Sometime last year, maybe even the year before, life became all about the Olympics for Holly Brooks -- even though for a long time she didn't know it, and then once she did, she was afraid to admit it.
The 27-year-old Anchorage woman who teaches others how to ski fast as a coach for Alaska Pacific University at some point realized she was fast enough herself to point her ski tips toward Vancouver and commit -- first very privately and then, hesitantly, very publicly -- to pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team for next month's Winter Games.
A coach turned contender. A coach turned champion. The story of Holly Brooks has all the makings of a movie, except it's playing out right here in Anchorage in front of an appreciative audience. That audience reaches from Brooks-coached skiers who range from 7 to 78 in the junior and masters programs of APU's nordic program all the way to working women who see her as a role model as well as a coach. Also watching are fellow elite athletes who share her appetite for training and pushing limits.
All around town at places where cross-country skiers gather, you can spot little stickers that say "Go Holly!" Her husband -- Rob Whitney, himself a former Olympic contender -- distributed 350 of them right before Brooks returned from a three-week racing tour Outside that solidified her status as an Olympic contender.
Brooks was welcomed home just before Christmas as a conquering hero. Days later, she was still getting hugs and high-fives from people presuming she's on her way to Vancouver.
She isn't. At least not yet. Brooks needs to duplicate the success she enjoyed late last year in Montana and Canada -- where she won four of six races featuring the best skiers in the country with the exception of the handful on the World Cup team -- at the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships that begin Saturday at Kincaid Park. Then she must hope the U.S. Ski Team calls her name when it announces the team later this month.
"People are saying, 'Don't worry, you're going.' Friends want to make accommodation plans in Vancouver. All the people I coach are excited about it," Brooks said.
"But I haven't made it yet. I have to ski well at nationals."
Brooks' journey from sideline to finish line was hardly noticeable at first -- maybe because Brooks isn't a coach who stands on the sidelines watching a lot.
She coaches three groups for APU -- masters five days a week, juniors five to six days a week, and a women-only group one night a week. Each training session lasts 90 minutes to two hours, which puts Brooks on snow for as many as 24 hours a week. Sometimes she stands around to observe and critique technique. But she's just as likely to follow her skiers when they do intervals.
Even when she's done at work, she keeps skiing. She skis for fun and she even trains for fun -- she's a member of an informal group called OIA -- Only In Alaska -- which gets together every Tuesday night to exercise. Then there are the "death march adventures" she and Whitney go on -- after their July wedding, they celebrated by backpacking through the Wrangell Mountains -- which have helped her become one of Alaska's top mountain runners.
"I've been training a bunch of years without even realizing it," Brooks said. "I think it's deceiving. People are saying, 'Gosh, where did she come from? She doesn't have much of a racing background,' but I've been working at APU for four years now, and it's my job to figure out how to make people faster skiers and better skiers.
"The thing about skiing is it's more than races."
For several years, skiing wasn't about racing at all for Brooks, other than the races in which she was coaching athletes.
She grew up in Seattle and if there was a cross-country ski culture in the city, she never discovered it. There was no high school team to join, no club to train with, just a family that liked to make the one-hour trip to the Snoqualmie Pass ski area. Her grandparents, parents and uncles worked as instructors for the nordic center there, and as a 12-year-old Brooks too became an instructor, a job that came with an official coaching jacket that went down to her knees.
When she decided to become a ski racer, her dad became her coach. His primary resource was the Internet. As a teenager Brooks was a six-time qualifier for the Pacific Northwest Ski Association's junior national team, but once at the championships she was a middle-of-the-pack skier.
"I'm the girl from PNSA who always finished 40th," she said. She collected a medal just once, a bronze.
Brooks kept skiing at college, but she didn't go to a juggernaut like Utah or Vermont or even UAA. She went to tiny Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where skiing didn't even become an NCAA sport until her junior season, and even when it did, Brooks never had the results to qualify for the NCAA championships.
Armed with a degree in environmental science, Brooks looked around for something to do after college. Eventually she learned West High was looking for a ski coach. She applied, got the job and in 2004 moved to Anchorage.
The move, in Brooks' mind, was temporary. After the ski season, she went to South America for three months before once again finding herself at loose ends -- and haunted by Alaska.
"I had vivid dreams about the kids that I coached," she said, "so I came back."
She worked for a year as an environmental consultant and then got hired by APU. Around the same time, she started racing recreationally. In 2008, she entered the Tour of Anchorage and was shocked when she won the women's 50-kilometer championship.
The coach was about to become a contender.
