“A Mix of Everything.” Rosie Brennan Reflects on Hard-Fought Battle for Podium, as Andersson Wins 30 k

Ben TheyerlMarch 4, 2023

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On the final day of a World Championships defined by new highs in terms of results for the United States, Rosie Brennan (USA) delivered a performance that reiterated that—for Brennan and her teammates—it has been all the qualities that a results sheet can never capture which have powered the US Ski Team to the milestones of the past two weeks. After heartbreak in last week’s skiathlon, Brennan set out in today’s marathon, a 30 k classic, to be the best that she was capable of becoming. Through surge-after-surge, kick-after-kick, she fought. She was in contention for a medal until the very last. In the story of the race, the fifth place result that Brennan scored was a whisper compared to the shout of the way she had gotten there. Brennan is the American skier whose career has been the definition of perseverance; today, she distilled that quality in a way that was traceable over the course of a single ski race.

That race also produced significant finishes for other North Americans: Hailey Swirbul (USA) 18th, Julia Kern 27th (USA), Katherine Stewart Jones (CAN) 28th, Lillian Gagnon (CAN) 32nd, Dariah Beatty 32nd,

Rosie Brennan (USA) skied to fifth place—missing the podium by a single second—in the 30 k classic in Planica. (Photo: NordicFocus)
30 k Classic Mass Start—Andersson Reaches New Heights for Sweden

There was plenty to anticipate before today’s marathon: for the first time in a week, sunny skis and warm temps returned to Planica; for the first time in over a decade, the winner of the women’s World Championship 30 k wouldn’t be named Therese or Marit. The retirement of both Therese Johaug (NOR) and Marit Bjoergen (NOR) left open the possibility that any skier could make marathon history today. The skier that accomplished that was Ebba Andersson (SWE), who waited with patience through the first lap, launched an uptick in pace on the long climb out of the stadium 10.75 k into the race, and strided away from the field to win her first World Championship in the 30 k, and the first World Championship for Sweden in the World Championship marathon since Marie-Helene Oestlund won the 20 k in 1987. Andersson’s win marked her third career World Championship, after she won the skiathlon earlier in Planica and was part of Sweden’s gold medal relay team in Seefeld in 2019. It also accented another strong World Championships for the Swedish women, an they began by sweeping the Sprint podium, and ended with an ascendent marathon star.

Ebba Andersson (SWE) and Frida Karlsson (SWE) completed an all-around excellent World Championships for Sweden.  Andersson won her third World Championship in a dominant 30 k performance. Karlsson kicked late to finish third. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Perhaps the most tense race of these World Championships, though, was the one that played out behind Andersson for the remaining podium spots. When Andersson strided away, the field stretched and then snapped. A three-strong chase group initially formed, containing Anne Kjersti Kalvaa (NOR), Kerttu Niskanen (FIN), and Brennan.

“Even though the race looked like it happened slow, [Ebba’s] move happened fast,” said Brennan. “I did think for a while that maybe we might catch back up to her, but before you know it, [the gap] was a minute.” Kalvaa, Niskanen, and Brennan were left to wind their way through the rolling downhills that defined the last kilometer of the course.

Those downhills marked a reprieve during what was an otherwise brutal climbing course, a 7.5 k loop that the US Ski Team Coach called, “breath-taking, but if you take a step back, one of the hardest courses they will ever race.” After climbing 272 meters (892 feet) in hot, wet, sticky klister conditions, the final downhills would prove crucial in later laps. The importance of having the best skis on the final downhills would soon be made clear.

Races of this distance offer competitors the opportunity to switch skis mid-race, if desired: a decision that would change the nature of the race. Switching skis allowed the Swedish pair of Karlsson and Linn Svahn to bridge a gap to the first chase group, ultimately allowing them to join the fight for the podium. And, despite an initial stumble as the klister on her skis caught the track for the first time, the exchange would see Anne Kjersti Kalvaa (NOR) moving onto skis that were “insane,” according to Rosie Brennan.

Brennan, herself, moved onto skis she felt were “not as good as my first pair, [which] was frustrating seeing how good some of those skis were. That, of course, is the gamble of switching.” Brennan noted that the relative ski speed changed her tactics. “I second-guessed my ability to just ski away,” she said. “I thought at that point, my best card to play was to hang in there for the dogfight at the end.”

Rosie Brennan (USA) skis in the chase group that contested for silver and bronze: Anne Kjersti Kalvaa (NOR), Kerttu Niskanen (FIN), Brennan,  Frida Karlsson (SWE), and Linn Svahn (SWE). Brennan finished fifth. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The chase group of Brennan, Karlsson, Svahn, Kalvaa, and Niskanen would contest that dogfight. The race settled through the third lap; Andersson’s gap grew in front of Brennan’s group, and the gap to the second chase group behind grew as well.

Brennan led the group through the stadium as they headed out on the final lap, but as they completed the other rolling section of the course it became clear that the combination of skis—and twenty-three kilometers of racing—would make the last lap a tight, tactical, affair. 

