The U.S. Ski Team formally announced its 2013-2014 national squad nominations on Monday. After much earlier discussion about cuts to the men’s team, there ended up being a fair bit of shuffling around for the upcoming Sochi Olympic year. Between the men’s and women’s teams there were a total of three promotions, three cuts, one demotion and the elimination of the entire development tier.
A single 23-year-old stands out as the lone addition to the team: Stratton Mountain School T2’s Sophie Caldwell, nominated to the B-team as its seventh woman. She joins a powerhouse group in the approaching season; four of her female teammates are in the Red Group and six of them scored top-10s or better last season.
Out of the six athletes named to the A-team, five of them are women. Alaska Pacific University’s Holly Brooks was promoted to the A-team in her second year on the squad, as was Craftsbury Green Racing Project’s Ida Sargent. Both women made the Red Group at the end of the World Cup season. Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins remained on the A-team and Sadie Bjornsen was renominated to the B-team.
Caldwell joines the biggest women’s group the U.S. has ever named, reflecting what should be an expansion of the team’s quota on the World Cup in distance and sprinting by one more spot in both categories (new quotas have yet to be released, but are calculated based on criteria published on page 2 of the FIS World Cup Rules). Eight American women scored World Cup sprint points last year, granting the team an expected five start rights plus an additional spot for Randall, the 2013 sprint champion. This is one more start right than the U.S. had last season, and on top of those six spots an additional bib is given to the SuperTour leader every year, which will be APU’s Rosie Brennan this fall.
In distance events the U.S. should expand its quota as well; six women scored World Cup points, one more than last winter, which brings the American distance quota up from four to five, not including the SuperTour leader.
Caldwell ‘Excited’ to Join National Roster
It’s a stacked women’s team, but Caldwell has already proven she can hold her own in such company. She was FasterSkier’s Rookie of the Year for her impressive results last season, which included a 14th-place finish in the Quebec City freestyle sprint and 20th at World Championships.
On the phone from Vermont the day after the nominations were released, Caldwell was looking forward to the year ahead.
“I’m excited to be a part of [the team],” she said. “They’re an impressive group of girls and they have an awesome team dynamic and have been welcoming to me all winter, which made it easier to be over there. A bunch of them I’ve been on teams with for a long time and others I’ve looked up to for as far back as I can remember.”
In being nominated at this moment in her career, Caldwell has blazed a rare path to the national squad: through a full four years at college and after just one year at an elite program. Her ascension has come more quickly than she ever imagined when she decided to pursue professional skiing last spring, but that’s part of Caldwell’s approach to the sport — she doesn’t over-think racing and only looks ahead to the competitions directly in front of her. Her composure before her first World Cup sprint and later in her World Championships debut is probably just as worthy of credit for her breakout performances as her training and preparation.
“Going into the season I definitely didn’t expect this, but I also wasn’t really looking to the end of the season,” she said. “I was just taking it one step at a time and focused on whatever race was ahead of me.”
Athletes often struggle with the post-graduate transition to full-time training, but Caldwell credits her success in the last year to both the strong base she built at Dartmouth and to the uncomplicated switch to professional life this year at SMS T2, where she and head coach Gus Kaeding didn’t change much to her program.
“I was able to have almost four pretty good years at Dartmouth, training well and staying fit and excited about the sport,” Caldwell said. “I think a lot of people go to college and find other interests and stop skiing, but I was able to find other interests and also have fun skiing and come out of it in a good place.”
At SMS T2, she clearly flourished. The NCAA circuit offers student-athletes few chances to practice sprinting, but Caldwell managed to excel at it right off the bat, winning the Bozeman SuperTour freestyle sprint in December to punch her ticket to Quebec.
“Gus’s style of coaching is very simple,” she said. “We didn’t do anything major to my training and that’s the way I like it. Hopefully it gives other college skiers hope. I have no idea what will happen next year…but it’s possible to still race on the international level [after college].”
Caldwell expects to continue training mainly under Kaeding in Vermont next year while beginning to work with USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb. Her assimilation onto the close-knit women’s team should be easy, as she considers many of its athletes to be close friends already and experienced firsthand last year the powerful effect of the encouraging environment the athletes always talk about.
“I think people underestimate how much racing is mental, and having a supportive team like that goes a long way,” Caldwell said. “People talk about the U.S. women’s team internationally and how happy they seem; it’s not just people in the U.S. that notice it. I think their success is largely due to that.”
As it’s still April, Caldwell hasn’t given much thought yet to how being nominated to the USST will change her daily routine. She does know she’ll attend the their Bend, Ore., training camp in May for the first time, but she doesn’t expect to make drastic changes to a plan that’s already worked well at SMS T2.
“I don’t think we’ll make any huge changes in my plan, so the hope is I’ll continue to get faster and faster,” she said. “But I think it will help having a year under my belt. I know my strengths and weaknesses and what I need to improve on. Last year was about adjusting to the lifestyle…and building up my base, and hopefully this year we can build more on that and focus on some more ski-specific things for goals that I have.”
Though she stood out in sprints last year, which is the discipline seven of her nine World Cup starts came from, Caldwell wants to continue improving her distance skiing this summer with the goal of starting more distance races next season.
“I think right now my strength is sprinting, especially against an international field, but I think my distance skiing made a huge jump this year,” she said. “I definitely want to be an all-around skier and continue to improve my distance and sprinting, and get some distance starts internationally.”
Caldwell hasn’t yet sat down with her coaches to talk about concrete goals for the upcoming year, but she says she “has some ideas floating around.”
“Obviously the Olympics would be a dream come true, and I’d like to continue to get international experience,” she said. “I also enjoy racing the domestic circuit; it’s not like I’m faster than everyone in the domestic circuit.
“I hope to get over to Europe more, because I felt like racing World Cups each weekend I figured things out a little more,” she continued. “I guess I haven’t really thought about concrete goals yet, but I like to focus on training goals, technique goals — then the results figure themselves out.”