FOCUSED ON THE GOAL
When Brooks was a teenager attending a ski camp in Canada, Rob Whitney was flown in to make an appearance. At the time he was one of the top racers in the country, an Anchorage phenom who narrowly missed making the 1998 Olympic team as an 18-year-old.
He was a near-miss for the Olympic team again in 2002, a disappointment so great he quit ski racing. Now that his wife is chasing the same dream that broke his heart, Whitney couldn't be more thrilled.
"Seeing her go through this now, I think I'm way, way, way more excited than she is. I can't even sit still," said Whitney, a fire fighter for the Anchorage Fire Department.
At 30, he looks back and understands that even though his quest fell short, the adage is right: It's as much about the journey as it is the destination. And he wants Brooks to make this journey, even if it doesn't lead to Vancouver.
And so he was psyched when, a few months ago, Brooks started saying the O word.
She'd been saying it to herself for a while. But in late September, Brooks wrote an article for athleta.net headlined "I want to be an Olympian."
"I was like, YES! Just this feeling that she's believing in herself and she really wants to go for it and she has the confidence to go for it, I thought, yeah, she's gonna do it," Whitney said. "It might be a selfish thing -- I didn't make the 1998 team and the 2002 team, and not making the 2002 team, that's why I quit skiing. It was just so hard on me. I had just wasted four years of my life."
He sees things differently now, at least as far as Brooks is concerned.
"I try to convey to her, if you don't try it, maybe you'll look back in 10 years and say why didn't I do that? It's an opportunity not many people have,'' he said.
Brooks said it wasn't easy to announce so publicly that she was training for the Olympics but decided owning up to her ambitions and stating her goals was necessary.
"It takes a lot to say, 'I'm training for the Olympics.' Most people training for the Olympics are not going to make it," Brooks said. "I call it the O word, and it was hard to say it for a long time. I really agonized over whether to (say it). But it doesn't do any good to hide your goals. If you don't talk about it, maybe you're not really dedicated to it.''
Working up to the O word was a yearlong process, maybe longer.
The 2008 Tour of Anchorage victory might have been where it started. Or maybe it began at the 2008 Mount Marathon race in Seward, where as a first-time racer Brooks finished a strong second to perennial winner Cedar Bourgeois.
"That stirred the pot a little bit," Whitney said. "She had a riot in that race and I said that was awesome, second place, and she was like, 'No. I want to win.' "
Then came last winter and a second-place photo finish in the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner.
"(That) was a pretty hard one to swallow. That stirred the pot a little more," Whitney said.
Then came another Tour of Anchorage win, followed by the U.S. distance championships in Fairbanks last March. Despite racing the 50-kilometer Oosik Classic the week before, Brooks went to Fairbanks and stunned just about everyone by claiming a bronze medal in the 15-kilometer pursuit race.
"People were like, 'Whoa, Holly! What are you doing? You're a coach!' " Brooks said.
The pot was about to boil over by now, but even still, if the Olympics were in Brooks' crosshairs, she wasn't saying.
Then came the 2009 Mount Marathon race, where Brooks was in the lead as she powered her way down the 3,022-foot mountain. But she was dehydrated and her body was revolting against the heat, the effort and the lack of water. She began to stumble. The next thing Brooks remembers is waking up in an emergency room with an IV drip in her arm.
"I very specifically thought as I was sitting there, 'I want to go to the Olympics,' '' Brooks said.
"... I don't know why I thought specifically about the Olympics when I was in the ER covered with mud and sweat. I'm in the ER, but I really love to push myself -- oops, I pushed myself to the extent I'm in ER, and that wasn't my intent -- but I really like to push myself. That helped lead me on this path and gave me confidence in my fitness.''
Just one problem. Having finally admitted her intentions to herself, Brooks' plans were almost derailed. Her race ended because of exertional rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that can be caused by extensive exercise as well as dehydration. Brooks had it in her thighs. For the first couple of weeks, the range of motion in her knees was almost nonexistent.
The only cure is rest, and in Brooks' case, it took almost two months of it at a time when every skier on the planet with Olympic aspirations was gearing up for the season.
"In late August I started my official training," she said. In addition to her daily coaching sessions, she began to train with APU's elite athletes in the morning, and then she would train again in the evening by herself. Her boss, APU nordic director Erik Flora, helped her with a training program and gave her the flexibility to take time off to race. By November, Brooks was winning important races in Montana and Canada and moving into true Olympic contention.
For three weeks she raced while her athletes in Anchorage made do without her -- while cheering loud from afar.
