This article is the first installment of the ‘Where are They Now’ series, made possible through the generous support of Fischer Sports. Learn more about their products at www.fischersports.com.
If you were to take stock of the people who have contributed the most to the development of cross-country skiing in the US, John Caldwell should be near the top of the list. He may beat everyone else simply because he’s had the longest amount of time to accomplish things—and at 82, he’s still got his opinions and and is not afraid to share them. Though he’s had multiple hip replacements and is a candidate for two new knees, Caldwell can still be seen shuffling on classic skis around New England.
Part of the goal of a “Where They Are Now” series is enlighten the younger generation on how something came to be. Though some past movers and shakers in the ski world may no longer be as active in the community as they once were, they are relevant for the same reason society bothers to study history. The past causes the present.
As a major player in the development of an always-changing sport, Caldwell is no mere historian. But the former Olympian, U.S. Ski Team (USST) coach, Putney School teacher, author, and New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) founder doesn’t like to single out any one of his accolades.
“I don’t think of being proud of anything,” he said in a recent interview with FasterSkier. “I just plug along.”
Caldwell was born in Pennsylvania, but his parents moved to Putney, Vt., in 1941, and he’s remained closely tied to the town ever since. He began his athletic career as a basketball player, but without a team to go out for in Putney, Caldwell’s dad got him started skiing. He skied at Dartmouth College at a time when intercollegiate skiing still featured four events. After graduating in 1950 and going to the 1952 Olympics as a Nordic Combined skier, he settled in Vermont to become a math teacher and ski coach at the Putney School.
Caldwell’s ski team quickly became so popular with students that he found himself with 50 skiers of widely varying abilities. As a matter of survival, he relied on repeated technique drills to manage athletes and develop good technical skiers, among them Bill Koch, Mike Gallagher, and his own children.
“It’s the idea of practicing something, not just, ‘Hey, go out and ski 5 k easy today,’” he said. “Some coaches will give you a heart monitor and tell you to keep your hear rate between 130 and 132 beats per minute, or something ridiculous like that, and think that they’re coaching. You’ve got to establish the importance of technique.”
With a seemingly endless supply of interesting and entertaining anecdotes, Caldwell has a story for every occasion.
Not long into the interview, he began reminiscing about his days as a coach for the U.S. national squad and interacting with the Soviet team.
At the height of the Cold War in 1966, the Americans and Soviets stayed in the same location for the World Championships in Oslo, Norway. Not wanting to appear in favor of one side of the Iron Curtain over another, the International Ski Federation (FIS) stuck the two countries together. It was Caldwell’s first time meeting the Russians.
“The Russians lent us their masseur, they said, ‘Do you boys want a massage?’ And the guys loved it,” laughed Caldwell. “They couldn’t have been nicer.”
The conversation soon moved to the American role as leaders in ski innovation during Caldwell’s day. It wasn’t just the advent of skating, he said, though that’s certainly the most-referenced example. According to Caldwell, the U.S. was also at the forefront of knowledge of equipment and wax. America boasted the first national team to shed bamboo poles in favor of lightweight metal poles in 1968—it was an American, Ed Scott, who invented the technology.
As for wax, even though it was originally a European product, Americans were also the first to realize that glide wax was for more than just going down hills.
“People in the sport now think, ‘Oh sure, you put glide wax on the tips and tails,’ but gosh almighty,we were the first country to do that. We had a clinic in Colorado Springs in the ’70s, and European coaches came over here to learn about waxing. We were at the forefront for a long time,” Caldwell said. And as a USST coach from 1960 to 1972, as well as the cross-country Olympic team coach in 1968, 1974 and 1984, he was right in the middle of it.
The U.S. even paved the way in the ever-important area of ski fashion. Caldwell recalled that his team in 1972 was the first one to race in one-piece uniforms. “Everyone looked at us like we were off the planet or something.”
America’s most famous contribution to the development of cross-country skiing is, of course, in the advancement of the skate technique. The U.S. didn’t invent it—according to Caldwell, that credit goes to a Finn, Paul Siitonen. But when Dan Simoneau came back from Europe one winter and told Caldwell about skiers he’d seen doing the marathon skate technique, the Putney School math teacher decided to set up an experiment.
With the help of a few of his students, Caldwell set up a test to compare kick double-pole and straight double-pole against the marathon skate. He measured not only lap times around a course, but also took heart rate data to determine if skating required more effort. Finding the new technique to be more efficient, Caldwell wrote an article saying skating was “the way to go,” but it still took a few years to catch on. Even after Bill Koch, Tom Siebels and Caldwell’s son Tim skated the whole stadium area during the World Juniors relay in 1971, the international ski community still hesitated to embrace the new technique—despite gaining the Americans gaining significant ground during the race and “astounding spectators.”
