DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Amazing to think it is frigid here in the U.S. but in Sochi, Russia, where they hope to be holding skiing events at the Olympics next month, temperatures right now are in the 50s. Ahead of those games, we are bringing you stories about what athletes are doing to get an edge over the competition. We're calling this series The Edge. Plenty of elite athletes transition to being coaches. Not many though go from being coach to Olympian. That is what cross country skier Holly Brooks did.
Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt has her story.
ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: On a frigid day at Hatcher Pass, north of Anchorage, Holly Brooks glides up to a start line.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Three, two, one, go.
FEIDT: This race is just a practice with her Alaska Pacific University teammates. It's a chance for Brooks to test her skills before heading to Europe for the busy World Cup season. Then she'll go to Sochi for the Olympics in February. Brooks is now a seasoned member of the U.S. Ski Team. But a little more than four years ago, she was on the sidelines. On July 4, 2009 that all changed.
HOLLY BROOKS: It was actually this really awkward and odd epiphany.
FEIDT: Brooks was competing in Mount Marathon - the Super Bowl of Alaskan sports. It's a rugged mountain running race straight up and back down a nausea-inducing incline.
BROOKS: I was leading and I suffered an extreme case of dehydration. And I passed out right in front of the emergency room, which is conveniently along the course of Mount Marathon.
FEIDT: She was just a few tantalizing blocks from the finish line.
BROOKS: And just how close I came to winning, it was like it flipped a switch in my mind and my body. And I was laying in the emergency room and I said to myself - I didn't tell anyone- I want to go to the Olympics.
FEIDT: It was an improbable goal. At the time, Brooks was 27, at least a decade older than most cross country skiers who set their sights on the Olympics. Brooks had done well in a two popular recreational races but had zero international experience. The games in Vancouver were just seven months away.
BROOKS: You know, there were a lot of people that told me: Oh, with your background, you can never do this. Or you're too old, the U.S. Ski Team will never nominate you. You know, you're past your prime.
FEIDT: But Brooks believed she had a shot. And so did many of the athletes she coached.
DON HAERING: I knew Holly was fast.
FEIDT: Don Haering skied for Brooks in high school and in college. He says when the team was training, Coach Brooks was always right there with them.
HAERING: It's not like she would stand there on the side of the trail and tell you where to go. She would go ski with you the whole time and if you did a hard interval set, she might do the whole thing with you. And then, you know, you go home and rest and meanwhile Holly has another session to do. And I would assume she did the same thing with them too.
FEIDT: Brooks pursued her dream with reckless abandon, as she puts it. And it paid off. In 2010, she eked her way onto the Olympic squad. Four years later she has a shot at a relay medal in Sochi. Looking back, Brooks says she can't exactly recommend her unusual path to other skiers. But she says her background gives her something many of her younger competitors lack: perspective.
BROOKS: You know, I am the oldest one on the team. I know that I don't have 10 more years in my career. So there's a certain amount of, you know, I hesitate to call it urgency. But I'm really excited for what's to come.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's go, Holly.
FEIDT: Back at Hatcher Pass, Brooks is rounding the last corner of the race course, eying the finish line.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Up, up, up, up, up, up.
FEIDT: This race may be just for practice but Brooks doesn't hold anything back. She wins by three seconds and finishes exhausted, but with a huge smile on her face.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.
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