"We're very, very excited for her to get the opportunity to be a contender for the Olympic team," said Cathe Grosshandler, 47, who is coached by Brooks in the APU masters program and has two kids, 16-year-old Kyle and 14-year-old Erica, who are coached by Brooks in the APU junior program.
"She's such a strong athlete -- and the nicest person you could ever want to meet. She's wise beyond her years and she makes everybody feel like her best friend.''
Grosshandler said Brooks is the ideal coach, someone who offers a tip at every practice and is patient and positive even when a skier struggles. And she can't ask for a better role model for herself, her daughter and even her son.
"(She's) such a grounded female -- she's beautiful and she's oblivious to it -- and to have a teenage daughter who can have her as a role model is terrific," Grosshandler said. "She's even a great role model for boys, to see somebody so well-grounded and down to earth and not materialistic."
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
The O word wouldn't be in Brooks' vocabulary if she hadn't moved to Anchorage.
"She grew up in Seattle, and skiing there is like being a lacrosse player here in Anchorage," Whitney said.
Now, she's surrounded by people who love to ski, who love to train, who love to get together and lift weights for fun. She's in a place where the snow usually is plentiful and usually comes early and stays late -- and in a place where the national championships begin Saturday with Olympic berths on the line.
"I feel like I've been at the right place at the right time," she said. "I moved to Alaska, I married the right guy, I have the right friends, I live on the Tour of Anchorage trail, and the nationals are right here at home.
"I don't want to jinx myself, but things couldn't be better. They really couldn't."
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.
U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships
The event The U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships will bring about 350 of the nation's top skiers -- including about 80 Alaskans -- to Kincaid Park for a four-race series that runs Jan. 2-8.
Saturday -- Freestyle sprint (10 a.m. preliminaries; 1:30 quarterfinals, followed by semifinals and finals)
Monday -- 10-K and 15-K freestyle races (interval start)
Wednesday -- 20-K and 30-K classical races (mass start)
Friday -- Classical sprint
Races will help determine the U.S. Olympic cross country team for Vancouver, although they aren't the only factor -- or even the biggest factor. The No. 1 criteria is World Cup rankings: anyone in the top 50 overall rankings or the top 30 sprint or distance rankings automatically make the team. That puts Randall, the 27th-ranked World Cup sprinter, and Andy Newell, the fourth-ranked sprinter, on the team. Torin Koos, the 34th ranked sprinter, and Kris Freeman, the 37th-ranked distance racer, just missed automatic berths, but consider them sure bets. The No. 2 criteria is discretion as decided by a panel of U.S. Ski Team representatives, including nordic director John Farra of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Pete Vordenberg of Park City, Utah, the head cross country coach. Both are in Anchorage for the championships. The No. 3 and final criteria is national rankings, which can changed based on these championships. How many spots will there be? That won't be known until Jan. 18 when the international federation issues its country-by-country quotas. Coaches are guessing eight total, but it could go to 10 or higher.
The top-10 ranked men and women, according to the current USSA rankings:
1) Kikkan Randall, 14.47 points
2) Elizabeth Stephen, 32.38
3) Morgan Arritola, 52.08
4) Kristina Strandberg, 55.21
5) Caitlin Compton, 56.93
6) Holly Brooks, 57.45
7) Laura Valaas, 64.08
8) Rebecca Dussault, 67.13
9) Morgan Smyth, 69.00
10) Kristina Trygstad-Saari, 76.46
Other Alaskans in Top 30
15) Nicole DeYong, 84.57
16) Taz Mannix, 85.81
18) Kate Arduser, 86.59
21) Becca Rorabaugh, 90.85
22) Katie Ronsse, 91.40
24) Caitlin Patterson, 94.65
25) Jamie Bronga, 96.51
29) Kate Fitzgerald, 101.32
1) Andrew Newell, 7.36 points
2) Kris Freeman, 9.89
3) Torin Koos, 12.54
4) Chris Cook, 33.48
5) James Southam, 34.72
6) Garrott Kuzzy, 37.17
7) Leif Zimmermann, 39.92
8) Michael Sinnott, 41.95
9) Simeon Hamilton, 42.84
10) Noah Hoffman, 44.54
Other Alaskans in Top 30
12) Lars Flora, 46.00
16) Brent Knight, 52.55
19) Mike Hinckley, 55.73
21) Anders Haugen, 61.18
22) Tyson Flaharty, 62.01
26) Mark Iverson, 63.22
28) David Norris, 65.86
By BETH BRAGG