By Peggy Shinn (Vermont Ski + Ride, Winter 2016 issue)
In June 2015, Sophie Caldwell wrote down a goal, then posted a picture of herself holding that goal on Facebook.
It read: “Be on the World Cup podium.”
On January 5, 2016, in Oberstdorf, Germany, Caldwell, 25, claimed her first World Cup win. The race was the fourth stage of the weeklong Tour de Ski, but each stage is considered its own World Cup race.
“I really surprised myself,” she said, explaining that her forte is freestyle (skate) sprints, not classic (traditional kick-and-glide). “But I’m thrilled.”
Others were not surprised, least of all Caldwell’s father Sverre, the Nordic program director at the Stratton Mountain School. “She has been skiing really well so [a podium finish] seemed likely, but a win was more than expected,” he wrote in an email from the U.S. national championships in Michigan, where he watched his daughter on NBC live stream (“We had five of us watching and screaming at the computer. It was great!”)
“You could see that she was gaining confidence with each race,” he continued, “and it all came together for this one.”
Since mid-December, Caldwell had finished in the top seven in three sprint races. However, Sverre knew the competition was daunting. “There have been two girls from Norway and one from Sweden who have been dominating,” he wrote, “so beating them all seemed like a really tall order.”
With fearless skiing on the sprint course’s treacherous downhills, Caldwell beat them all, becoming the third American woman ever to win a World Cup. (Alison Own Spencer won a race in Telemark, Wisconsin, in the World Cup’s early days, and Kikkan Randall has won 14 World Cup races.)
With Randall on maternity leave, Caldwell has taken over as top for the U.S. this season. But it’s not a stretch; she finished sixth in the classic sprint at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the best finish ever for an American female cross country skier at the Olympics. Then in March 2014, she earned her first World Cup podium.
Caldwell’s growing legacy has deep roots in Vermont. Grandfather John Caldwell, from Putney, competed in the 1952 Olympics in Nordic combined, coached at four Olympic Winter Games, and literally wrote the book on cross-country skiing (The Cross Country Ski Book), while her uncle Tim, who now lives in Hanover, N.H., raced in four Olympics. Sophie’s sister Izzy runs the Frost Mountain Nordic Club’s Bill Koch program in central Vermont for kids in grades 1 through 8.
But perhaps more important than genetics, Caldwell grew up in Peru, Vermont, surrounded by friends and family who loved the outdoors. Thanks to Sverre, who helped develop grass-roots cross-country ski programs, the entire area around Peru and Stratton was (and still is) a cross-country skiing incubator.
Caldwell became serious about racing in seventh grade when she attended Stratton Mountain School, then Dartmouth College, where she competed at NCAAs three times. After graduating in 2012, she considered becoming a teacher, but then decided to give pro skiing a try. She joined the SMS T2 team to train with three-time Olympian Andy Newell and other top skiers.
Six months later, in December 2012, Caldwell competed in her first World Cup races — a freestyle sprint and team sprint in Quebec City. In front of thousands, many dressed in Big Green colors and waving American flags, she finished a remarkable 14th in both races.
A year later, she was named to her first Olympic team and in Sochi, surprised everyone when she made the sprint final. Unfortunately, she tangled with another skier in the final and finished sixth.
Since then, Caldwell has rarely finished outside the top 30 in sprint races. And a sprint is not just a three-minute race around a 1.2-kilometer course. Skiers must first qualify—an all-out effort because only the top 30 move on to the quarterfinals. Then the quarterfinals, semis, and finals happen in quick succession. By the finals, the skiers have already sprinted 1.2 kilometers three times within a two-hour period. In comparison, a 15-kilometer race (classic or freestyle) lasts 30-35 minutes for the men, 35-40 minutes for the women.
“[In a sprint race] you’re basically skiing the whole time because you’re warming up, then you’re warming down, then warming back up again,” Andy Newell explained—and sometimes vomiting between rounds. The trick, he added, is to maintain endurance and speed throughout the day.
Sverre has credited his daughter’s success not just to her strength and endurance, but to her level-headedness and happiness.
“She has a great training group, she likes her coaches, she has stayed quite healthy, and she is happy,” he emailed before the 2014 Olympics.
The team environment may be the real key.
“Everyone works so hard, and I think the cool thing about it all is that we wake up each day and know it could be any one of us battling for that podium,” Caldwell said after her victory. “Maybe today was my day, but tomorrow can be someone else’s. At the end of the day, we’re all going to be there supporting each other because it’s the team behind each one of us that gets us here.”