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An Olympic gold medal through a teammate’s eyes

  • Author: Holly Brooks
  • Updated: February 24
  • Published February 24

Gold medalists Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins celebrate on the podium after receiving their gold medals. (Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters)

It's been a few days since "the gold medal" and the immensity of what happened is finally starting to sink in. It's going to be a long time (if ever) before re-runs of Kikkan and Jessie's race get old or I fail to get goosebumps when I think about what happened.

The storyline just seems to get better and better. In the last 1.25 kilometers of Kikkan Randall's storied career, she helps bring home the country's first women's medal in cross-country skiing — and it's gold.

The following day she is elected to a prestigious eight-year term on the International Olympic Committee's athlete commission. Then Jessie Diggins is chosen by her Olympic peers to be the first cross-country skier to serve as the USA flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.

What's next? A Wheaties box? (Do those still exist?)

Is this for real?

In the lead-up to these Games, the stakes had never been higher. My teammates were bringing home medals left and right during the World Cup season, including wins in the last two regular-season contests one week before the Games.

While we used to be dark horses on the international stage, the women went into Pyeongchang with targets on their backs. In the months leading up to South Korea, the team was featured in big-name publications that had previously never given us an ounce of notice. Even Cosmopolitan magazine had a feature on cross-country skiers.

As an athlete, it's easy to underestimate the energy that press appearances and expectations take out of you. I'll never forget the analogy former U.S. Ski Team head coach Pete Vordenberg made once. Training for arguably one of the hardest sports in the world is like being a mouse running on one of those small spinning wheels. The test is, how hard can you train and compete before you fly off the wheel and hit the wall?

In the lead-up to the Olympics, it's easy to fill recovery time with photo shoots, school visits and interviews. I was understandably worried for my friends, because I know I over-trained, under-rested and over-engaged going into the 2014 Sochi Games.

For the Pyeongchang Games, the stakes were high and the pressure was on, especially to bring home a medal in a team event, a format our team had recently excelled in.

Holly Brooks hosted a viewing party for the women’s 4×5-kilometer relay event. From left, Calisa Kastning, Signe Kastning, Holly Brooks, Svea Kastning, Sylvie Kastning, Rob Whitney, Ruby Whitney (in Rob’s arms), Brooks Whitney, Andy Kastning. (Photo courtesy Calisa Kastning)

For the women's 4×5-kilometer relay we went all out here in Anchorage, super-fan style. Die-hard ski friends Calisa and Andrew Kastning brought their three girls, ages 1 through 6, for a sleepover because of the middle-of-the-night start time. Each one of us was dressed in red, white and blue from head to toe.

For the women’s 4×5-kilometer relay at the Pyeongchang, Holly Brooks hosted a viewing party where the snacks were appropriately patriotic. (Photo courtesy Holly Brooks)

My babies were in homemade relay socks (our team's good luck charm) and dinner consisted of USA-themed pizza, a fruit platter with blueberries and strawberries and white yogurt-covered pretzels to form the U.S. flag, and another flag made out of dip. An NPR reporter sat next to us on the basement couch, poised to capture our reactions.

Needless to say, the stage was set for big things to happen. When we dropped out of medal contention, there was certainly some palatable disappointment.

Yet to put it in perspective, Sophie, Sadie, Kikkan and Jessie finished in fifth place, which is our team's best Olympic 4x5K relay result to date. I am their teammate, they are my team and part of that bond is to love and support them unconditionally whether they win medals or come up short.

For the sprint relay we took the opposite approach. There were no USA pizzas or reporters. The babies were upstairs in bed (with relay socks!) and it was just me and my husband, Rob, downstairs in front of the TV. I kneeled as close as possible to the big screen, hands clasped together over my heart.

On the team I'm known for the "Holly Shriek," and that night it was in full effect. If NPR had been there, I'm pretty sure I would have blown out their equipment.

Everything was going great until one minute into Jessie's final sprint relay leg, when the Internet crashed at THE worst time. Luckily I had my phone ready as a backup. After what seemed like the longest Coca-Cola commercial in the world, I was able to connect and witness the last 20 seconds of history.

As Jessie rounded the corner on the final straightaway paired with Stina Nilsson of Sweden, the reigning Olympic sprint champion, I yelled at the top of my lungs, "DIGGS, YOU'VE OUTSPRINTED HER BEFORE!" This was a direct reference to a year ago when Jessie teamed with up Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen and beat Stina to the line to take the bronze medal in the World Championship classic team sprint.

Jessie is perhaps the grittiest racer I know, and her ability to enter the "pain cave," especially when a teammate is waiting at the line, is first-class. When she lunged into first place I screamed and jumped and cried, all at the same time.

Words cannot express how special it was to see my teammates become Olympic champions. These girls are like sisters to me. We've bonked on over-distance roller skis together, we've trained so hard we've cried on Eagle Glacier and we've often spent more time with one another than we have with boyfriends and husbands. We've shared birthdays and anniversaries, we've welcomed new years, and we've grieved the deaths of loved ones together. This team goes beyond team, and it feels like family.

During the 2012-13 season, members of the U.S. Ski Team wore stick-on mustaches and sang country-western songs to make a long van ride through Central Europe go faster. From left, Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Holly Brooks and Liz Stephen. (Photo courtesy Holly Brooks)

A big part of the magic is that we have fun too. Just weeks before the Games, we were reminiscing via text messages about an epic van ride we shared years ago on Kikkan's birthday. We all wore stick-on mustaches and belted out country songs for hours while driving through Central Europe.

Memories like these make this gold medal all the more human and all the more special.

The meaning and reach of this gold-medal moment has yet to be fully realized, but the potential is huge. Maybe it's young girls and boys across the country trying the sport for the first time. I think it will be the watershed moment that opens the floodgates for Olympic medals to come. Hopefully it equates to increased funding and direct athlete support so American cross-country skiers don't have to live in relative obscurity or beneath the poverty line to chase their Olympic dreams.

I've shared this belief before but I'll share it again: Alaska needs role models as much as we need Olympic medals. Luckily, now we have both! There's a saying that "once an Olympian, always an Olympian." Now, for my teammates, they will be able to add, "once an Olympic champion, always an Olympic champion."

Holly Brooks is a two-time Olympic skier who competed at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. In November 2012 she was part of the U.S. women's relay team that won a World Cup bronze medal in Sweden, the first relay medal in history for the American women. She retired from ski racing in 2016 and lives in Anchorage with her husband and their 5-month-old twins.

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