Jumping forward to the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, the Games following Koch’s silver medal four years previously in Innsbruck, everyone expected Koch to produce even better results on home turf, but instead, “He blew up. It was a disaster.” Caldwell explained how, after the winter following the Lake Placid Games, Koch, angry at his performance, spent countless hours practicing the marathon skate on the trails in Putney.
“He would practice that all of ’81,” Caldwell recalled. “He’s very analytical. He’d set a 5 k course and do it three times. There’s a long uphill finish there, a great wide open field, and you could see his skate steps. The next time around he’d match up with those, trying to go the same distance with each step without losing energy or glide.”
The following winter, Koch was the overall World Cup champion, which Caldwell believes is in large part because he was the only one who could effectively skate. “He should, well, he does get credit for [developing skating]. He won the World Cup because of the extra speed from the marathon skate. Others weren’t doing it, or if they were, not with the same competence,” Caldwell said.
Following the 1982 season, FIS was forced to come up with a solution to the fact that skating was clearly faster than the diagonal stride, and it divided the races into separate events the following year.
When talking about Koch and the work he put in between the disappointment of 1980 and winning the overall World Cup in 1982, Caldwell pauses to explain why he thinks the US hasn’t been able to produce Koch’s level of results since.
“The team in 1981, after Lake Placid, didn’t have a lot of money,” he sad. “It’s something the USST has never figured out: ‘How come these guys got so good without our help?’ Most of these guys were living around East Putney and Brattleboro, except for Dan. They trained together a lot, but they didn’t have a coach. I didn’t pretend to be their coach … these guys just trained like hell, and that’s the best team we’ve ever had. I don’t think anyone can dispute that.”
Caldwell’s dissatisfaction with USSA is no secret. He published a series of critical articles on this website back in 2007, and his malcontent led him to help found NENSA in 1997. When the conversation shifted to his role in that organization’s formation, Caldwell reneged on his initial claim that no single contribution to skiing gave him more pride than another.
“That is one thing I am proud of. I think I was most responsible for starting that. I wrote the USST and said, ‘You guys aren’t helping us, so we’re gonna start our own organization,’ ” Caldwell said.
Critique of the USST wasn’t just words for Caldwell. He saw a gap in skiing development, and acted on his conviction. NENSA’s mission was, and still is, to get regional skiers at all levels involved in skiing, and to provide the infrastructure needed for athletes to reach their potential. Caldwell served as NENSA’s president until 2002, and most recently, New England has won the Alaska Cup at Junior Nationals for the past three years.
Current USST athletes Liz Stephen, Ida Sargent, Skyler Davis, Andy Newell and Kris Freeman have all taken part in the NENSA program.
“We should count more on the divisions, on the regions, and not have the USST try to be the overall rule,” he said. “They should be supporting programs like New England, Sun Valley, Alaska, Far West, and the rest.”
Caldwell believes this development model would provide at least part of a solution to the USST’s diminished budget. “They have what, four or five coaches out there?” he said. “That seems, I dunno…I know Zach [Caldwell] has been coaching Freeman, Sverre [Caldwell] coaches Newell and that new kid, Skyler Davis. Pretty soon you’re down to one coach for each person on the team. That’s not practical. Support the regions, then have your Olympic tryouts or whatever and may the best skiers win.”
When Caldwell himself was a coach, Olympic athletes were required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to maintain amateur status. The IOC removed the distinction between “amateur” and “professional” from its charter in 1986. None of the athletes Caldwell worked with, including Bill Koch, had any sponsors. He described his own job as their coach as completely amateur, too. Between 1966 and 1972, he recalled getting paid one of those years — $6,000 plus travel and expenses.
These days, Caldwell spends his time at home with his wife, Hep. He’s been known to bet New England skiers a beer they won’t be able to beat his grandkids, five of which are currently athletes on the eastern college or junior circuits. He admits he wouldn’t be able to coach anymore — “The whole sport has gone so technical.” Asked if he has anything to do with his family all being “above average” athletes, he credited keeping sports a fun family activity for his kids, who in turn did the same for the youngest generation of Caldwells.
So, where is John Caldwell now? Getting his sauna ready to enjoy with his friends, and looking forward to rooting for his grandchildren this winter.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.