Gus Kaeding literally had one foot out the door and his vehicle running Tuesday morning, but he couldn’t draw himself away from what was unfolding some 3,700 miles away in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
The Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team head coach almost missed his flight from Vermont to Utah because of the success four of his athletes — all on the U.S. Ski Team — were having in Stage 3 of the Tour de Ski. He didn’t, but said on the phone from his connection in Detroit that it would’ve been fine if he did.
To start the 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprints, Sophie Caldwell and Jessie Diggins qualified in ninth and 16th, respectively, 5.24 seconds and 6.93 seconds behind Norwegian qualifier winner Ingvlid Flugstad Østberg.
Their male counterparts from SMST2 in southern Vermont, Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell did the unthinkable and qualified first and second, with Hamilton putting down the fastest 1.5 k time of 2:35.01 and Newell ranking second, 0.31 seconds back.
Hamilton went on to win his quarterfinal then advance in third out of the semifinals to make his first final in his three years on the U.S. Ski Team (USST). Newell placed second in his quarterfinal and fourth in his semifinal to end up eighth overall, a season best for the USST veteran.
Diggins placed fifth in her quarterfinal, 1.74 seconds behind Germany’s Denise Herrmann, who won the heat in 2:58.47 and went on to place third overall. Diggins ultimately took 21st to put her 15th in the overall Tour standings.
“My body felt OK, and then as soon as I started trying to go hard, I couldn’t find that extra gear,” Diggins said on the phone. “In my quarters, I kind of let myself get screwed over in the first 100 meters, tried to get behind Denise Herrmann, but I started to get squeezed out.”
Stuck behind a skier who tripped, Diggins said she spent the rest of the two-lap race fighting her way back toward the lead pack.
“I didn’t have the energy to go really wide and pass and I just couldn’t find an open window,” she said. “The heat was not spectacular for sure and I wish I could have done the opening bit again and just tried to get a better start, but the Tour is a long thing and I just have to focus on recovery get ready for tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.”
Caldwell placed second in her quarterfinal then relied on fast skis and finishing kick to carry her to her first win, which she took 0.25 seconds ahead of Herrmann in 3:01.93.
“I felt awesome in my semifinal, I don’t know what got into me there!” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I had talked a bunch of strategy with the coaches, especially about positioning with that final corner. I thought that I might be able to pick up a place or two by pushing not only over the top of the hill, but a little ways down the hill. I believe I was in 2nd over the top, and I pushed hard and my plan worked! I came into the corner first, so I was able to guard the inside and pick my lane into the finish.”
In her first year on the USST, Caldwell, 23, also advanced to her first final, where she finished sixth for a career best, 6.81 seconds behind Østberg, who won it in 2:58.00.
“I simply just got tired,” Caldwell wrote. “I actually had one pretty decent move that put me into a good position coming around the lap, but then it was downhill (figuratively) and uphill (literally) after that.”
The finish put her sixth overall in the Tour standings, which will put her up front for the start of Wednesday’s 10 k classic mass start. She’ll leave the Tour after that, resting up and spending some time with family in Europe before gearing back up for the World Cup that resumes in Jan. 11 and 12 in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
As if watching all this unfold wasn’t enough, Kaeding remained glued to his live stream as Hamilton hung in the mix for the early part of the men’s final. Up the long climb, he rose from fourth to third, then third to first as he slingshot around the last corner.
“I literally had my bags all packed … and I was just standing there,” Kaeding recalled. “As soon as I saw Simi, I was like, ‘Come on Simi, come on Simi.’ ”
Hamilton flew past Italy’s Federico Pellegrino and held off Canadian Alex Harvey and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who also caught the downhill draft, for the victory in 2:37.02, three-tenths of a second faster than Harvey in second and 0.74 seconds ahead of Sundby in third.
For Hamilton, it bested his previous top result of seventh in a sprint, and although not technically a World Cup (Tour stages are worth half the World Cup points), Hamilton became the first man to win a Tour de Ski stage.
“I definitely had a smile on my face all day,” Kaeding said. “I’ve literally been traveling every moment since, but I sent everyone quick emails.”
