ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — Jessie Diggins’ silver medal, the best-ever individual Olympic finish by an American woman, is what most people will remember from Sunday’s Games-ending cross-country ski race.
Here’s why you should remember Rosie Brennan, too.
Brennan, 33, may lack Diggins’ magazine covers and national endorsement deals. But she performed at ever-so-close to the same level in Beijing, and came heartbreakingly close to the medals.
First, there was Brennan’s fourth place in the Games-opening individual sprint. She and Diggins finished in what was almost a dead heat — but the single second and single place between them was the difference between a bronze and no medal at all.
Then, there was the team sprint, where the two U.S. women were paired. Brennan handed off to Diggins in medal contention after her last of three laps, but Diggins couldn’t hold on.
Finally, on Sunday, the last day of the Games, Brennan found herself on the wrong side of a split in the lead pack. Diggins was on the right side and went on to win silver. Brennan put her head down and dragged an uncooperative chase pack back into medal contention — only to again lose out on bronze by five seconds in the finishing sprint, when she was passed by the women she’d dragged back to the leaders.
“I literally tried everything I had,” Brennan told reporters afterward. “And unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and that’s hard to swallow. But I’m very proud of my effort.”
Brennan’s efforts in Beijing deserve recognition in their own right. But they’re also important because of the circuitous route she followed to achieve them — and the path she paved for other skiers to follow in her footsteps.
At the start of Brennan’s career, the U.S. Ski Team was pushing athletes, hard, to skip conventional four-year college and commit full-time to skiing for the American program. Diggins, 30, did that.
Brennan went to Dartmouth College and raced on the collegiate circuit.
When she started at school, she was also supported by the U.S. Ski Team. But then, after her sophomore year, she was cut.
Brennan, who had also been injured in a car crash, almost quit the sport. But she ultimately decided to continue racing after college with the Alaska Pacific University club team in Anchorage.
Even after that, Brennan’s rise to the very top of cross-country skiing came with ups and downs: She got mononucleosis during the 2018 Olympic year, when she finished in third-to-last place in her sole race at the Games — and was cut from the U.S. Ski Team again.
But now it’s clear she belongs. And the U.S. coaches now concede that the cold shoulder they gave to collegiate athletes was the wrong approach. At the Beijing Games, more than half of the American team finished or is enrolled in a traditional college program.
“We were cutting the community in half. We took a hard stance, and it was an error,” Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. team’s head coach, said in an interview after Sunday’s race.
Encouraging athletes to skip college, he added, is “not realistic, because you’re not taking the American culture into consideration.”
“Being social in college, and being a kid a little bit, for a little bit longer, is what we now understand helps us get longer careers,” he said. “You could almost look at Jessie Diggins as an anomaly.”
Whitcomb was one of the many U.S. coaches, team members and fans who watched Sunday’s race with mixed emotions — with joy for Diggins’ medal, but also with some anguish for Brennan’s third close call of the Games.
“She’s at the absolute peak of her career. It’s been a long, wonderful career, a challenging career. And you just want to see a medal wrapped around her neck,” Whitcomb said.
Chris Grover, the director of the U.S. cross-country program, summed it up this way: “It’s really hard when the medals only go three places.” He added: “The achievement for Rosie is spectacular.”
Diggins, for her part, had nothing but good things to say about Brennan.
“I’m just so proud of her. The Olympics is an emotional roller coaster, and she rode it with grace, and as a good teammate, and looked out for other people. She’s just been amazing,” Diggins said Sunday. “To me, she’s found success in every definition that matters.”
Brennan, after her last race, said she expects to be losing sleep for a while over her Olympic near-misses.
But she also said she’s trying to keep things in perspective: She achieved her goal of racing all six events at the Games with good energy, and she’s proud of the training she did to make that possible.
“I feel very confident that I’m in the best shape of my life this past week, and that I did everything I could to be in a place to win a medal. And the rest is largely out of my control,” she said. “I did everything I could to be prepared for the day, and I really have to be proud of that.”
As Brennan heads back to the European World Cup circuit for more racing next weekend, she also will likely be keeping in mind a message she gently delivered to reporters earlier in the Games, after she and Diggins finished fifth in the team sprint. The takeaway: Keep paying attention.
“One thing that the U.S. is really bad at is only caring about the Olympics. But we’re racing World Cups every weekend,” she said. “It’s been a good experience. And we’ll head straight back to the World Cup and keep fighting for more.”
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. During the Olympics, he’s regularly contributing to the Devon Kershaw cross-country skiing podcast. Listen here.