On a frigid day at Hatcher Pass, north of Anchorage, Alaska, cross-country skier Holly Brooks glides up to a start line.
This race is just a practice with her Alaska Pacific University teammates. It’s a chance for Brooks to test her skills before heading to Europe for the busy World Cup season, and then to Sochi in February for the Winter Olympics. Brooks is now a seasoned member of the U.S. Ski Team, but a little more than four years ago, she was on the sidelines.
On July 4, 2009, that all changed.
Brooks was competing in Mount Marathon, the Super Bowl of Alaskan sports. It’s a rugged mountain running race, straight up and back down a nausea-inducing incline.
“It was actually this really awkward and odd epiphany,” Brooks says. “I was leading, and I suffered [an] extreme case of dehydration, and I passed out right in front of the emergency room, which is conveniently along the course of Mount Marathon.”
She was just a few tantalizing blocks from the finish line.
“And just how close I came to winning, it’s like it flipped this switch in my mind and my body. And I was laying in the emergency room, and I said to myself — I didn’t tell anyone — ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ ”
It was an improbable goal. At the time, Brooks was 27, at least a decade older than most cross-country skiers who set their sights on the Olympics. Brooks had done well in two popular recreational races, but had zero international experience. The Winter Games in Vancouver were just seven months away.
“You know, there were a lot of people that told me, ‘Oh, with your background, you can never do this,’ ” Brooks says. “Or, ‘You’re too old; the U.S. Ski Team will never nominate you.’ You know, ‘You’re past your prime.’ ”
But Brooks believed she had a shot, and so did many of the athletes she coached, like Don Haering, who she coached when he skied in high school and college. He says that when the team was training, coach Brooks was always right there with them.
“I knew Holly was fast,” Haering says. “It’s not like she would stand there on the side of the trail and tell you where to go; she would go ski with you the whole time, and if you did a hard interval set, she might do the whole thing with you. And then you go home and rest, and meanwhile, Holly has another session to do, and I would assume she would do the same thing with them too.”
Brooks pursued her dream with “reckless abandon,” as she puts it, and it paid off. In 2010, she eked her way onto the Olympic squad; four years later, she has a shot at a relay medal in Sochi. Looking back, Brooks says she can’t exactly recommend her unusual path to other skiers. But she says her background gives her something many of her younger competitors lack: perspective.
“You know, I am the oldest one on the team,” Brooks says. “I know that I don’t have 10 more years in my career, so there’s a certain amount of — I hesitate to call it urgency — but I’m really excited for what’s to come.”
Back at Hatcher Pass, Brooks is rounding the last corner of the racecourse, eyeing the finish line. This race may be just for practice, but Brooks doesn’t hold anything back. She wins by 3 seconds and finishes exhausted — but with a huge smile on her face.