ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — Rosie Brennan brought two left boots to her cross-country ski race at the Olympics on Tuesday.
Then, she crashed.
Just speed bumps on her way to history.
Brennan’s fourth-place finish in Tuesday’s sprint, in the skating technique, was overshadowed by her teammate Jessie Diggins’ bronze — only the third Olympic cross-country skiing medal in U.S. history and the first by a woman in an individual event.
But Brennan’s result is arguably just as big an achievement. It’s also the best-ever American women’s Olympic result in her sport by someone who isn’t named Diggins or Kikkan Randall.
Brennan, a 33-year-old Utah native and Anchorage resident, was cut not once but twice from the U.S. Ski Team. She’s fought through car-crash injuries and others, mononucleosis and nearly walking away from the sport.
And on Tuesday, she was a couple of ski lengths away from an Olympic medal — a result that was simultaneously exhilarating and agonizing.
“Fourth place is hard. You feel really happy and also frustrated at the same time, so I have a lot of mixed emotions about it,” she told reporters after the race. “But I did everything I could today.”
Brennan has long excelled at distance racing, but her world-class talent in sprinting has only emerged in the past few years.
Tuesday’s result was not a surprise, however: She’d been a podium contender in sprints on the top-level European World Cup circuit earlier this season.
The grinding sprint course also favored Brennan. It’s at altitude, a setting where she’s produced good results in the past, and the snow was cold and slow — a tough combination for some of the pure sprinters who lack Brennan’s endurance capacity.
But Brennan’s day in Zhangjiakou, a resort town outside Beijing that’s hosting the Olympic cross-country ski events, began inauspiciously, when she arrived with the two left boots.
The U.S. men’s team bailed her out, grabbing the right one for Brennan on their way to the skiing venue.
Then, in her quarterfinal heat — the first in a series of head-to-head knockout races — she tripped as soon as the starter’s gun went off.
Immediately, Brennan found herself 10 yards behind her five other competitors, a near eternity in a race that lasts three minutes. The U.S. Ski Team’s cross-country director, Chris Grover, was watching from the side of the trail.
“I was like, ‘OK, that was one of our best shots, and her day’s over,’” he said.
Ironically, Brennan said she’d been practicing her sprint starts for the past six weeks with help from her boyfriend, Tyler Kornfield, a former national champion sprinter.
“The first thing on my mind was, ‘Tyler’s going to kill me, I just messed that up so badly,’” she said. “But then I had to be like, ‘Well, the start can be his thing, the uphill’s my thing. So let’s go.’”
She did. Brennan picked herself up and went in such fierce pursuit that she’d reeled in the pack on the first hill, then managed to place second in the heat — a performance Grover described as “nothing short of miraculous.”
In her next heat, a semifinal, Brennan was stuck racing against Jonna Sundling and Maja Dahlqvist, the two Swedes who went on to win gold and silver medals. The heat was scorching fast, but Brennan skied well enough to advance.
That put her in the final with Diggins, where Brennan didn’t quite have the speed to match her teammate and the two Swedish women. Grover, the coach, said Brennan was likely paying the price for the two big efforts she’d made in the previous heats.
“She had to really lay it out so much in the quarterfinal. She didn’t have the best semifinal,” he said.
“For her to regroup and still be fourth in the final,” he added, “is really amazing testament to what her fitness is.”
While it was tantalizing to be so close to an Olympic medal, both Grover and Brennan said her result gives her a shot of confidence for upcoming races where she could also contend for hardware: two more distance events, a relay and a team sprint where Brennan and Diggins form a formidable pair.
That mental boost is especially welcome, Brennan said, given what she described as a disappointing 14th-place result in Saturday’s Olympic opening event, the skiathlon.
“I feel like I’m back on track now, and this is where I want to be,” she said. “So I have a lot of hopes for the rest of the week, too.”
And while Brennan may have to grapple with the mixed emotions of an Olympic fourth place, her teammates were free to offer some unrestrained enthusiasm.
“This quote is your reminder to never sleep on Rosie Brennan. Never sleep on Rosie Brennan,” said Luke Jager, one of her teammates at the Alaska Pacific University club who also raced Tuesday. “She persevered and grinded. She had some tough years there, I know. But she made it happen, and it’s really amazing.”
Nat Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter who’s covering the Olympics for the ADN and FasterSkier.com. He also reported on-site from Games in 2014 in Russia, and 2010 in Vancouver.