‘Surrounded by strong women’: Cross-country skier Rosie Brennan on the Olympics and the future of women in winter sports

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Rosie Brennan is a two-time Olympian in cross-country skiing, who came within seconds of the Olympic podium earlier this year in Beijing. She joined On Her Turf from Lillehammer, Norway, where she’s set to race at a World Cup this weekend. Brennan, who’s also celebrating her 34th birthday in Lillehammer, will be in Europe competing until April. OHT caught up with her about the Olympics, her plans for the future, being a mentor, and getting more women involved in winter sports – something U.S. Ski and Snowboard is working toward as part of its recently-announced Heroic initiative.

*This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

Can we go back in time a little bit and talk about your Olympic experience in Beijing?

It feels like a lifetime ago. It was definitely a unique Olympic experience. It was really cold and windy in our races, but also in the middle of a pandemic, which provided its own challenges.

One thing I really wanted to do is race in all of the races and be in the fight in all of the events (there are six events on the Olympic program for women’s cross-country skiing). And that was something I was able to do. So that was kind of a big accomplishment for me. And then I was the unfortunate fourth-place finisher [in the sprint event], which was a career best, but is also that bittersweet place.

I feel really good about the fact that I made it through all of it, and I was able to accomplish a lot of my goals. But it definitely left me wanting to fight for more this year. So here I am.

How does that fourth-place finish – and your other three top-six finishes in Beijing – drive you forward? Are you already thinking about 2026?

[The fourth-place finish] was a career best. So there are all these things to celebrate. But it was also like, I could have done this better. Or no, I couldn’t have done that better. You immediately start thinking about all those things.

The interesting thing about cross-country skiing is that because we have two techniques, it’s actually eight years before we see that same race again [at the Olympics]. In 2026, it’ll be a classic sprint, instead of a skate sprint. And I’m almost 100% certain I won’t be racing in eight years, as I am on the older side. So I don’t know, we’ll see. [I’m taking it] year by year at this point.

(Like no other sport in the Olympic Winter Games, the cross-country skiing program is perennially in flux. Two-thirds of the cross-country events alternate technique from one Olympics to the next, and the same skiers don’t always excel in the freestyle and classical techniques.)

Did you experience the post-Olympic “hangover” that a lot of athletes describe after the Games?

Yes and no. We flew straight back to Europe and had to keep racing our World Cup season – I had another month of competition. So that definitely delays [the hangover] when you just have to keep going, and you don’t go home.

But I definitely felt it when the season finally ended. I think it was more of a COVID letdown, after the anxiety and stress of trying to stay healthy over the course of the year. That was more of a relief than the letdown from the Olympics.

(Olympians were not allowed to compete at the Olympics in Beijing if they contracted COVID; many athletes have described high stress trying to stay healthy while the Omicron variant surged in early 2022.)

Did you think about finishing your competitive career at the end of last season or were you always planning to continue?

I never felt the urge to be done. So I just kept going, I guess. I don’t know if it was a really conscious decision or just what happened. But I felt like I could keep going, so I did.

What’s on your list in terms of goals or things you want to accomplish before you make a decision about retiring?

We have world championships this year (in late February/early March 2023). I don’t have a world championship medal or Olympic medal, so that would be high on the list for sure.

Also, I’ve always prided myself on being someone that can race in all the different events – being an overall skier. I really want to put forth a battle in the overall World Cup for the globe. So that’s on my mind for this year as well.

You started that World Cup campaign this past weekend at Ruka in Finland. How did it feel to be back competing again?

I was not very happy with my sprint result (32nd), but my distance results (6th & 7th) were much better. That was very encouraging. It was a solid place to start. I don’t have any alarm bells going off (laughs).

We have so much racing this season. It’s more racing than we’ve ever had before. And they also changed the distances and the point-scoring systems so it’s kind of a wild card as to how one will get on the overall podium – no one really knows.

The goal is to show up every weekend and fight for something.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you do with students and young people?

I’m involved in a couple different organizations. Classroom Champions is a really cool organization and they pair athletes with classrooms around the country. Over the course of the summer, I recorded videos and each of them focuses on different things, like perseverance or overcoming challenges or setting goals. And I also give the kids challenges and they send them back to me. So that’s been pretty cool.

I’m also a mentor for Voice in Sport (VIS), which is a platform for young girls (middle school through college). They can sign up for a mentoring session with me and it can be about anything.

I love the idea of using my success in skiing as a way to be a role model and a positive influence in someone else’s life. And I’m someone that does a lot better in smaller group situations, so mentoring has been really fun, to work a little more one-on-one or in small groups with kids. I find it easier to be myself and share my knowledge in that way.

