HOUGHTON, Mich. — Rosie Brennan only needed to hear two words from her coach, Erik Flora, before the start of the women’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle-sprint final: “Send it.”
That gave the 26-year-old Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier the go-ahead and guidelines to propel herself to first place for the third time this week at U.S. Cross Country Championships — something she wasn’t sure was possible heading into Saturday’s race.
Brennan hadn’t felt good warming up; in fact, she said she felt “horrible” since the day before the last event of nationals, a race which she considered her weakest.
“Skate sprinting is not my strong suit,” she said. “This was probably the race I expected to win the least.”
In the two races directly before, she added two national titles to her resume in the 1.5 k classic sprint on Tuesday and 20 k classic mass start on Thursday. On track for her third straight in four races at nationals (and seventh-consecutive podium in two months), Brennan didn’t doubt herself, but she wasn’t sure what she had left, either.
“Yesterday testing skis, I was like, ‘Erik, I can’t tell the difference between my skis. I can’t focus. I’m so tired,’ ” she recalled. “I was assuming that most people felt that way. I guess that’s when you really have to believe in your summer training and everything that you’ve done. If you show up on the start line, I just strongly believe in giving it your all no matter what.”
That was the plan, and she stuck to it. Shooting out of the start, Brennan put herself up front, just ahead of APU teammate Chelsea Holmes, who was in her first sprint final at nationals.
“I’m not the fastest starter,” said Holmes, who’s best known as a distance skier. “I was just able to follow, and you can free-ski your way on the downhill into the position you want if you are not in first. So I did that and just tried to stay with Rosie.”
Meanwhile, she and the rest of the six-woman final knew what was coming: “[Rosie] is super strong and she is going to hammer,” Holmes explained.
Brennan wanted to lead and pick the most direct line on the course’s two steepest uphills. She also knew she needed to push over the tops of the hills, “[that] was really where people were kind of breaking,” she said, as well as rely on what she considered her strongest technique in skating: V2ing up steep pitches.
“Everyone was with me, at least Chelsea was with me … as we headed into the second uphill,” she recalled. “I just put my head down there and didn’t look back until I was well around the corner.”
Caitlin Gregg of Team Gregg/Madshus, the top qualifier with a time of 4:15.77 (2.23 seconds ahead of APU’s Jessica Yeaton in second and 2.26 seconds faster than Brennan in third) moved from near the back of the pack to third behind Holmes on the second climb.
“Caitlin made a really impressive move… and if I had the legs to follow her I would’ve,” Erika Flowers of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team recalled with a laugh.
“[The final] went out pretty fast and people were kind of jockeying for position,” she added. “I tried to take some outside lines, those weren’t fast. I tried to take some inside lanes, and it just kind of slowly strung out.”
As the sun peaked brightly through the tall birch trees for the first time all week, Brennan began to gap the field, and Holmes pushed hard to reign her back in and distance herself from Gregg in third behind her.
“I ended up getting boxed out in one of the climbs, which is kind of key,” Gregg explained. “That’s where Rosie and Chelsea got away so then I found myself kind of playing catchup for the rest of the race.”
Brennan looked back and saw the cushion she had created, but she still wasn’t comfortable.
“Knowing that Chelsea’s really strong also in skate and [APU teammate] Becca [Rorabaugh] has a hell of a finish, I just didn’t want to take any chances,” she said.
Pushing toward the finish, she heard Flora again. This time, he told her to switch to another gear.
“I thought everyone was catching me so I really didn’t want to look around at that point, and I just tried to give every last bit of energy I could,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I don’t even want to know if someone’s coming.’ I just went as hard as I could.”
“I was like, ‘Oh no, I don’t even want to know if someone’s coming.’ I just went as hard as I could.” — Rosie Brennan, after winning third-straight race at U.S. Cross Country Championships on Saturday
While there was a three-way battle for second playing out behind her, no one came close to Brennan. The moment she crossed the line, she threw her arms up with what little energy she had left.
Brennan had done it, winning in 4:17.93 by 6.1 seconds for her third-straight national title in a week — the first cross-country skier to do so since her teammate and U.S. Ski Team member Kikkan Randall won all four races at 2010 nationals in Anchorage, Alaska.
It was her fifth title overall, and she knew her family — following her results remotely and checking in daily from Park City, Utah — would be proud. Brennan’s father passed away in August, and she said she struggled over the holidays, which weren’t the same anymore.
“It was hard to feel like I was really preparing for nationals,” she said. “One, I was rollerskiing and running, and I just wasn’t in a very happy place. My team has just been so amazing. I’m just the happiest when I’m with them racing, and [coach] Erik [Flora] has just been unbelievable. It’s just my happy place so I think that makes my family happy, too, to know that I’m doing well.
“Of course, I wish my dad could be here to see it — he would be ecstatic,” she added.
After qualifying in third, Brennan won her quarterfinal handily by 3.78 seconds over Joanne Reid, a 2013 University of Colorado-Boulder graduate and NCAA champion. She then went on to edge Holmes by 0.13 seconds for the win in the second women’s semifinal.
Jennie Bender, of the Bridger Ski Foundation, also won her quarterfinal (ahead of Craftsbury’s Caitlin Patterson) and the first semifinal (by 1.4 seconds over Gregg), to advance to the final as well.
