Gondolas, gold medals and the winter games

Cross-country skier Holly Brooks ’04 takes on her second Winter Olympics.

By Daniel Le Ray

Holly Brooks '04
Holly Brooks ’04 competes in the Skiathlon, her first event in Sochi. Photo by Kikkan Randall

In just a few weeks, Olympian and Whitman alumna Holly Brooks ’04 will be taking an unusual form of transportation to get to work every morning.

“The cross-country skiers will be staying in the ‘Endurance Village’,” she says. “Which is literally located at the top of a mountain and accessible only by gondola.”

A member of the U.S. World Cup and Olympic ski teams, Brooks spoke to us during a break in her training. In just a few days, she would travel to Seiser Alm, an Alpine meadow on the border between Italy and Austria, to participate in the last World Cup event in Toblach, Italy, and then on to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. There, gondolas and – hopefully – medals would await.

Sochi is Brooks’ second Olympics, but her path to success has been, in her own words, non-traditional. While her teammates have stories of winning races from a young age, Brooks trained, skied and worked her way up to the national level later in life.

“Many full-time skiers have never experienced life outside of elite sports, and I think my route has given me perspective that allows me to fully understand the beauty of what I get to do every day,” she said.

At Whitman, Brooks “skied and trained with a lot of heart,” but admits, “I was never very good.” She was, however, busy. During her time as an undergrad, the ski team competed in U.S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association events and in NCAA Division 1. “Skiing at Whitman was a full-time endeavor. Every spring, I had ambitions of joining the cycling team, but I was always too tired.”

Brooks never broke into the collegiate top 10 in her four years at Whitman. Now, at age 31, she is about to become a two-time Olympian.

She is sanguine about being the oldest member of the U.S. Ski Team: “Cross country skiing is a sport where it takes years, even decades, to develop into a world-class athlete, and hence my success came later in life.”

Brooks stepped onto the national stage in 2010, when she was named to the U.S. team for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The path to Vancouver began the year before when she had what she described to NPR as an “awkward and odd epiphany.”

While taking part in the annual Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska, Brooks suffered a case of severe dehydration and collapsed near the finish line. She decided then that her goal was to go all the way to the Olympics.

“I made the Vancouver team while working as a full-time coach,” Brooks said. While working at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Brooks trained and “worked my way up, winning races domestically, then scoring points on the World Cup and being named to the U.S. Ski Team.”

With Sochi around the corner, the team is in full-tilt training mode, and Brooks knows that this may be her last Games.

“The Olympics are an amazing experience and something that I feel very special to have been a part of,” Brooks said. “I’m excited to compete in my second Olympics and think that Sochi’s going to be a blast.”

Since making it big, she has also kept in touch with the coaches with whom she worked at Whitman. Her first-year coach, Eli Brown, volunteered his time and waxed Brooks’ skis at a recent World Cup event. August Teague, who coached her in her final year at Whitman, will be at the Sochi Winter Games as head coach for Team Australia. And in Vancouver, she said former Whitman Director of Skiing Tom Olson “came to cheer me on, which was a really special moment.”

Brooks also plans to use her athletic success to raise awareness about specific health issues. “The Olympics are a good vehicle to advocate for participation in sports and good dietary choices,” she explains. “It’s an athletic experience that transcends cultures, borders – ideally, politics – and languages.” Her personal passion is fighting childhood obesity by encouraging children to lead healthier lifestyles.

But right now, Brooks is focused on gondolas, gold medals and the Games. “I have no regrets about my late bloomer status,” she says. “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”