She had come so far. Nearly 85 miles to be exact, yet in the larger scheme of things, Jennifer Caldwell’s progress in the 2011 Prouty century ride meant so much more.
A cancer patient since 1999, the former U.S. Ski Team member epitomized the body’s limits in its lowest moments. She was not weak; anyone who knew Caldwell, who died on Dec. 27 in Wolfeboro, N.H., could attest to that.
Participating in the July benefit ride through central New Hampshire with about 50 friends and family members, which called it “Jennifer’s Tour,” the 53-year-old rode for the sake of cancer research and raised thousands of dollars in the process.
Competitive by nature, it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t racing for herself as well. Suddenly at mile 85, she went down. Hard.
Her husband, Howie Bean, said she had been cruising at a vigorous speed of 25 miles per hour when another rider accidentally hooked her handlebars. The woman who wasn’t expected to make it through Thanksgiving the year before crashed hard onto the pavement. She broke her pelvis in three places.
Almost as soon as she discovered the severity of her injury, Jennifer decided her next move. She needed to be operated on sooner or later to remove malignant tumors caused by gastrointestinal cancer – a major surgery known as debulking. While she was out of commission with one injury, she figured she might as well add that to the healing process.
“Most normal people would think, ‘I need to get over this one thing at a time,’ ” Bean said in a phone conversation from Wolfeboro. “She was just like bring it on.”
Three weeks later, Bean found her down at the lake with friends, against the doctor’s orders. With a belt fastened to her waist, she swam with her arms.
By September, she and Bean were hiking with their only child, 22-year-old Anya, and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) ski team.
“She was as strong as any of the girls going up that hill,” Bean said. “She was in darn good shape. She just made it her life to do that.”
On New Year’s Eve day, hundreds of friends and family members gathered to remember Jennifer, the youngest child and only daughter of Hep and John Caldwell. While some knew her all her life, such as her three older brothers, Tim, Sverre and Peter, several were grateful to have befriended her later on.
“She didn’t try to make friends, she just made them,” Bean said. “That’s the thing about Jennifer … some people really loved her.”
The following is a compilation of thoughts and memories regarding Jennifer Caldwell. Aside from Bean, her husband of 23 years, most were written as emails. Tim Caldwell also provided a couple of eulogies from her memorial service on Dec. 31.
Jen’s Early Days
“I think she was a bit of an icon from the beginning – the youngest and only girl in John and Hep’s active and powerfully achieving family.” – Marianne Lucy, Jennifer’s sister-in-law
“Jennifer was smart and quickly skipped a grade [at The Grammar School in Putney, Vt.] early on. She was two years younger than our youngest son and that meant the four kids were all lined up in consecutive grades. They used to study after dinner sitting around the kitchen table.” – John Caldwell, father
“Jennifer did everything we did – from skiing, hiking and the myriad of other physical activities we indulged in, to studying, reading and playing a musical instrument [starting with the flute].” – Tim Caldwell, brother
“[She started skiing] just as soon as she could walk. That is, if she wanted to be with the boys. I once told my mother-in-law I wanted to start the kids early – even on the living room rug – so they could avoid bad habits from starting to walk.” – John Caldwell
“Her father Johnny introduced my generation of Putney children to skiing. He imported equipment, coached us and introduced us to world-class racers, who also gave clinics and taught us skis. Probably from birth Jennifer was part of that Putney skiing scene.” – Mary Heller Osgood, childhood friend and training partner
“We had a lot of fun on skis – a favorite springtime activity was using the apple trees in nearby Green Mountain Orchards as a slalom course to practice our skate turns. … Moonlight skis were popular too, though I do remember skiing over to the Caldwells through the woods one evening and trying to rouse Jennifer out of bed for a moonlight tour. That time she decided that it was way too late … and went back to sleep.” – Mary Heller Osgood
Note: Jennifer graduated from The Putney School, where she was an orchestra member. Several of high-school friends spoke at her funeral. She went on to attend Middlebury College and transferred to the University of Vermont to pursue her musical ambitions. There, she developed as a flutist and vocalist, and achieved All-American status as a nordic skier in 1981. She graduated UVM with a Bachelor of Arts and later took up the piano.
A Nordic Prodigy
“When I was learning how to ski, back in the 1970’s, Jennifer was one of my role models. She remains one of the leading ladies of cross-country skiing in our country. Jennifer was the epitome of grace and beauty, both on and off skis.” – Nancy Ingersoll Fiddler, two-time Olympian in nordic skiing, Bates College graduate and national champion
“She was a phenom earlier, way more than me.” –Bean, who first met Jennifer when she was 16.
Note: She and Bean attended junior nationals together in 1974, when Bean said, “she was just another girl on the team.” They later reunited in 1982, after both missed making the World Cup team and began their Great American Ski Chase tour with five others. Bean estimated they were on the U.S. Ski Team together from 1979-1984.
