Trailblazers | Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team

In her new book, “World Class” Vermont author Peggy Shinn tells the story of the making of the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team. Not surprisingly, New England’s connection to the sport runs deep.

By Yankee Magazine

Feb 05 2018

The U.S. women’s cross-country ski team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Left to right: Kikkan Randall, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, and Jessie Diggins.
Photo Credit : Kikkan Randall

In addition to the Alaska Pacific University (APU) Nordic Ski Center, two clubs that became primary feeders for the U.S. Ski Team early on are the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) and the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team (SMS T2), both located in Vermont. Founded in 2009, CGRP is based at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a ski touring and rowing center started in 1975 by Russell Spring and purchased by Dick and Judy Dreissigacker in 2008. The Dreissigackers are both Olympic rowers who coached at the Outdoor Center in the late 1970s after they brought their company, Concept 2, an oar-building and ergometer manufacturing business, to nearby Morrisville, Vermont. Members of the CGRP live at the Outdoor Center and earn their keep by participating in projects for both the center and the community, such as gardening, running ski clinics for the public, or helping to design and build installations at the center, such as solar panels or a new ski lodge.

In southern Vermont, Sverre Caldwell, the director of Nordic programs at the Stratton Mountain School and John Caldwell’s son, had long dreamed of offering a full spectrum of development programs at the school, from the local BKL programs that foster elementary-school-aged skiers, to SMS’s high school program, to the elite team for postgraduate skiers who dream of competing at the highest levels. He founded the SMS T2 team in 2012 after his oldest daughter, Sophie, graduated from Dartmouth and wanted to see where skiing would take her. It’s named after both the school and the T2 Foundation, an organization that began in 2008 to support promising ski racers. Like Craftsbury, SMS T2 provides housing and coaching, as well as a yearly stipend to help the elite skiers pay for the cost of living. For additional financial support, skiers write proposals for sponsorships and grants. Those not yet on the A team can also receive funding from the National Nordic Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1997 to help cover the expenses of developing Nordic skiers.

These regional ski clubs have become incubators for budding skiers and homes for the nation’s top skiers in the off-season so that they can make ski racing their job. During the off-season, elite skiers train with—and are pushed by—their club teammates. It’s a system based on the Scandinavian model, where home clubs foster young skiers and support their development in an endurance sport that can take skiers years to mature—the best female cross-country skiers in the world are in their late twenties and early thirties. (This model was also used in the United States in the 1970s, with the Lyndon Nordic Training Center in northern Vermont, but LNTC dissolved in 1979 due to lack of financial support.) Key to the success of these clubs in fostering elite cross-country skiers, the coaches began to communicate and work well with the national team coaches, as if they are all in the same program. When skiers leave the clubs to attend U.S. Ski Team camps, all the athletes are on the same program working toward the same goal.

“The relationship between club coaches and national team coaches has come a long way,” said Matt. “We treat each other with respect now. Rather than working exclusively toward the success of our own team or athletes, or our own careers, we work toward the success of the nation. A successful national team camp means that we all have to let go of the reins a bit, so we can create not the perfect workout for one or two athletes, but the most productive training environment for everyone. We coaches are at our best when our egos are suppressed.”

Gaining entry to these elite clubs requires good results and an even better attitude. It also requires commitment to a life where everything is secondary to a focused goal. It’s like going to medical school, except without the promise of a lifelong, profitable career. Despite the odds, a few dozen commit each year, determined to see where their athletic talent can take them.

* * *

One of those women is Sophie Caldwell.

Unlike the other U.S. women on the team, Caldwell did not discover cross-country skiing. She was born into it. Her grandfather is John Caldwell, the “father of cross-country skiing” in the United States. Uncle Tim competed in four Olympic Games, and her dad, Sverre, is the Nordic director at the Stratton Mountain School and has coached there since 1980. Her mom, Lilly, was also a cross-country ski racer who competed in three junior world championships. The Caldwells live on a wooded plateau in the southern Green Mountains. Stratton Mountain rises from the hilly terrain about fifteen miles south, and its summit, lined with alpine ski trails, is visible from the Caldwells’ house.

The eldest of Sverre and Lilly’s three kids, Sophie learned to cross-country ski around the time she could walk. Before she was in school, she tagged along while her dad coached little kids once a week in the local Bill Koch League program. Once she was a little older, Sophie and her siblings—twins Austin and Isabel, who are two years and three days younger—spent their free time playing in the woods. Despite the remote location of their house, friends lived nearby—in particular, four boys within the same age range as Sophie and her siblings. In the summers, the seven kids would run through the hardwood forest, pretending a large boulder was Pride Rock from The Lion King or catching frogs in a nearby pond.

Snow did not deter their exploration. On winter weekends, they often skied through the meadow and woods to nearby Wild Wings Ski Touring Center, less than a half mile away. There, they continued to play around, sometimes hiding under the ski-trail bridges, pretending they were trolls. Scaring people, though, does not seem like part of Sophie’s character. Although she laughs easily and often, she has her mother’s quiet, thoughtful demeanor.

Racing—and training for races—was not yet the focus for Sophie, Isabel, or Austin. They belonged to the local Bill Koch League, but until sixth grade, the kids only met once a week, and the focus was on fun and games. It was a perpetuation of John Caldwell’s coaching philosophy: make it fun and interesting, and get them hooked.

Besides her siblings and neighbors as playmates, Sophie also had seven Caldwell cousins, and two cousins on her mom’s side. Every summer, John and his wife Hester (“Hep”) would host the ten Caldwell cousins at their large old farmhouse on a hillside above Putney. They called it Camp Caldwell.

“I think they mostly made us do chores,” remembered Sophie. “But we thought it was the greatest thing in the world. We were all together. We’d play, do a chore, play, do a chore.”

