Obserstdorf, Germany – Meet Olympian Sophie Caldwell. She’s the one who stands out in the room as the composed young woman – the one with poise. Quiet and maybe a bit understated, almost studious. Her eyes connect with you, and you feel comfortable in her midst.
Fast forward to a cross country sprint track – those eyes tell a different story. In Oberstdorf, Germany last week, for two minutes and 20 seconds they were squarely focused on the ski tails of Norway’s Ingvild Oestberg, the Tour de Ski leader. For the next 26 seconds, all Caldwell saw was daylight, shocking the Norwegians – and even herself – to earn the first classic technique sprint win ever for an American.
“I had one goal and it was to get on Ingvild’s tail and hold on for dear life,” said Caldwell. “I didn’t really have a plan for what would happen if I could actually pass her because I honestly didn’t think that was possible.”
Caldwell grew up in one of New England’s legendary cross country families. Father Sverre was a Nordic athlete who has become a highly respected coach at Stratton Mountain School. Uncle Tim was an Olympian and U.S. Ski Team star. Grandpa John was a 1952 Olympian, regarded as a patriarch of the sport in America. His Putney Ski Club turned out world-class skiers like 1976 Olympic medalist Bill Koch.
“My family has played a huge role in building my personal interest in this sport,” said Caldwell, who followed the family footsteps to Dartmouth where she became a first team All America selection. “I definitely come from a cross country skiing family. But I think the most important role my family played in my ski racing was their hands off approach. They love skiing and wanted us to have the chance to fall in love with it. They showed us how to enjoy it and we chose the competitive path on our own.”
Grandfather John Caldwell was a seminal figure in cross country ski racing for decades. Like legendary coach Bob Beattie in alpine, he’s been an outspoken watchdog for cross country. Today, at 87, he remains one of its biggest fans. His greatest pride comes from watching granddaughter Sophie.
“I love talking to my grandpa about ski racing,” said Caldwell. “He is huge book filled with skiing stories. I definitely feel a special pride and connection with him being able to bond over skiing. His love of the sport is so clear and I hope he knows how much it means to me to say he’s my grandfather.”
In stage four of the Tour de Ski, things started out well for Caldwell – qualifying third fastest. She won her first matchup, setting pace with the fastest quarterfinal heat. She drew a very tough semifinal heat, finishing second to Oestberg.
But the finals – oh, that was going to be daunting. Three Norwegians, two Swedes and a lone American. “I was probably the last person to wake up that morning and think I was going to win a classic sprint,” she said.
Snow conditions in Oberstdorf were poor. Temperatures were warm – nearing klister range, which can be devastating in a classic technique race where skis had to grip and glide, with no skating permitted.
Out of the gate, Caldwell hooked onto Oestberg’s tails. Up the hills and down, she never lost contact. Coming into the stadium, Caldwell was there stride for stride. You could see the pressure building in Oestberg’s eyes. On her wing was teammate Heidi Weng. As they headed to the final hill – a steep up and down over a bridge – Caldwell made her move, dropping back and off to the left. She strategically launched off the top of the hill and caught the Norwegians flat-footed literally flying ahead to take a five-meter lead.
A year ago, still aching from two separate broken elbows, a double pole sprint was out of the question. Today, Caldwell has the tools and the fitness. For a hundred meters, Weng and Oestberg poled with a vengeance to hunt her down. Caldwell kept her eyes looking forward, never once looking back. This was a new experience. In the recesses of her mind, she thought about the finish lunge advice Coach Matt Whitcomb had just told her before the heat. Her mind was now in slow motion. As the finish line approached, she stretched out her long, lanky right led in textbook perfect form. She won by a boot length over Weng.
As Caldwell passed out in the finish, back home in Vermont, breakfast across the state was interrupted with screams of joy as fans watched the live feed on computers and smartphones. Grandpa John was with nephew Zach watching live and critiquing every move before penning a short congratulatory email to his granddaughter:
Subject: Holy S***
Body: How to Go!