For Stratton, having four skiers in the heats, three of them make the semifinals and two continue to the final, was huge for the Vermont ski academy. Caldwell’s father, Sverre, overseas the nordic program there, and two years ago he started Stratton’s first elite team with the title sponsorship of the T2 Foundation, a non-profit that financially supports American skiers.
On Tuesday, Eurosport commentators talked about Stratton, but as Kaeding pointed out, ironically failed to mention Newell as a part of the group — and he’s been a local staple for the last two decades.
“I thought it was pretty cool … We always joke about those announcers not even knowing the names of the Americans in the friggen heats,” Kaeding said. “But it’s good to get the school and a little [publicity] … It’s good to know all those athletes are from the same club, but they’re really part of Team USA and that’s the important thing.”
Regardless of where they come from (Hamilton from Colorado, Diggins from Minnesota and both Caldwell and Newell from Vermont), the mental and physical training is what got them where they ended up Tuesday and in various other races this season.
Kaeding said they don’t do anything special at Stratton, but it’s the mental capacity and natural talent of athletes like Hamilton that he was happy to see pay off. Two days earlier at Stage 2 in Oberhof, Germany, Hamilton as a late starter saw his qualifying time squashed by a snow squall and he missed the heats in 35th.
“Simi’s been on the verge of doing really well here for a couple days and has been really close to pushing something over the top,” Kaeding said. “To his credit, he kept pushing on. … We work on things like that.”
In terms of strategy, Kaeding said Newell and Hamilton are especially good tacticians out on course, and with teammates Skyler Davis and Eric Packer (also sprinters), they learn from one another each day in training throughout the summer.
“Andy, really a veteran, has been in the heats forever; Simi’s just a really a beautiful skier, can ski between cracks that nobody can get through … and those guys all really compliment each other really well,” Kaeding said. “When they train together every day, it’s basically like a World Cup sprint heat. I think it sets them up really well.”
In the last four (of five) sprints she’s raced this season, Caldwell has consecutively made the rounds in each. On Sunday, she qualified in a career-best fifth to finish 22nd and two weeks earlier in Davos, Switzerland, qualified in ninth and went on to place ninth in the freestyle sprint.
Kaeding said he chats with her remotely after races, and in the last two sprints, they discussed her strong finishing speed, but need to to get out front sooner and “see what happens, dictate the pace even if she lacks a little pop at the end,” Kaeding said. “So she tried that two days ago in Oberhof. She said it went pretty well, but maybe that would’ve been a better day to follow.”
Caldwell told him she’d check out Lenzerheide’s sprint course and base her strategy off that. With a boilerplate track, both agreed that sitting in and conserving might be best.
“She kind of hit it perfect and exploded into winning the heat, much like Simi did,” Kaeding said.
“She skied great all day, skied technically well [and] made smart moves out there,” USST Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone. “She just ran out of gas in the final, and that’s just because she’s a little bit younger and still developing, but she’s going to be a big name for the future.”
Heading into the fourth of seven stages, the U.S. has two skiers in sixth (Caldwell and Newell) overall in the Tour, Hamilton ranks 11th and Diggins 15th, and Hamilton and Newell are currently seventh and eighth in the sprint standings, respectively, Caldwell 10th and Diggins 24th.
“The start of the Tour really favors sprinters … so their Tour standing is reflecting that,” Grover said. “But they’re able to get in there and stay healthy and execute.”
Caldwell, Newell, Hamilton and Holly Brooks (37th on Tuesday) plan to end their Tour after Lenzerheide, but Diggins, Liz Stephen (44th, 37th overall), and Noah Hoffmann (83rd, 89th overall) plan to complete all seven stages with the final races Friday through Sunday in Italy.
“I am so excited for Simi! He was incredible today,” Hoffman wrote in an email. “The course and conditions were perfect today. Racing in the Swiss Alps on a bluebird day is pretty fun, even if it is a sprint race. I felt good. I didn’t have many expectations for results today. I’m certainly looking forward to distance racing.
“[Wednesday] will be challenging starting in the back,” he added. “I’m going to be patient. It’s a good course for me, and I’m looking forward to moving up. … The energy on the team is very high. I’m sorry we’re splitting up tomorrow. It’ll be a very small group for the final three days of the Tour.”
— Lander Karath, Seth Adams and Pasha Kahn contributed reporting