I think back to how much skiing has enriched my life and I just hope that everyone can have that experience with any sport. I’m a little biased – I think skiing is the best one – but whatever the sport may be, I just really hope that everyone gets the opportunity to experience that enrichment in their lives.

Last week U.S. Ski and Snowboard announced their Heroic initiative, which aims to empower women in winter sports and invest in their futures. What is your take on where things are in terms of women’s involvement in winter sports right now?

I think from an athlete perspective, it’s great. In cross-country skiing in the U.S., there’s often races that have more female starters than male starters. I’m very proud of our country for that. However, I think the battle is in the coaching and wax teams, ski service teams. And even administrative roles. There are not many females at all [in these roles].

A couple things have changed. For one, men and women are racing the same distances now. That’s a huge change.

I was reflecting back on it today. I’m the athlete representative for U.S. Ski and Snowboard for cross-country. And someone brought forth a proposal for equal distance a few years back. And it was the first time I had really thought about it, and I was pretty indifferent at the time. And then in these meetings, there were mostly older women who were pretty against it. And it was the first time that I realized racing different distances for so many years has had this subconscious effect on women – young girls in particular – that makes them believe they’re not capable of racing the same distances as a male. That really flipped my thoughts about it.

Last weekend was the first week (of equal-distance World Cup races) and we did it. We all survived, we’re still here today. We’ll see what happens as the season goes on. But I think that’s been a huge, huge thing. (Read more on those equal distances here.)

And then on the coaching and tech side, the U.S. brought forth a proposal to allow additional bibs (needed for course access at international events) for female staff members to try and encourage nations to hire females. That went into effect this year. There were nations that tried to swipe up a bunch of female service people and coaches and stuff. So that’s really cool. But you also need the grassroots development of bringing coaches up or helping retired athletes transition into coaching or ski service or whatever it may be. I think there’s still a lot of room to grow there.

Do you have any personal experiences with female coaches, trainers or health care providers that showed you the benefit of having women in some of those positions?

When I was in high school, I had a male coach – a great, great coach. But I was more or less the only female on the team. I just chased the boys around, which at the time, I think was great – I think it made me learn how to ski really quickly, and it helped me get fast.

But when I went to Dartmouth College – one of the few [schools] that splits the men’s and women’s teams – the women’s team had a female coach. It was the first time that I had a female coach, but also the first time I was part of a team of women, which was such a different experience from my high school experience. And it was so cool. I just loved it. It was so empowering. The girls on the team pushed each other so well and productively. And having a female coach opened up this lens of all the other things that go into performance, aside from just your training. You’re living away from home for the first time [in college] and there’s a million things going on in your life. And to have that female perspective was definitely impactful for me. And it made me realize the power of being surrounded by strong women.

And so that’s ultimately what led me to go to the team that I am currently on now in Alaska, because when I graduated college, that’s where Kikkan (Randall, the 5-time Olympian and 2018 Olympic gold medalist) was, who was the best female skier. She had a group of female athletes that she was working with. I think I’ve learned that if you want to be good, you have to go where the best are, and find a way to work with an empowering group of women. We have a male coach, but it would be really cool if we got a female assistant coach or something like that.

You mentioned the grassroots work that needs to be done to attract women into these professions. What kinds of efforts do you see being made now? Or what do you think could be done to make those fields in and around winter sports more attractive for women?

One cool thing that has happened is we created a U.S. women’s cross-country Olympian group. There’s around 50 of us and we started doing Zoom calls. And then we wrote a book about women’s cross-country skiing, about everyone’s Olympic experiences. And with the proceeds from the book (Trail to Gold), we funded fellowships for female coaches to come to the World Cup and basically intern for two or three weeks on the World Cup. It’s a paid-for trip over here (in Europe) to have that crash course. We have our first fellow with us now – it’s been awesome. And we’ll have a few more throughout the year. I think programs like that are like amazing, because a lot of [the issue] is not knowing that those options exist, and not realizing that’s a path that someone can take.

But in addition to that, our team has put in a significant effort to hire female coaches and we have had quite a bit of turnover, because it’s really challenging for females who are considering having families or do have families – the time commitment of leaving, or not having childcare access on the road, or other things like that are really big barriers. I don’t really know what the solution is, but it’s something that needs to be thought about. What kind of resources should we be providing to not scare females away that are interested in starting families or do have families?

What do you think your involvement will be in skiing whenever you decide to stop competing? Are there career paths within skiing that you’re considering?

I can’t imagine my life not involved in athletics. It’s just had such a big impact on my life. I don’t really know what that will look like at this point, or how much of my life it will be. But I would like to be involved on some level, and be part of the progress being made. I want to make sure that that continues.

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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