But for Sophie, who has her dad’s tall, lithe build, it wasn’t all fun and games. John and Hep sent their kids out to their (cold) pond every morning for a swim before breakfast. “This is the reason I hate swimming,” said Sophie with a rare grimace. She usually has her grandmother’s warm, broad smile. “All my cousins would wake up at six in the morning, and I liked to sleep in until seven or eight. Then they would all watch me out the window to make sure I didn’t fake dunk, which I did try to do sometimes.”

Although Sophie did the usual smattering of childhood activities through elementary school—except swimming—she had narrowed her focus to soccer and cross-country skiing by the time she was in middle school. A natural athlete, she excelled at both, but she soon began excelling at cross-country skiing far beyond the Vermont borders. As an eighth grader, she won the Bill Koch League Festival (BKL), an annual event for the New England BKL programs. The next year, she enrolled full time at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) and won the junior national sprint title as a fourteen-year-old. Spring that year, Sverre took the SMS kids to Finland and Sweden to extend their season and give them a taste of racing abroad. The races in Luleå, Sweden, were stacked with some serious competition, including up-and-coming junior racer Charlotte Kalla. Sverre took one look at the competition and told his skiers, “If anyone wins one of these races, I’ll give them a car.”

The first race was a sprint. Sophie won.

“Luckily, we had a really old car,” said Sverre, laughing and shaking his head at the memory. “We sold it for $200 and gave her the money. It was better than a Matchbox toy.”

The awards ceremony in Luleå was supposed to be a celebration for Kalla, their rising star. Except a girl three years younger—and an American—had beaten her.

Back home, Sophie quickly established herself as one of the top junior sprinters in the United States. But she didn’t always win races. And Sverre was happy about it. He didn’t want his daughter to think that she always had to win. He wanted her to ski because she liked it. As Sverre tells his skiers, it’s all practice until the Olympics.

Trailblazers | Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team
Photo Credit : Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski and Snowboard

Her senior year at SMS, Sophie finished eighth in the sprint at the 2008 U.S. nationals. She was almost a decade younger than most of the competitors who finished ahead of her. And she earned her first trip to the FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships.

She graduated from SMS that spring and followed her father (and grandfather) to Dartmouth, not because it was their alma mater but because she had attended a couple of classes while she was touring the college and decided that she liked them—an indication that skiing would not be her sole focus. Even so, she missed classes in January and February her freshman year to attend world juniors again. She made her collegiate skiing debut three weeks late, leading teammates Rosie Brennan and Ida Sargent in a sweep of the podium at the Dartmouth Carnival in early February. In her second collegiate race a week later, Sophie won a relay (with Ida and Rosie), then finished second to Brennan in a 10-kilometer classic race.

Dartmouth opened her eyes to what the rest of the world could offer, and skiing became less of a priority. By senior year, Sophie considered enrolling in Teach America after she graduated. But that winter, she had one of her best seasons ever with her Dartmouth teammates.

It culminated at the 2012 NCAA Ski Championships at Bohart Ranch near Bozeman, Montana, where Sophie finished third in the 5-kilometer classic race—her first podium finish at NCAAs. Then, in the 15-kilometer freestyle mass start, a race that favored the skiers from the western universities because they were used to skiing at altitude (Bohart’s cross-country ski trails start at 6,100 feet), Sophie and her Dartmouth teammates, Annie Hart and Erika Flowers, controlled the race from the start. They wanted to ski together in the race, so Annie charged off the front from the start, took the lead, and slowed the pack down so Erika, who was typically a slow starter, could settle into the pace. One by one, the skiers from the western colleges began to drop off the pace. “You could see the western coaches getting mad beside the trail,” remembered Sophie.

By the end of the race, the pack was down to seven skiers: the three Dartmouth women, three from the University of Vermont (friends whom the Dartmouth skiers had competed against all winter), and Maria Gräfnings, a Swedish skier recruited by the University of Utah. Sophie and UVM skier Amy Glen charged for the finish line. Both women lunged for the line, Amy’s toe crossing an inch in front of Sophie’s. Annie Hart came in fourth and Erika Flowers in sixth. The UVM women finished first, third, and fifth. It remains one of Sophie’s fondest race memories.

“I was disappointed not to win when it was that close,” she said. “But it was better than I expected that day, and to have the whole team on the podium, and two eastern schools up there, was awesome.”

Riding a high from the great results and the teamwork it took to achieve them, Sophie realized how happy skiing made her. She knew she had natural talent. And if ever she was going to see how far she could go as a skier, this was the time. Easing her transition, Sverre was in the process of starting an elite team at Stratton—a group of the nation’s top skiers who would be able to live and train at Stratton for free, while working with the younger skiers when they weren’t racing or participating in training camps. Sophie was one of the SMS T2 team’s first members, along with Erika Flowers, one of her best friends.

Going into the 2012–2013 ski season, Sophie’s goal was to qualify for the World Cup sprint and team sprint races in Quebec City—a few hours’ drive north of Stratton—in mid-December that season. To qualify, she would have to win the early season SuperTour sprints in Bozeman—again at Bohart Ranch. And to win, she would have to beat people like Sadie Bjornsen, who was competing in her second year on the U.S. Ski Team; 2010 Olympian Caitlin Gregg; and her old Dartmouth teammates Annie, Erika, and Rosie.

In the freestyle sprint final in Bozeman, she won decisively, beating Sadie by more than 2 seconds. Sadie won the classic sprint. But Sophie had earned a World Cup spot.

After Quebec City, Sophie traveled to Canmore, Alberta, for another World Cup race. She again finished in the top thirty. Although she was not on the U.S. Ski Team yet, she was on her way.

Excerpted from World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team by Peggy Shinn, published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.