe, such as Olympian Katrin Smigun from Estonia.
Against this stiff competition, Brooks’ best result was 20th. She never qualified for the NCAA Championships.
Brooks graduated from Whitman in 2004 with a degree in sociology and environmental studies and moved to Anchorage, Alaska. Although she did not want to compete, she loved to ski and wanted to stay involved in the sport. When her college roommate’s mother got her a part-time job as the Nordic ski coach for West Anchorage High School, she took it.
The program was billed as “small,” but Brooks discovered she was in charge of over 100 kids.
To pay the bills, she also took another part-time job at an environmental consulting firm.
Through coaching, she met the who’s-who of Alaskan Nordic skiing, including her future husband Rob Whitney, who’s a former U.S. Ski Team member, and Erik Flora, a former NCAA All-American.
In 2006, Flora was hired to run Alaska Pacific University’s Nordic Ski Center, started a decade ago as a regional Olympic development program. APU skiers have included World Championship silver medalist Kikkan Randall and 2010 Olympian James Southam.
Flora hired Brooks to help coach APU’s extensive programs. She was thrilled to have a full-time job coaching and was assigned the juniors, masters (adults), and women’s-only programs.
The job consumed her time, but she skied every day along with her charges.
“I’m not one of those coaches who stands on the sidelines,” she says. “I like to coach my juniors by following them on an interval or having them follow me.”
When she accompanied the juniors to races, she skied even more.
“Coaches ski test (at races) and probably put in like 40 kilometers a day,” she says, laughing.
But she had no idea how fit she had become. She was just doing her job.
Whitney, who was a favorite to make the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams but fell short, knew Brooks could keep up with the best and urged her to compete.
“I saw her talent, and I’m like you can do this,” says Whitney, who is now a firefighter in Anchorage. “She’d say, ‘No no no.’ It almost got to the point where I was pestering her.”
In March 2008, Brooks entered the Tour of Anchorage “for kicks.” She competed in the 50k freestyle event and won, beating Kasandra Rice, a two-time NCAA All-American cross-country skier.
The following February, Brooks entered the 2009 American Birkebeiner, a renowned 50k cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wisconsin. She was in a photo finish for first with 2006 Olympian Rebecca Dussault (Dussault won by a toe-length.)
Back in Alaska, Brooks entered the 2009 U.S. Distance Cross-Country Championships and finished fourth in the 15k. In the race’s wax cabin, U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb asked, “So Holly, are you going to make a run for the Olympics?”
“I was like, ‘Yah, right,” she remembers. “It was such a joke.”
“It’s the end of the season, everyone’s tired, this is a total fluke,” she thought.
Then came the Mt. Marathon in Seward, Alaska, on July 4, 2009. It’s a brutal three-mile running race that climbs over 3,000 feet in 1.5 miles, then descends down cliffs and waterfalls back to Seward.
Brooks was leading the race — ahead of Kikkan Randall — when she passed out and collapsed four blocks from the finish. Brooks woke up in the emergency room and was diagnosed with exertional rhabdomyolsis, an uncommon condition where the cell membranes in the muscles break down, and the muscle cells’ contents are released into the blood stream. The result: her legs stopped working.
Lying in the ER, hooked up to an IV, Brooks had a thought.
“This sounds really corny, but I had this vision that I was going to try to make the Olympics,” she admits. “I had come close to doing really well in this big race. That lit my competitive drive and got the athletic fire started over again.”
First, though, she had to finish the Mt. Marathon. Only finishers can enter the following year, and Brooks wanted to compete again. So she checked herself out of the hospital, hobbled across the finish line, then checked back into the hospital.
Also on Brooks’ agenda that summer: A wedding. She and Whitney married on July 11, 2009.
After the Mt. Marathon, she took off eight weeks to let her legs heal. Then Brooks sat down with Flora and told him her plans.
“Erik, I think I want to try ski racing,” she sheepishly admitted.
Then she whispered the next part: “I kind of want to make a run for the Olympics.”
Rather than laughing, Flora nodded and said OK.
When Brooks stated her goal to her husband, Whitney’s first thought was, “Finally!”
“I wouldn’t have nagged her for that long if I didn’t strongly believe she could do it,” he says. “I was so frustrated with the fact that I didn’t make [an Olympic team]. When you see someone who has the potential to make it, you’re like, ‘You’ve got to do it, man.’”
On August 24, 2009, Brooks began training with APU’s Elite team.
Three months later, she entered the SuperTour races in West Yellowstone, Montana, winning the 10k freestyle and finishing second in the 5k classic.
“There I was at age 27, never having won a race in my life really … ,” she says, trailing off.
Over the next month, Brooks won two more SuperTour races and finished on the podium in three NorAms (including one win) in every event from sprints to 10k classic races.
Then came the 2010 U.S. Cross-Country Ski Championships, a de facto Olympic Trials for the nation’s Nordic skiers. Top results would likely lead to an Olympic berth.
Her best race at nationals was second in the 20k classic race behind Randall. While waiting to hear if she made the team, she went back to work at APU. Twenty days after nationals, U.S. Ski Team coach Pete Vordenberg called to tell her she had made the team.
“I think I’m one of the few Olympians with a full-time job,” Brooks told an Anchorage Daily News reporter who called as she drove to work that day.
With little international experience (she competed in her first World Cup two weeks before the Olympics), Brooks traveled to Whistler and competed in five events at the 2010 Olympics. Her best result was 35th in the 30k classic race — not a surprise given that she had peaked earlier in the season in an effort to make the Olympic team.
From coach to Olympian, Brooks says there was no big secret to her success, other than “skiing her butt off” for five years as a coach. But she does credit luck.
“I married the right guy,” she says. “I met Erik Flora. All of these things just fell into place. It was perfect circumstance. That’s what I had without knowing it.”
Now one of the top cross-country skiers in the U.S., Brooks is working part-time at APU and training full-time. She won more SuperTour and NorAms this season. And at the 2011 U.S. Cross-Country Championships, she took the classic sprint title and finished second in the 20k freestyle race behind fellow 2010 Olympian Liz Stephen.
Brooks is in Lake Placid, N.Y., this week, competing in more SuperTour races while she awaits word about who will represent the U.S. at the 2011 World Championships.
“It’s a little bit ironic that most of my international experience comes at championship races,” she says. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Strange to think of a 28-year-old just starting on an international athletic career. But she sees maturity and stability in her life as an asset.
“I have an amazing husband, I have a great job, I have a really solid education, and I’m working toward [a masters in counseling at the University of Alaska-Anchorage],” she says. “With those things in place, I can be at this a couple years.”
Or more precisely, three more years.
“I would love to aim at Sochi,” she says, without a hint of sheepishness.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.