Patrick O’Brien was hired last Sunday and started on Monday. That’s the kind of turnover Sverre Caldwell, nordic director of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in southern Vermont, was looking for when he first sought a replacement for SMST2 Head Coach Gus Kaeding.
The transition from professional skier to coach happened quickly for O’Brien, who wasn’t sure what his future held — or what he wanted to do next — five weeks earlier. At the end of his 2013/2014 racing season in late March, the 26-year-old Vermont native packed up his skis and flew from Alaska to Moab, Utah, for some quality time in the desert with friends. He spent the next week mountain biking, regenerating and thinking about anything but skiing. Pretty sure he was ready to end his competitive career, O’Brien wasn’t set on leaving the sport.
A Dartmouth grad who majored in environmental studies, O’Brien had spent the last four years with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, which he described as both rewarding and fun. When he wasn’t training as a professional nordic racer, he was fulfilling his obligations to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont, working on sustainability and trail-maintenance projects.
Contemplating retirement, he wondered how he’d stay involved in the sport. Perhaps through the ski industry? Maybe even coaching? The latter evolved into a very real possibility when he applied for the position of head coach of the T2 Team about two weeks ago. Caldwell invited him over to talk more about the position.
Rewind about 10 years to when Caldwell coached O’Brien at Stratton (along with assistant coach Amy Caldwell, the wife of Sverre’s cousin). An avid Bill Koch League skier from his youngest days of racing, O’Brien started seriously pursuing the sport in high school. Growing up 45 minutes from Stratton in Putney, Vt., he enrolled as a junior and spent the next two years commuting to the ski academy and learning from the Caldwells.
A Stratton graduate, he went on to captain the Dartmouth nordic team. There, O’Brien became an NCAA All-American as a junior in 2009, two-time first-team All-East skier, and two-time Academic All-American.
He graduated Dartmouth in 2010 and dove into professional skiing with Craftsbury. In 2012, O’Brien qualified for his first World Cups in Quebec and Canmore, Canada, which he ranked high on his list of achievements. He spent two seasons, including this year, on the European OPA Cup circuit in March, and notched domestic SuperTour podiums over several seasons.
According to O’Brien, who spoke on the phone Wednesday while helping his dad, an arborist, in Putney, he gave skiing a four-year commitment. At the end of this winter, he was ready for a change.
“I just felt like last year was tough and I didn’t achieve my goals for the year,” he said.
He first spoke with his coach, Pepa Miloucheva, about his plans for next winter before leaving to race in Europe a few months ago.
“She, of course, offered me the option to come back and ski in Craftsbury again,” O’Brien recalled. “But we had a very honest conversation and the conclusion we came to is, I was ready to be done, ready to have a different stimulus … moving into coaching or the ski industry or anything else. I was gonna have to look or figure out where I wanted to go from there.”
He made up his mind after the Moab trip. Stratton announced the job opening in early April.
“I decided that this position at Stratton was something I really wanted to do,” he said.
Kaeding, the man whom O’Brien was ultimately hired to replace, was completely behind him. Caldwell pointed out that he had a similar start to his coaching career. Kaeding was an athlete skiing for Central Cross Country (CXC) when the team’s coaches at the time, Jason Cork and Bryan Fish (now USST coaches) encouraged him to become an assistant coach.
“He did that for one year at CXC then he came here and no one questioned anything,” Caldwell said.
Kaeding was in Miami and Costa Rica during much of the interview process last month, but said O’Brien had been his “number-one choice right from the start.”
“When he told me he wasn’t going to ski next year we were in a bunker in Slovenia,” Kaeding recalled. “I emailed Sverre and said, how about this guy for next year?”
On Wednesday, Caldwell confirmed the decision, which he had made Saturday night. He called O’Brien, O’Brien accepted on Sunday, and Caldwell notified his athletes later that day.
“I wanted someone who would be there to coordinate things and be totally enthusiastic and organized,” Caldwell said, adding that he chose O’Brien out of about five top applicants. “He knew more about the program and the area and the [racing] circuit and he could start right away to work with Gus. He hadn’t coached, but in a way that was not a detriment because he was going to be totally open minded.”
Caldwell said he didn’t recruit anyone for the job. “I didn’t want to be kind of casing someone who’s already in a different program. If they come to me that’s fine. It’s a small community, but that’s weird,” he said with a laugh.
“Most of the responses were really early … so then I had to send out [more information] to people who had expressed interest who looked viable,” he explained. “… We were not able to pay a ton so that cut out some people.”
For O’Brien, it was an enticing opportunity — even if he was inexperienced.
“I’m younger than Andy and Simi and I’m not gonna pretend that I have a whole bunch of coaching experience, but I think maybe it’s a good thing that I have skied with or been on trips with many of those athletes,” he said. “It’s not like somebody totally foreign coming in and trying to bring their own training philosophy. I feel that having worked with Sverre as a high school coach, I have a pretty good understanding where he’s at. I think Sverre, Gus and I are all on a very similar page.”
