Holly Brooks will hold her head up high tonight when she marches in the closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics.
Brooks, the coach-turned-Olympian from Alaska Pacific University, rebounded from two discouraging and painful races at Whistler Olympic Park to go out on a good note in the final women's cross-country race of her debut Olympics.
Brooks, 27, raced to 36th place in the 30-kilometer classic, and although she was far out of medal contention, she got stronger as the race went on and didn't let a constant rain keep her from feeling sunny when it was all over.
"I'm so glad," Brooks said in a phone interview. "I feel like now I've ended on a pretty upbeat, positive note. Sure, I would always love to do better, and I kinda wish that there was five more kilometers to go because I felt like I was getting stronger and I moved up a couple of places (at the end).
"But the way I skied the last couple of races, I'm really happy. I held my technique together and skied into the race. I learned a lot and ended on a positive note."
That made for two happy Alaskans at the finish line. Anchorage's Kikkan Randall -- who put together the best two-week effort by an American woman in Olympic history -- finished 24th, a career-best in a distance race.
Steady rain made for tough conditions, and skiers were allowed to switch skis up to three times during the race, an unusual circumstance but one that recognized the potential difficulty of waxing classic skis for a mass-start race held in rain and fog.
Poland's Justyna Kowalcyk won what was almost a photo finish with Norway's Merit Bjoergen to capture the gold medal in 1 hour, 30 minutes, 33.7 seconds, one tenth of a second ahead of Bjoergen, who was trying to claim her fourth gold of the Games. Finland's Aino-Kaisa Saarinen trailed those two by 65 seconds to take bronze.
Randall's time of 1:34:59.0 put her 4:25.3 behind the winner. Brooks was 7:40.8 back in 1:38:14.5.
For Randall, the effort came in an event she seldom attempts at the international level.
"I haven't done a 30-K at a major championship before," the three-time Olympian told reporters after the race. "It was nice to get in and ski with a bunch of really fast women."
For Brooks, the effort came in an event she said she was going to skip just a day earlier.
"I've never agonized whether to do a race or not so much," she said. "My past two races -- the relay and the sprint -- my legs basically flooded with lactic acid and I felt pretty horrible. And so it was just kind of like, if I'm skiing so poorly I don't want to put myself into a 30-K and get two kilometers into it and have to (struggle) the rest of the way through it.
"I wrote a blog yesterday and said I'm not going to race."
But like any athlete with a competitive fire, Brooks immediately began to second-guess herself. The 30-K classic was the race she was looking forward to the most, the one that she won a silver medal in -- finishing second to Randall, her APU teammate -- at the national championships last month at Kincaid Park.
By Saturday morning, she was at the start chute for her fifth -- and best -- race of the Olympics.
"The competitor in me took over and said, Holly, you love to race, you have to, even if you don't feel that good," she said. "I probably had 50 people out on the course specifically cheering for me, and that was amazing. A bunch of the APU masters group came down and so did some of the juniors, and I had a ton of family from Seattle here. Someone made 'Go Holly' hats and there were big banners -- I'm so happy that I chose to race."
Once on the course, Brooks struggled at first because of the conditions. The klister on her skis iced up a couple of times, and usually just one ski at a time. "It almost feels like a peg-leg -- one fast ski and one that iced up and didn't glide," she said.
So she switched to "hairies" -- waxless skis -- when she reached the stadium at the 10-kilometer mark, a decision that cost her some time and, more importantly, let the pack she was skiing get away from her. She skied alone for a long time after that, but her skis performed better.
Randall, opted not to switch skis, though many others did.
"It was nice coming through the stadium area and getting a little bit of an advantage on people (who put on new skis)," she said. "I cramped up pretty bad on the last lap, but I managed to hold it together, so I'm pretty happy with it."
Brooks, meanwhile, was happy and relieved.
"Everyone wants to go to the closing ceremonies with their head held high rather than kind of moping," she said. "Not to say I would've moped around. ... But I didn't feel like I skied well technically in the relay race, and so I'm just really happy."
Reach Daily News sports editor Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.Photo gallery: Alaskans at the Winter Olympics
By BETH BRAGG