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.