How John Caldwell Created An Olympic Legacy

Nearly 50 years after their parents or grandparents competed in the Olympics, a new generation carries on the family tradition.

 A progressive boarding school that sits on a hilltop dairy farm, The Putney School has turned out alumni such as Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, Nell Newman of Newman’s Own, and actors Tea Leoni and Felicity Huffman.  Putney has also been home to the best cross-country skiers the U.S. has ever had, including Bill Koch, four generations of Caldwells and America’s brightest hopes for a medal this year.

“When my dad came to teach at The Putney School, I was in 8th grade and I didn’t know how to do any sport well except basketball,” says John Caldwell, 89, author of the seminal The Cross Country Ski Book. Like many Vermont kids at the time, Caldwell learned the four winter sports: alpine and cross-country skiing, ski jumping and biathlon, and competed in all four when he went on to Dartmouth.  “In late winter of 1951 I went to two Olympic tryouts in Nordic combined, and finished second at both. In

April, I’d almost forgot about it when I got a letter saying, ‘Report to New York for a flight to Oslo on the 22nd of January 1951 at 8:22 pm.’  And that was it. I heard nothing after: I was going to the Olympics, no training, coaching, no nothing – just ‘make the plane.’”

Caldwell made the team but, as he admits with a chuckle, “We had no idea what we were doing. I fell on my first two jumps, eventually made the third and got to race cross-country, where I think I finished dead last.  We didn’t know how bad we were. I was so mad that when I got back to the States, I said if I could do anything to prevent this from happening again, I’d do it.”

Caldwell would not race in another Olympics­, but he kept his word. After returning to the Putney School as a math teacher and coach, he pulled together a cross-country team that is now legendary.  In 1971, after one of his students, Dan Simoneau, came back from a European race talking about skate skiing, Caldwell set up a test with heart rate data to see which technique was faster and more efficient: kick double pole, straight double pole or marathon skate. That year in the Junior Worlds his son Tim, as well as Bill Koch, skated for most of the course. “I was so far ahead I actually got scared I was going to fall and stopped skating,”  Tim remembers.

In 1972, Caldwell’s team pioneered the use of one-piece uniforms. In 1976, one of his students, Brattleboro local Bill Koch, won Olympic silver in the 30 km and holds the speed record for that event. “In the 1980 Olympic relay, we had my son Tim Caldwell, Bill Koch and two Brattleboro boys, Stan Dunklee and Jim Galanes. At the time, there were only 37 members of the Putney Ski Club and membership was $1.”

Caldwell also helped coach a number of Olympians, including Putney School grad Martha Rockwell, Bob Gray, Canadian biathlete Willie Carroll, Dan Simoneau and National Geographic explorer Ned Gillette. “I always tried to make it fun,” he said. “One summer I got together a group of skiers (including Gillette) and we hiked the Long Trail, end to end, in 9 days – hiking out to friends’ houses to stay overnight then back to the trail so we wouldn’t have to carry gear.”

Tim Caldwell remembers it: “I was pretty young at the time so only did about a day or two but it was a death march.”  Tim Caldwell would go on to compete in four Olympics. Sister Jennifer won the Birkebeiner and her brother Sverre followed in his father’s footsteps, setting up the Stratton Mountain School cross-country program and the SMS Elite Team.

Today, the SMS Elite Team of graduates and recruits is to the Olympic team what Putney Ski Club was to the 1976 team of John Caldwell’s era.

There is Andy Newell, the three-time Olympic racer from Shaftsbury and his wife Erika Flowers. Jessie Diggins, the most successful U.S. cross-country skier with four World Championship medals, moved to Vermont from Minnesota so she could train with the team. Simi Hamilton, another veteran Olympian and Middlebury College grad, (whose family helped found Aspen and whose dad ran Aspen Skiing Company) also moved to Vermont to join the team. Then there is Tim Caldwell’s son Patrick, who was on the cusp of making the team at press time and Sverre’s own daughter, sprinter Sophie Caldwell who took two World Cup podiums in December and early January.

Vermont’s dream team: Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen and Sophie Caldwell.

Along with Craftsbury skiers and northern Vermonters Ida Sargent and Liz Stephen, the 2018 Olympic team is a traveling family. Literally. Sophie lives with Simi Hamilton. Sophie and Paddy are cousins. Cousin Zach (the son of John Caldwell’s youngest brother, Bill) is one of the top wax technicians and has privately coached another Olympic team member, Noah Hoffman.

“Sverre is one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen,” says Zach, who lives just down the road from his uncle John, at the foot of The Putney School campus. “He’s never let being Sophie’s father get in the way —in a good, or bad way—of being her coach. He’s one of the most supremely organized people I know. Most important, he just knows how to make it fun for kids.”

For Sophie, that has meant hiking or biking in the summer with her cousins as a kid. Now it means traveling with a team that’s remarkably close. “The thing with the women’s team is they all push each other, but they all really like each other and support each other,” says John Caldwell. “They bake for each other’s birthdays and teach each other dance moves. They really have a good time. And that’s made a difference: the men, unless they’ve grown up together, they snarl at each other.”

In fact, with results, the team is looking stronger than ever. Sophie took silver in one leg of the World Cup Tour de Ski in December and two bronzes in the World Cup spring in Dresden in January, including one in a team sprint with Ida Sargent. Jessie Diggins, with three World Cup podiums in January alone, is also set up to medal in PyeongChang. “Sophie is fast as lightning,” John says. “I remember watching her in a soccer game when she was a kid and my god, she went 0 to 60 like that,” he says snapping his fingers. “She’s also technically one of the best in the country at both classic and skate skiing, but she doesn’t have the endurance of Jessie Diggins – that girl can push herself!” says Caldwell.

U.S. Team coach Matt Whitcomb (former Burke Mountain Academy coach) has taken the core group from the SMS Elite  Team, along with two Burke grads—two-time Olympian Liz Stephen, an alpine racer and runner from Montpelier and Barton native Ida Sargent—and created the strongest women’s team the U.S. has ever seen. With nearly half the U.S. team hailing from Vermont, John Caldwell has, indirectly, upheld his promise of sending skiers from the Green Mountains prepared.  —L.L.

Top photo: Jessie Diggins leads Sophie Caldwell in the World Cup sprint in December in Davos. 

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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