Holly Brooks isn’t a favorite in today’s Olympic cross-country 15 km pursuit race. But back home in Anchorage, she sure is.
That’s no small feat for a Seattle native in Alaska, where locals refer to the rest of the United States as “Outside.” But Brooks did the near impossible: became a hometown girl. A coach of more than 100 local cross-country skiers, from young teens to professionals, she swept them up in her improbable push to make the 2010 US Olympic team.
While every Olympian stands on the shoulders of scores of people – from parents to second-grade friends to elite coaches – Brooks’ story is particularly poignant.
Never a contender in her earlier years, the 27-year-old had burst onto the US skiing scene this year with performances so dominating that people were already buying their tickets for the Olympics. But on a cold day last month, Brooks cracked under the pressure, finishing seventh at one of the last selection races – endangering her bid for one of the five spots on the team.
“All these people that I coached, all my friends, everyone was there,” recalls Brooks, who was devastated. “They all think I’m going [to the Olympics], and then I go and have this horrible performance in front of my hometown crowd.”
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There was freshman Amelia Hennessy, who skipped school to watch and spearheaded a trip to Michael’s craft store to make “Go Holly!” T-shirts.
There was “snowplow queen” Joanna Menaker, part of a masters group Brooks had nursed along – skiing with them, embracing them, inspiring them with her workouts in the dark Alaskan nights after her three daily coaching sessions.
And then there was her husband, Rob, a former international racer who had gotten the idea in his head that his girl had the mettle to make the team.
Their cheering having long faded in her ears, she headed out on the barren trails of Kincaid Park that overlook the ocean, feeling sorry for herself.
But then she ran into Ase Haugen, one of the women she coaches. Old enough to be her mom, Haugen took Brooks in her arms, telling her she still at a shot at the team.
“I don’t know that every skier has that kind of moral support from literally 100 people,” says Brooks, who rebounded with a stellar performance and was named to the team. “I feel like there a number of people who could have done that for me.”
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Sophomore Celia Haering was a convert long before Brooks even voiced the “O” word. Last summer, she and her teammates concocted a little plan to get their coach in Olympic form. They would pretend there were an uneven number of partners for strength exercises, so that she would have to pair up with them.
So when Brooks found out in late January that she had been named to the team as a last-minute addition, jubilee erupted.
Haering set off a flurry of fingers texting the good news; a tribe of boys made good on their promise to dye their hair the color of Brooks’ choice if she made the Olympics – red, white, and blue; and a frozen parking lot of working professionals, upon seeing her beaming grin as she pulled up to noon practice in her Subaru wagon, spontaneously decided to go to the Olympics, too – to watch.
“She came out of nowhere to get this spot and if that doesn’t make you think you could do something with your life, even at my age…. I’m inspired by her,” said Menaker, who started planning a trip to Whistler. “I told her, ‘I had no idea I’m going to the Olympics, but I’m going.’ ”
Also here is Whitney, Holly's husband, who as one of America’s most promising skiers had once cherished his own Olympic dreams. But this time it’s sweeter.
“I think it's more fulfilling,” says Whitney, now a firefighter. “I'm supporting and watching my wife, Holly, make the team, which is an unbelievable feeling … and at the same time reliving my dream.”
“I know once I see her in that first race in the Olympics,” he said before arriving in Whistler for her first race, on Feb. 15. “I hate to admit it, but I know I'm going to cry.”