Brooks takes break from U.S. Ski Team, but not from ski racing

Beth Bragg
Holly Brooks at the U.S. National Championships 4 x 5-K mixed relay at Kincaid Park on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Bill Roth

A by-the-numbers look at Holly Brooks and her cross-country ski career shows two Olympics, one World Cup medal, two national championships, seven top-3 national-championship performances and eight top-10 finishes in World Cup and World Championship races.

That's an impressive tally for any American ski racer not named Kikkan Randall. But as Brooks debated her immediate future with the U.S. Ski Team recently, two other numbers kept coming up.

In 2013, Brooks was gone from Anchorage for 185 days. In 2012, she was gone for 196 days.

It was those numbers that persuaded Brooks, 32, to tell the U.S. Ski Team last month that she didn't want to be a member of the 2014-15 national team.

Brooks said she still intends to compete, and to compete at a world-class level -- but she's looking to do so in a way that doesn't put her in Europe for months at a time, away from husband Rob Whitney and her life in Anchorage.

"Being a professional athlete is more than a full-time job, it's a full-time lifestyle," Brooks said. "We're not a sport that takes six months off.

"There's a lot of sacrifices."

That her decision came shortly after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is no coincidence. Athletes whose sports culminate at the Olympics often decide to retire or reevaluate after an Olympic season.

Not that Brooks' decision is the first step on the road to retirement.

"I don't like that word," she said. "I am not retiring. I'm excited about my projects coming up, about some goals coming up. I haven't officially formulated them entirely yet, but I think it's OK to take a little bit of time to recover after a hard Olympics cycle."

looking for balance

Matt Whitcomb, coach of the women's national team, said the plan was for Brooks to be on the team next season "because we truly believe in her capacity as a racer."

"To race successfully on the World Cup one must find balance with living in Europe for 4-5 months, to say nothing of the requisite camps required of the national team and her club," he said in an email. "I support her reasons for taking a step back and feel that these changes may lead to a return to the way she was performing in the fall of 2012. Taking a step back from commitments to the U.S. Ski Team may help her find that."

Brooks' most recent season wasn't her best -- she recorded seven top-30 finishes on the World Cup circuit, compared to 22 in the 2012-13 season. Part of her decision to go it alone is based on a desire to return to the kind of training that led to her first Olympics appearance.

She said she will continue to train full time, mostly in Anchorage. By not spending big chunks of time in Europe, she will have time to resume work on a masters degree and continue working with local projects like Fast and Female and Healthy Futures, she said.

"I also want to have some time to spend with family," Brooks said. "I want to spend time in the backcountry with Rob; that's where my fitness came from in the first place. If you're training and racing every weekend, you can't go backpacking and stuff like that.

"For me, running is a big part of my overall fitness. Last year I was just really specific in my training, and it was too much rollerskiing and too much skiing for me."


Brooks said she's got her eye on the world loppet circuit, a race series that includes the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner, which Brooks won in 2012. There are numerous professional marathon teams based in Europe and there's been talk of starting an American-based loppet team, she said.

"It's becoming a huge scene," she said. "I have this idea it might be fun to be what I believe would be the first American FIS overall world loppet champion."

One thing is for sure: Brooks' new path will take her to Seward for Mount Marathon this summer. Brooks won the fabled mountain race in 2012 but skipped last year's event to avoid potential injury heading into the Olympics.


A member of the 2010 and 2014 Olympic teams, Brooks took an unusual path to the top of her sport. She was a coach for the Alaska Pacific University nordic program who in 2009 decided to stop coaching and start racing in the hope of making it to the Vancouver Olympics.

"Five years ago my training partners were APU masters skiers and I had no Olympic aspirations," Brooks said, "so it's pretty funny how fast things change."

Brooks became part of the core group of women, led by two-time and reigning World Cup sprint champion Randall, that vaulted the U.S. team to world prominence. In 2012, she was a member of the relay team that won a bronze medal at a World Cup race in Sweden, a banner moment for an American team that until Randall's emergence had long been an afterthought on the world stage.

"It's pretty fun to have been a part of what's been called the American Revolution," Brooks said. "We took a team and a sport that used to be Kikkan traveling by herself to a group of seven highly competitive athletes.

"It's been a really, really fun process and I'm really proud to have been a part of that. That's something no one can ever take away."

See you in FALUN?

Whitcomb called Brooks a superb teammate and a role model whose story connects with people.

"Having achieved her success later in her career, Holly shines light on the various pathways to the World Cup podium for those that perhaps are not stars as juniors," he said.

Whitcomb, who said the Anchorage skier is on the list of veteran athletes who will be invited to national-team camps, doesn't think the U.S. Ski Team has seen the last of Brooks.

"I'm confident we will see her on the starting line of a World Cup again," he said, "if not in Falun (Sweden) for World Championships this coming February."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.