The U.S. team of cross-country skiers headed to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics is packed with Alaskans, as eight of its 14 members, three of five alternates and three staff members have ties to the state.
Headlining the team announced Thursday is Rosie Brennan, a medal hopeful from Utah who now trains with Alaska Pacific University’s elite cross-country squad in Anchorage.
Hannah Halvorsen and Hailey Swirbul also grew up outside Alaska but now train with APU. Siblings Scott and Caitlin Patterson grew up in Anchorage, as did Luke Jager and Gus Schumacher, and JC Schoonmaker hails from California and now competes for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s ski team.
Chris Grover, the director of the U.S. cross-country ski program, also grew up in Anchorage. Coach Jason Cork grew up in North Pole. And physical therapist Zuzana Rogers has long practiced in Anchorage.
“Alaska is one of the meccas for cross-country skiing in this country, and Alaskans should be proud how much representation we have,” said Holly Brooks, the retired Anchorage Olympic cross-country racer who was an athlete member of the committee that picked the team.
The eight skiers join several other Alaska athletes destined for Beijing — as long as they can stay omicron-free in the days leading up to their departure for China, which requires two negative coronavirus tests to enter the country.
Brian Cooper, an Anchorage hockey player, was named to the U.S. team last week. Canadian Olympic figure skater Keegan Messing trains in Anchorage, and two curlers with Fairbanks ties have also qualified for Beijing.
Kikkan Randall, the Anchorage cross-country skiing superstar who won a gold medal at the 2018 Games, will also be participating in this year’s Olympics — albeit from a broadcast booth in Stamford, Connecticut.
Randall has been hired by NBC as an expert analyst for the network’s broadcasts of cross-country skiing and biathlon races, she said in a phone interview Thursday. She said she’s looking forward to an Olympics in which the American cross-country skiers will be some of the stars — which hasn’t always been the case.
“We still have a ways to go to get up to where figure skating is and alpine skiing,” she said. “But to really see it in the conversation, it’s a dream come true.”
For the Alaska skiers on the team announced Thursday, the Olympics represent the culmination of years of training and racing, plus a high-pressure qualification period that’s guided by technical criteria.
Brooks, in a phone interview, said the committee selected the team during a two-hour conference call Monday.
“I had a nightmare the night before, and I felt nauseous all day. Actually, I probably felt nauseous for three days, because I knew some people’s dreams were going to be realized and some people’s dreams were going to be crushed, and I’ve been there,” Brooks said. “I know what that feels like — I just know how difficult and traumatizing it can be.”
In prepared statements released with the team’s announcement, Alaska athletes who qualified said they were thrilled.
“All of my emotions are on overload,” said Halvorsen. “I am beyond proud, beyond grateful and beyond excited and honored to be on the 2022 Olympic Team.”
Jager, in his statement, said he remembers watching Randall race at the Olympics when he was a child and called his own participation in the Games a “dream come true.”
“Feels pretty crazy to get to be here now a few years later with my best friends,” he said. “I feel so thankful for all the people that have worked so hard over the years to help us get here.”
The flip side of Thursday’s announcement are the Alaska skiers who came oh-so-close to qualifying but didn’t. That includes veterans David Norris and Logan Hanneman, who grew up in Fairbanks and train with APU, as well as their teammate Rosie Frankowski.
All three were named as alternates for the U.S. team, which, amid the current coronavirus wave sweeping the globe, leaves them a slightly wider sliver of hope than in normal times.
But being left off the official squad is still an Olympic-sized disappointment after months of navigating tense relationships with teammates vying for the same few slots, and obsessing over qualification criteria, training and race results.
Frankowski said she’s been trying not to dwell too much on all the what-ifs from the past few weeks of qualifying races — injuries, ski waxing problems and the relatively scarce opportunities for American athletes to make the Olympic team without racing in Europe.
It’s almost easier to be farther from qualifying, she said, because then “it’s like you couldn’t have really done anything.
“The next couple of weeks, the challenge will be to not lay in bed and think about the things you could have done different,” she added.
Frankowski, who raced at the 2018 Games in South Korea, is still filling out a daily health questionnaire in case a slot on this year’s team opens up.
While narrowly missing out on the team is a letdown, she said, it’s also a huge relief that the intense qualification period is finally over. She’ll head to the East Coast soon for more ski racing with hopes of sealing a spot in a series of World Cup races in Europe later this winter — if omicron doesn’t force cancellations.
“The psychological and emotional stress that you deal with when you’re trying to make the Olympic team — it’s more challenging than anyone could possibly imagine from the outside,” she said. “There’s so many factors out of your control, and for it to all come together, you have to realize how lucky you are.”