When the group crossed over from the first half of the course to the second through the Planica stadium, Frida Karlsson skied up to take a pull. Kalvaa and Brennan responded quickest, but both Niskanen and Svahn pulled their way back too as the group skied toward the final climb. Near the high-point leading to the crucial, winding downhills, Kalvaa used the advantage her skis granted her. Karlsson and Brennan sensed the move and responded quickly, marking Kalvaa’s move.

Kalvaa carried speed through the final transitions, but Karlsson had the strongest close. On the final climb, the Swede pushed the chase group into high gear, with Svahn able to come back from the behind. For a moment, Brennan pushed back to Karlsson’s tails. Into one final hill, though, Karlsson proved to have one more energy than the rest of the field, closing in on Kalvaa in the final 100 meters. Kalvaa held off the late surge to take second place; Karlsson won the bronze. Behind, Brennan and Svahn completed an exhausting 30 k with a boot throw straight out of a sprint race. The lunge at the line went Svahn’s way:  she finished fourth, Brennan fifth.

Brennan “feeling a mix of everything” as US Team Reflects on Race

In a post-race interview with FasterSkier’s Nat Herz, Brennan said, “In any long race, things go up and down. I had moments where I thought, ‘yes, I’m going to do this,’ and others where I thought, ‘oh God, this is not good.’” She then reflected, “I really am feeling a mix of everything. [I’m frustrated] feeling I’m getting good at this fourth, fifth, sixth place situation, [but] also all you can do if you fight with all you have, I did, and I am happy with that.”

Further behind in the field but putting up strong races were Brennan’s teammates. Hailey Swirbul (USA), who finished 18th. “This was the best 30 k to date for me,” she said. “It was a lot more fun being the hunter instead of the hunted.” Julia Kern (USA) finished 27th, and said to FasterSkier that, “I felt like I put out whatever energy I had left from these Championships out on course.”

Both Swirbul and Kern said that even during the race, they had an eye towards the racing that was happening at the front with their teammate. “[I was] in awe of how she keeps coming back despite adversities,” said Kern. Swirbul added that “I got to see my teammates out there, which was pretty fun. I cheered for Rosie when we were both on a downhill: She heard me!”

For both, Brennan’s push served as a real-time reminder of what they were doing in the grander scheme of their racing careers. “Even during the race I was thinking this is good training, maybe I can ski like Rosie,” said Kern. “She has had such a strong career late, and it gives me inspiration that even if I am not in the mix right now.” Kern added that, “Results on the sheet tell one story, but the fact she is in the mix with the world’s best time-and-time again is really impressive.”

Rosie Brennan (USA) sprints to the last meter alongside Linn Svahn (SWE). Svahn won the sprint and finished 4th, with Brennan taking 5th. Both were a second off the podium. (Photo: NordicFocus)

US Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb put Brennan’s accomplishment in perspective. “[Brennan] put herself one second off the podium. You look at that and be proud, and we really are.” Whitcomb added that in Planica, the magnitude of her efforts weren’t lost. “There’s no one at this venue or in this whole crowd right now that people would like to see get a podium more than Rosie.”

The support wasn’t lost on Brennan, and hasn’t been, she says, through the course of her last couple of seasons:

“It’s been really cool the past two years how much I hear from people who really resonate with the style in which I race, and that means a lot to me. I’ve never been the most technically beautiful skier, or the smartest, but I certainly try to ski with all my heart and it means a lot when people recognize that. Thank you to everyone who has believed in me, thank you.”

As for her future plans after this World Championships, Brennan is “doing it all, I am on the death march.” Expect her to start the first 50 k edition of the Holmenkollen marathon for women next week. On longer term plans, Matt Whicomb said that, “I want to see her back at another World Championships; I just told her that. I would love to see her in 2025, 2026, because we want that medal for her so badly.” Brennan said she has “a lot of reflection ahead, [but for now] I am headed back to Toblach and watching Tyler [Kornfield] race the Vasaloppet tomorrow…and thinking that 30 k kind of seems easy compared to the 90 k [of the Vasaloppet].”

US Team Leaves World Championship with New Accomplishments, Same Sense of Team

At the end of World Championships, Matt Whitcomb says he hopes that there has been one message imparted to the world by the USA. “I hope that the team support is what the kids back home see, and want to give,” Whitcomb said. “We’ll be waiting here for you.”

He pointed to two of his athletes who are leaving Planica with historic results, one a World Champion, and one with a race that shone a light through the qualities that make world champions. “What [Rosie Brennan and Jessie Diggins] realized is that if you invest in your teammates, that investment is returned tenfold, because they are fully invested in you,” Whitcomb said. “That’s just a fun way to go through life.”

As Whitcomb delivered that perspective, he pulled out his phone and read the last text message he had received. It was from Jessie Diggins: “So proud of you girls for an absolutely gutsy race out there, makes me proud to be part of this team.”

The text was reportedly followed by three BIG heart emojis.


The US Women walk away from this year’s World Championships with two medals, the first American individual World Championship, and a sense of team that is stronger than ever. (Photo: Nordic Focus)

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

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