“I guess I was awestruck, and I’m kind of a shy guy. This girl, she kind of hit me over the head, but [I thought], ‘This girl’s kind of cool. This could be fun.’ … We were so different in so many ways, but we just seemed to get along.” – Bean
Jennifer won the American Birkebeiner in 1983, which contributed to her two-year reign as Great American Ski Chase champion. (Bean won the overall title as well). Both retired from professional skiing in 1984 to pursue other recreational passions, such hiking and cycling, in Bean’s hometown of Wolfeboro. There, he got Jennifer into canoeing and they were married in 1988. Two months before Jennifer gave birth to Anya in 1989, they won the Smith River Canoe Race in Wolfeboro.
“She got so good [at canoeing] that she raced with some real hot people. … One of my friends said, and I can believe it, that she was the best woman stern paddler in North America. … She could handle a boat like you couldn’t believe. … She might’ve been a better canoer than she ever was a skier.” – Bean
“Jennifer and I won the C2 Open Women’s Championship (two women in a canoe) event at the United States Canoe Association (USCA) Marathon Nationals in 2001 and 2003, the only two times we raced together at Nationals. We also raced in the C1 event, the solo boat race. I had never been in a solo boat … Jennifer convinced me to give it a try.” – Christina Wilson, Wolfeboro friend and national champion in canoeing
“A few minutes into the race, I heard, ‘Yoohoo!’ from behind me. I looked around and I saw Jennifer just behind me, everyone else was behind her. We were in the lead! She was drafting me and we were pulling away. We took turns drafting each other for the rest of the race, sprinting and resting, giggling when I got thrown into a wave. … We came into the finish line together, dead even. She was the first placed Master’s boat, and I was the first placed Open boat. It was one of the most fun races I had. This epitomized Jennifer to me. She was a tough competitor – one of the toughest by far – but had fun doing it.” – Christina Wilson
Note: In addition to her athletic endeavors, Jennifer volunteered at several organizations, including the Huggins Hospital Meals on Wheels and the Clearlakes Chorale. She worked at the Tuftonboro Library and organized clinics through the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA).
“We always talked gardening, or bread-making, or freezing veggies, raising plants, deer damage, skiing, etc., and had a lot of laughs together.” – John Caldwell
“She would be outside as much as she possibly could, and when she wasn’t outside, she would be reading or resting so she could be outside as soon as possible.” –Bean
“She connected with people very individually. She sent many early morning emails that she had written before the sun came up – a morning ritual that is missed by many of us.” – Christina Wilson
“During the last four years, Howie and Jennifer have had the team over to the house where we have trained on their homemade trails (which are as good as any touring center.) … Jen on numerous occasions had homemade bread waiting for the team after training sessions. … You could tell Jen not only loved the competitive part of the team, trying to become faster, but enjoyed the interaction with team members. Jen loved not only competition, but the relationships she developed in all sports she was involved in.” – Cory Schwartz, UNH nordic head coach
In Sickness, a Bright Spot
“When she was diagnosed with GIST [gastrointestinal stromal tumor], the life expectancy was five years. She lived about 13 more years, thanks to her treatments at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She must have made 50 trips down there during that time and finally simply ran our of drugs to treat the disease.” – John Caldwell
“When Jennifer was diagnosed with cancer … everything changed – and not all for the worse. It was as if the diagnosis gave her a new lease on life. She became more expressive, clearer about what she wanted for herself and her family. … Her humor and wisdom, her emotional and physical toughness gave strength to us all.” – Tim Caldwell, brother
“What amazed me the most about Aunt Jennifer throughout our conversations was how selfless she was. She would make some comment about how miserable cancer was and then say something along the lines of, ‘Look at me complaining, I need to quit whining!’ … She hated people worrying about her of feeling bad for her and had the impressive ability to make light of almost any situation, including her cancer, right until the end.”– Sophie Caldwell, niece, senior and co-captain of Dartmouth College ski team
“Jen was by far the strongest and toughest person, both physically and mentally, that I’ve ever known. I’ll always remember her massive muscles from canoeing and how she would always tease me because I’ve never been very muscular. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up with three big brothers! … If Jen wanted something, she’d go out and get it. I think that’s why she was able to fight off the cancer for so long, she wanted to live so she did.” – Isabel Caldwell, niece, Dartmouth ski team sophomore
“She had an inviting smile, and a mischievous grin. She could swear like a sailor, and give you a bear hug like no other. She had a terrible sense of direction, but was always ready for an adventure.” – Christina Wilson, friend
“Even in sickness, she uplifted others with her wry assessments, stoicism and endless courage.” – Marianne Lucy, sister-in-law
“Three days before she died, I sat with my head on her shoulder and whispered in her ear my love for her. Not wanting to exclude 15 other people in the room, she turned to them and said, ‘Darcy is giving me make-up tips.’ ” – Darcy Caldwell, sister-in-law
“[Three weeks ago] I thanked my mom for fighting her battle for so long, and she laughed and replied, ‘Well, yeah! Can you imagine Howie raising you as a teenager?!’ She was sassy until the end and continuously heckled nurses and teased Howie about his shortcomings.” – Anya Caldwell Bean, daughter, UNH senior
“Not many people knew just how sick she was because she remained so active and vibrant. She was the epitome of life and emanated her inability to sit still. She inspired so much love and connected well with so many people. She was tougher than anyone I have ever met.” – Anya
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.