When Holly Brooks traveled to Livigno, Italy, the former U.S. Ski Team member was focused on the La Sgambeda 42 k freestyle that marked the first FIS Marathon Cup race of the season. As fate would have it, however, Brooks exited the weekend as a member of a professional Norwegian team with an expanded season schedule.
It all started when Brooks arrived in Livigno Thursday, Dec. 11 to prepare for Friday’s marathon. Searching for a support team, Brooks attended the pre-race coaches meeting to figure out what was going on. Having come from the organized system of the U.S. Ski Team, Brooks said that her lack of support was stressful, but that she eventually gathered all the information she needed and found someone to wax her skis.
She returned to her hotel room to ready herself for the 42 k, but a visit from Nils Marius Otterstad at 9:30 pm interrupted her preparations. The visit was a possible answer to her lack of support.
Otterstad is the manager of Team Santander (formerly Team Xtra personell), the first professional private cross country team in Norway. Created in 2007, the team primarily races on the Swix Ski Classics circuit, which was also in Livigno that very same weekend.
While Ski Classics may be familiar to Europeans, the circuit is rarely discussed in cross country ski circles in North America. According to the event’s website, Ski Classics originated in 2011 and aimed to feature long distance skiing in a televised circuit. The series consists of nine classic technique marathon events across Europe that are widely watched by the continent’s nordic skiing fans.
Otterstad had a proposal for Brooks: join Team Santander and race the Ski Classics’ races in Livigno.
While nothing was resolved by the time Otterstad left Brooks’ hotel, the two continued to converse via email until midnight, when he finally convinced her to join the team.
It was only later that Brooks discovered Team Santander member Laila Ahrlin Kveli had come down with an illness earlier in the week and returned home to Norway. Without a female racer, Team Santander would not be able to compete in Saturday’s team competition.
The following day, Brooks submitted her registration for the Ski Classics before the 8am deadline and the start of the 42 k FIS Marathon Cup freestyle race in which Brooks earned a second place finish.
Come Saturday’s Ski Classics team prologue, Brooks lined up for the 15 k classic as the only American in a field of strong European women. While the race began at a blistering pace, Brooks was able to remain in the breakaway pack of six competitors. Unable to match the pack’s final sprint, Brooks ultimately finished sixth.
Brooks said she was filmed throughout the event, despite having decided to join the team the previous day.
“There was a snow machine filming us the whole time and there was a helicopter flying above us for 15 k blowing all this snow around us. I was interviewed on live Norwegian TV before and after the race, but I had no idea what was going on,” Brooks said in an interview.
Although off the podium, Brook’s placement had greater implications than her individual finish. The team event was structured in an unusual way – the women started with a mass start format while the men then followed in reverse team order with two minute intervals. At the end of the competition, the top women’s time was added to the team’s two fastest men’s times.
One of those two men happened to be Anders Aukland, a famed Norwegian Olympic and World Champion with many victories on the World Cup circuit from 2001 to 2004. Aukland eventually went on to win the men’s race and boosted Team Santander into second place on the day.
The following day, Brooks raced to tenth in the mass start of the women’s 35 k classic to earn a sixth place ranking overall in the 2015 Swix Ski Classics standings after two races. Her team currently sits in second overall behind Team Coop. The day’s races drew many World Cup competitors who stat out the Davos freestyle sprint, including many Russian national team members and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin
Brooks said that her experience as part of a private professional team has been eye opening, especially as she’s worked Aukland to achieve team results and consulted with former Finnish national team head coach and current team wax tech Magnar Dalen.
“Every day and every hour was like a new learning experience for me. I felt like I was a kindergartener in school, just learning and getting excited,” she said of her first weekend with the team.
With the completion of La Sgambeda, Brooks returned to her home in Alaska for the holidays and continued training.
“I really need to go home and get some serious double pole on,” she said before departing Europe. “I didn’t really plan on doing any of this. When I first saw that where was a classic race on Sunday I was like ‘that will be really good training for the Marcialonga’ and I didn’t expect to have any pressure doing it. Then all of a sudden I had a lot of pressure with Magnar Dalen waxing my skis and Anders Aukland asking what place I got.”
Brooks’ plan is to race much of the FIS Marathon Cup circuit, hitting seven of nine races. With the Ski Classics and the Marathon Cup overlapping in the Marcialonga and the Norwegian Birkebeiner, the only additional stop on Brook’s schedule will be the Ski Classics’ finals in Åre, Sweden March 27-28.
In addition to her search for success on the long distance European circuit, Brooks also hopes her racing experiences will encourage other North Americans to jump into the fray.
“I have to say I didn’t run into a single American this weekend in Livigno. Part of my mission and goal in doing this is to open up the knowledge to North Americans about what other races are out there and ways to have a skiing experience combined with a cultural experience. It seems kind of scary to go across the world to do a race, but if I can tell people about it and help encourage other people to do it, that’s one of my goals,” she said.
“It’s a whole new world and an awesome opportunity.”
Video of Saturday’s Pro Ski Tempo:
Video of Sunday’s 35 k:
– Chelsea Little contributed reporting