After trying to conserve energy in headwind early on in the final, Bender inadvertently slipped toward the back on the second climb. With less than 500 meters to go, she decided to give it her all and see how many places she could make up.
“The last part, you can see your fate ahead of you so it was like, ‘How deep can I dig?’ ” Bender recalled. “I wish I could dig a little sooner.”
The defending skate-sprint champion, Bender overtook Holmes in the finishing stretch and came with 0.32 seconds of Gregg in second, but Gregg got to the line just before her for her second podium in as many races at nationals (after winning the opening 10 k individual skate race, in which Holmes was second and Brennan placed third).
“I just couldn’t close that gap [to Brennan], so it was a little bit of a mistake on my part,” Gregg said. “But that’s what happens in sprint racing.”
Bender reached the podium for the first time this week in third, 6.43 seconds after Brennan, and Holmes achieved a career-best national sprint result in fourth (+7.77).
“I definitely gained a lot more ground than I initially anticipated,” Bender said. “It was definitely a different gear. I let the skis do the work for me, which is also not usually how I skate ski — I usually just try to power through everything. My skis were running well and the wax was good despite it being really, really cold out — it feels faster than it has all week.
“My goal was to get on the podium today,” she added. “This week was kind of off for me mentally and physically.”
After hanging in second for most of the race, Holmes explained she started to fade on the final corner before the last 200 meters into the stadium.
“My legs were getting a little weak, I guess, and coming up the stretch I just I didn’t have the kick,” Holmes explained. In addition to placing second in the 10 k, Holmes was the third American in the 20 k this week at nationals.
“I would I’d say my lack of finishing kick has really summed up this week,” she said. “The better you get, the closer you taste it. … I am still happy with it; that is a really good sprint for me.”
Coming into the finish in fifth, Rorabaugh pushed to gain ground on the three women just ahead of her — Holmes, Bender and Gregg — but ended up fifth, 2.5 seconds behind Holmes and 10.3 seconds behind Brennan. Six seconds after Rorabaugh, Flowers finished sixth.
“I’ve only ever been in one other A-final in my life so I was fired up,” Flowers said. “I think the sun definitely put a smile on everyone’s face today, which helped a lot.”
Gregg was especially pleased with her qualifier, which comes with valuable USSA points in her quest for making the 2015 U.S. World Championships team — should it select additional members beyond the U.S. Ski Team (USST).
“Every week I’m feeling stronger and stronger, so today was a good race,” she said. “I made a little bit of a tactical error in the final, but I felt strong and I feel like I’m leaving on a good note. I’m happy to be on the podium.”
Gregg, 34, skipped the 20 k mass start to “make sure that I’m not pushing the limit to the point where I have the end of my season come before I need it to,” she said on Thursday. “I’m trying to prepare well and conservatively and race when I feel the best. A long race right now doesn’t seem like it would help my training and preparation, should I make it. The goal is to save up and train well, as if I’m going to World Championships.”
As of Jan. 2, Gregg was one point ahead of Brennan in fourth (behind USST members Liz Stephen, Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen, respectively) on the USSA distance list. Alternatively, Brennan was about three points ahead of Gregg as the top-ranked domestic racer (behind USST members Sophie Caldwell, Randall, Diggins, Bjornsen, and Ida Sargent) in the USSA sprint standings.
While Gregg spent November and December on the World Cup circuit, Brennan earned World Cup starts for Period 2 as the early season SuperTour leader (and is leaving for Estonia on Tuesday before the Otepää World Cup next Saturday and Sunday). She has won six out of eight races so far this season — placing fifth in the opening skate sprint in West Yellowstone, Mont., and second in the nationals 10 k skate last Sunday.
“I didn’t expect to win [today] at all. It was just a huge relief — it’s amazing,” Brennan said. “I’m so happy that I can make my weakness a strength and to be able to get three titles, that’s huge for me. It’s by far the best week of racing I’ve ever had in my life.”
- The final day of U.S. nationals on Saturday turned out to be the mildest competition day of the week: with temperatures around 1 degree Fahrenheit in the morning warming up to a high of 14 degrees by the afternoon.
- Gregg won the first women’s quarterfinal by a 2.92 seconds over Flowers, and Bender topped the second quarterfinal by 3.31 seconds over Patterson. Rorabaugh edged 16-year-old Hannah Halvorsen (Sugar Bowl Academy) by 0.67 for the third quarterfinal win, and Holmes topped Yeaton by 2.08 seconds in the fourth quarterfinal.
- Liz Guiney (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) and Anne Hart (SMST2) both advanced to the semifinals after placing third with the next-fastest times beyond the top two in each quarterfinal. Guiney was in Bender’s heat and Hart raced against Holmes.
- Halvorsen ended up as the top junior overall in ninth (after placing fifth in her semifinal behind Bender, Gregg, Flowers, and Patterson, respectively).
- Ten athletes were named to the U23 World Championships team after Saturday’s sprints: Joanne Reid, Annie Pokorny (SMST2), Anne Hart (SMST2), Paige Schember (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation), Deedra Irwin (Michigan Technological University), Kyle Bratrud (Northern Michigan University), Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Ben Saxton (SMST2/USST), Patrick Caldwell (Dartmouth College/USST), Scott Patterson (APU)
— Lander Karath contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.