Perhaps you have heard of them. Or at least seen them. At 6 feet and 6 feet 2 inches tall, respectively, the Mooney sisters, Heather and Brooke, are hard to miss. But their height is not the only reason the two women stand out.
The sisterly pair also share a talent for the sports they pursue. At one point, for both of them, that sport was skiing. And at one point, for both of them, it was not.
Having grown up in Peru, Vermont, where the Green Mountain range serves as the town’s backdrop and skiing is the norm, the two were certainly primed with the ideal environment for becoming interested in nordic.
“Our school bus had a ski rack on the side of it because we would ski at recess,” Heather recalled during an in-person interview this month in Bozeman, Montana. “In southern Vermont, that is what everyone did.”
“That” meant skiing. Their mother had picked it up as an adult and also worked as a promotion manager for a skiing magazine. Their father was the headmaster at Vermont Academy, providing the the family access to a plethora of trails directly from their residential backdoor.
Both parents were also active outdoor enthusiasts, encouraging Heather, Brooke and eventually their younger brother Scott, to partake in anything that got them moving: swimming, hiking, soccer, tennis. (It didn’t hurt the family’s sporting M.O. that their father had been Yale’s soccer goalie as an undergrad.)
By the time she was a freshman, Heather had enrolled at the Stratton Mountain School ski academy. Three years later, her sister Brooke had as well. (Heather and Brooke are two years apart, but Heather skipped first grade).
They became well-known names on the eastern ski circuit. They also found national and international success while still U18s. Heather qualified for Junior Nationals four times, Junior Worlds twice and U23 Worlds in 2016. By her junior year in high school, Brooke had qualified for three Junior Nationals.
As J2 skiers, both Mooney girls received coaching from Pepa Miloucheva, the head ski coach at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. With a background in sculling, as well as ski orienteering, Miloucheva had her eyes on Heather and Brooke, who showed the potential to qualify for Junior Nationals in rowing as well. Both girls were invited to a youth rowing camp held at the Outdoor Center.
“The director told me I needed a snorkel,” Heather reminisced with a laugh. “But Brooke was very good.”
During an early season training session at the University of Washington (UW) this past year, Brooke sat down for testing on a rowing ergometer. She pulled for the alloted test time, one minute, and stopped. Her sustained pace was 615 watts.
National team coaches could not recall any other woman surpassing 600 watts, The Seattle Times reported.
“You don’t have to know rowing to see her strength,” UW head rowing coach Yasmin Farooq told the Times. “Watch her and you think, holy smokes, this woman has some serious power.”
Unofficially, Brooke holds the watts record for an American woman on the rowing machine. Officially, she was named the Pac-12 Women’s Rowing Athlete of the Year in May and is now living in Princeton, New Jersey, one month removed from UW. She’s also a national-team recruit.
Her invite to join USRowing came in December, and following her graduation from UW in June, Brooke headed back east. In Princeton, she is training with U.S. rowing veterans like Meghan Musnicki and Elle Logan — both multiple Olympic gold medalists — with the hope of working toward a spot on the 2020 Olympic team (selection won’t take place until 2019).
“I kind of figured I would be pretty crazy to turn down this opportunity, whether it leads to greater results or not, I had to try it,” Brooke told FasterSkier on the phone.
The seeds of opportunity were planted in the initial rowing camp Brooke attended in Craftsbury. She spent her senior year at Vermont Academy, where she took up rowing as her newfound, full-time passion.
“I knew I wasn’t going to want to keep on skiing through college, so I figured I might as well try rowing,” Brooke said.
She filled out a few higher-education recruiting questionnaires and received a response from UW. As one of the top rowing schools in the country, UW had her attention. Throughout her four undergraduate years, Brooke developed into one of the country’s top college rowers, even with a slight scare before her senior season.
When Brooke first started getting headaches in the summer of 2016, the doctors told her she was dehydrated. At a sculling camp in Craftsbury post-doc visit, her headaches continued. Most of the time, they got progressively worse throughout the day.
“I would be able to get up in the morning and work out a little bit, but if I didn’t work out before 9 o’clock, I couldn’t workout,” Brooke recalled. “I would just lay on my bed in so much pain.”
With dehydration as her diagnosis, she did what she could to work out. Sometimes the headaches would lapse, but most often they would not.
“I started the school year in and out of headaches. I talked to the team doc and went to the headache clinic,” Brooke said.
It wasn’t until April, almost a year after her headaches began, that Brooke was given an MRI. The results: she had a cyst in her optic chiasm. The mass was pushing on her optic nerve and needed to be removed, or else it could expand and cause permanent damage to her vision, even blindness.
Her eye doctor allowed her to finish the race season (for rowing, championship racing occurs in the spring) before removing the cyst. Following her surgery in June 2017, Brooke was not allowed to train or work out for eight weeks the summer before her senior year at UW.
“I was so worried,” Brooke said, particularly when she found out that her team would be racing the famed Head of the Charles Regatta that fall.
“I wanted to race that more than anything and I panicked that I was going to miss my opportunity because of the surgery,” she said. “But then I ended up making it … every once in awhile, a good break is really beneficial.”
The post itself came two years after she graduated from Middlebury College, a time when skiing held great promise for Heather. She had capped off her senior year with seven collegiate wins and had also qualified for the 2012 Youth Olympic Games as a college sophomore.
Following graduation, Heather signed on with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), but later found things weren’t aligning the way she had hoped they would. Particularly, she felt she was not performing to her expectations, given the amount of support she had (according to Heather, CGRP covers most of their athletes’ expenses for food, housing and travel.)
“I thought I was done for good,” Heather, now 24, continued. “Pepa [Miloucheva] was the one who encouraged me not to look at it that way.”
Even with Miloucheva encouraging her not to give up completely, Heather forfeited skiing, and even gave up physical activity for a bit.
“In the beginning of the summer when I quit, I was like, ‘I’m not exercising, I’m not being an athlete, I’m just doing whatever what I want — I can be happy without skiing,” Heather said. “Very quickly I realized that I need exercise to be happy.”
That summer in Truckee, California, Heather landed a coaching gig that gave her the opportunity to travel to Australia. By the fall, she decided to move to Bozeman, with plans to gain residency at Montana State University and enroll in its architecture graduate program.
In Bozeman, she reconnected with Austin Caldwell, a longtime friend from Vermont and the current head coach of the Bridger Ski Foundation Elite team. The two went for a few early fall skis together and Heather soon found herself attending Caldwell’s agility practices, then interval sessions. When the winter hit, Heather even jumped into some races, but only as many as she chose.
In all, she competed in about a dozen SuperTour races, finishing last season ranked 36th overall on the circuit. Heather also raced to 14th in the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner skate race in February.
“It was really refreshing to step out of expectation,” Heather said. “I feel like we all get into such definitions of like how we should be in the sport. I realize [now] there are so many different ways to engage with it. Likely that’s how we many of us will reach our potential, is by engaging in a way that works for you as a person.”
After a break, Heather is currently planning to defer from MSU and focus once more on skiing.
“It’s been exciting for me slowly lose that anxiety of how I should be performing and how I wanted to perform,” Heather said. “I look at how can I work with myself, versus trying to fit myself into the pro-athlete mold.”