This is the first profile in a series about Olympic hopefuls and pre-qualified athletes preparing for the 2014 Winter Games. While we won’t get to everyone who could potentially make it to Sochi, Russia, we’ll do our best to provide snapshots of what individuals endure in the process of getting there.
Each obstacle 24-year-old Rosie Brennan encounters in her quest to make the U.S. Olympic ski team for the first time in her young career falls in one of two categories: things she can control and things she can’t.
The Park City, Utah, native can’t do anything about the seemingly bottomless depth in U.S. women’s skiing, not only on the national team, but extending through domestic clubs like Alaska Pacific University (APU), with which she’s affiliated.
But to get to Sochi, Russia, she needs World Cup starts. The only way to earn those without being on the U.S. Ski Team (USST) is to advance to the top of the domestic SuperTour standings.
A national title in the 10-kilometer skate race, seven SuperTour wins and a bronze in the 30 k classic at nationals last season gave Brennan a firm grasp on the 2012/2013 Continental Cup lead (by 147 points to be exact). As a result, she will start this season on the World Cup circuit, right where she finished this spring.
“I was really happy to see those results on the results page, rather than trying to convince myself I had made improvements,” Brennan said on the phone Monday. “Of course, it always helps when you race really well in the beginning of the year because your confidence just skyrockets.”
Brennan climbed the podium numerous times in collegiate and junior-national competition, but last season’s results were her most consistent at the next level since joining APU in 2011.
It didn’t come easy or without pain. Six years ago as a Dartmouth College freshman, Brennan injured her back doing double-pole intervals in Lake Placid, N.Y. She didn’t get a clear diagnosis of the injury until this spring, when the pain had become so severe that she was experiencing loss of sensation in her lower leg. She exhausted her search for medical answers from doctors, physical therapists and specialists in Utah. Then, a breakthrough came in Alaska.
She met with physical therapist Zuzana Rogers, a former member of the Czechoslovak and Slovak alpine teams who’s contracted through APU. Rogers diagnosed Brennan with a bulging disc (L5-S1) in her lower back, which damaged the nerves running down her leg.
“That made the biggest difference for me,” Brennan said. “Just having a consistent physical therapy plan and working every week with [Rogers].”
APU head coach Erik Flora lended personal experience and an eye for technique, Brennan said. Flora had his racing career cut short because of a back injury.
“We’ve really tried to change my body position during all activities into a position where my back is safe,” Brennan said. “We’re not demanding so much out of it and I’m not risking making it worse.”
Brennan views the technique work not only as a mode of injury prevention, but also a way to improve her skiing ability. She wants to improve her sprinting, but has been unable to work on it with the back limitations.
“Right now, Rosie’s strength is in classic distance racing,” Flora wrote in an email. “If you look at last year, she has also really improved her skating. This summer, we have been able to take another step in skate and classic. I see her more balanced starting this season.”
Brennan raced on the USST during college (2007-2009) and started several World Cups last season (Stockholm, Falun, Oslo, Drammen, Lahti, and Canmore), but will still be a rookie to the early season venues. The first familiar place she will compete is Soldier Hollow in Utah for U.S. nationals in January.
Brennan hopes starting the season on the World Cup will favor her more than finishing there. She felt her performance lagged late in the season due to fatigue from several months of racing and travel.
Flora has structured on-snow training camps this summer on Alaska’s Eagle Glacier around conditions that may be present in Sochi and at Soldier Hollow. The rest of Brennan’s training plan will remain largely the same as last year, with adjustments based on how her back is feeling.
“When [Brennan] joined us, she talked about primarily being a sprinter,” Flora wrote. “I have learned she is incredibly responsive to distance training. If we push base volume, she gets very fit.”
Rather than worry about what could go wrong in chasing the Olympic dream, Brennan visualizes what could go right and uses it as motivation.
“I’m just trying to focus on how I can learn from my World Cup experiences last year and use that to train better this summer and prepare myself for the fall World Cups and try and make my impact then,” Brennan said.
“Rosie’s trajectory is definitely on route to being one of the top U.S. women,” Flora added. “It is a matter of time.”
Steven McCarthy discovered a passion for sportswriting in the classrooms of the University of Maine school of journalism. He earned his Bachelor's degree in 2010, while complementing his studies covering two years of UMaine sports and summer college baseball on Cape Cod. He resides in southern Maine and works in a private school for kids with autism. In his spare time he's training for his next marathon (running or skiing) or coaching at a local high school.