He was most apprehensive about being the make-or-break factor for his athletes when it came to waxing skis.
“The fear as a coach, who also would be a service-staff person, is the last thing I want to do is have athletes show up, do their training well, be rested and ready to go and then screw their race over,” he said with a laugh. “That’s something that an athlete thinks about as well. I think Gus did a good job keeping things low stress and making safe, sound decisions. If the athletes show up and if they have fair skis, they’re going to be the ones showing off their hard work … they don’t need anything magic.”
O’Brien will also have the assistance of other Stratton coaches, who will travel to many of the same domestic races as him. Nearly half of the SMST2 roster is on the national team, so he won’t have to worry about those athletes for early season races; they’ll be in Europe.
As head coach, O’Brien will be the one leading and overseeing the execution of workouts, not necessarily writing them. Stratton’s four U.S. Ski Team members — Andy Newell, Simi Hamilton, Jessie Diggins, and Sophie Caldwell — remain in touch with national-team coaches about their training. Newell works with USST head coach Chris Grover, Hamilton and Diggins receive plans from Cork, and Sophie Caldwell will continue to work with USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb and Kaeding, even while he pursues a masters in business, according to Kaeding.
The other members of the SMST2 Team — Erika Flowers, Annie Pokorny, Annie Hart, Ben Saxton, and training partner Paddy Caldwell — have already started their yearly training plans, which Kaeding mostly wrote.
(Eric Packer left the team to join Alaska Pacific University in his hometown of Anchorage. “This spring, I realized how much I like living and skiing in Alaska,” Packer wrote in an email. “That was the driving force behind the change. I do think I made a lot of gains while at Stratton – the opportunity to train with guys like Newell and Simi on a daily basis was really awesome — but for whatever reason I struggled to transfer those gains into results.” Caldwell recognized this and said he fully supported Packer’s decision to join APU at home.
A former USST D-team member, Skyler Davis left Stratton’s T2 Team in January to pursue a college degree, according to Caldwell. “That was a good move,” Caldwell said.)
This week, O’Brien planned to join four training sessions — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday — to observe and shadow Kaeding, who will be in Stratton for another week.
Next Wednesday, Kaeding will leave for Park City, Utah, to represent Stratton at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Spring Congress. After the weekend, he’ll return to Stratton and fly out again on May 30 for a family trip to Sweden: his dad and brother are running the Stockholm Marathon. Kaeding will return June 8 and leave for a GMAT study course in Salt Lake City on June 15.
He’ll be in Utah for at least a month, assisting Sophie Caldwell and other Stratton athletes from a strategic location a short drive from the USST headquarters in Park City. Should he stay in Salt Lake through October, Kaeding will be able to check in on certain athletes during the USST training camp there that month.
And if he passes the exam, Kaeding hopes to be accepted at a graduate school in Boston or California — somewhere in sharp contrast from a typical ski town or rural Vermont.
Caldwell said the short time frame in which Kaeding will be in Stratton made hiring O’Brien as soon as possible essential.
“We had this window where he could really work with Gus and it will hopefully be a seamless transition,” he said, adding that O’Brien will visit three or four days a week to observe and start learning more about each athlete on the team.
“He knows the athletes, but [we’ll] go over each athlete that he’ll be more responsible with for their training,” Caldwell said. “It’s gonna be just a natural progression.”
According to Caldwell, O’Brien will start in earnest July 1, when his one-year contract begins. A big part of the job will be communicating with USST coaches and making sure the national-team workouts line up with the rest of the T2 Team’s.
“He needs to set up the workouts [and eventually write] good solid training plans, which he’s going to get plenty of help with,” Caldwell said. “He’s doing well; he’s just taking it all in. … It’s good for him to throw it in the fire and then come back and digest everything.”
“It’s logistics, coordination, it’s planning, all that stuff,” O’Brien observed. “I see that as a real challenge and something to put all my energy [toward].”
“He’s definitely kind of the shell I was picturing,” Kaeding said. “He’s a really good skier, especially good technician who has grown up around skiing. He’s good at waxing; I’ve seen him have to take care of himself. As far as the coaching goes, he doesn’t know a whole lot and that’s kind of what we were after. We do things here a little bit differently than some programs, so I was hoping we’d find someone that could come carry that on, come observe and fill in the cracks with what the team needed.”
The athletes were onboard, too, Caldwell said.
As for whether it will be hard to drive the van, supply the feeds, and shoot video from the sidelines while his athletes — his peers — continue training, O’Brien said he’s ready.
He brought his rollerskis to his first day in Stratton on Monday. He had planned to ski with Flowers while Kaeding drove the van. He ended up in the passenger’s seat.
“It was a cold, rainy day and I was more than content to sit in the van,” O’Brien said. “You can often learn more from the coaching perspective [that way].”