Back in early February, Stratton Mountain School (SMS), one of the country’s most successful ski academies, announced that it would be starting a new elite professional ski team in the 2012-2013 season. Gus Kaeding, who most recently coached at CXC, signed on as the head coach to join longtime Stratton nordic director Sverre Caldwell at the southern Vermont program.
The announcement was subsequently buried by a busy period of domestic and international racing, but the formation of a new pro team in the East is notable on several counts. One, the number of coveted opportunities to receive ski support in the US just grew by a few more spots. College seniors are faced with only a few open club positions every spring, and the addition of a half dozen more expands post-collegiate racing options.
The formation of an official elite team at Stratton also creates support for U.S. Ski Team member and Stratton alum Andy Newell. He has been based out of the area since graduating, but until this point has dropped in on off-season training sessions with the academy students “out of the kindness of his heart,” said Caldwell.
“But having guys to push him in every workout, training with him, should be really good,” he continued.
Newell said he is looking forward to having a consistent set of skiers to train with in the summer and a dedicated coach to direct workouts. USST head coach Chris Grover has been his primary coach for the past few years, but Newell will work with Kaeding more and more as the summer gets going.
“By the end of the year, he’ll be my full-time coach,” said Newell. “Hopefully it’ll help me, having people training with me, and also a financial help too.”
As Newell has been based out of southern Vermont for the entirety of his USST career and the growing trend has been for athletes to have club-based support, the question is really why a senior team hasn’t formed in the area before now.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for quite a while,” said Caldwell. “We’ve always welcomed alums to come train with us — they do and it’s great — but we haven’t felt like we could really coach them. All the school kids had to take priority.”
Last summer, the necessary pieces for an elite team started coming together, the most important being a potential coach. Kaeding, himself a Stratton alum, dropped in to see Caldwell during a visit back east, and the topic of a hypothetical elite team came up in conversation — a concept Caldwell had been long considering.
“I said that my goal was to get a senior program together,” said Caldwell. “[Kaeding] called me three days later and said, ‘If there’s any way you could do that, I’d love to be the coach.’ That gave it impetus instead of just thinking about it.”
One year later, the concept became a become reality, and the opportunity was one Kaeding couldn’t pass by.
“Even though the Midwest has been kind to me for the past ten years, my heart’s always been in Vermont,” said Kaeding.
The draw of the Stratton program was two-fold: the move will bring him back to his home state, and from a coaching perspective, “you can chalk this one up as a dream job,” he said.
“Having Sverre there is a large part of the reason I’m going. I’d like to learn from his as much as possible.”
With Kaeding on board, Caldwell went to Stratton’s administration with the proposal for the team and got the headmaster’s approval. For this first year at least, Kaeding will be an employee of the ski academy, and will help the current staff in coaching the high school students and post-graduate (PG) athletes in addition to the senior skiers.
As the team establishes itself and acquires support, the goal is to have it stand alone without funding from the school. The team doesn’t have any official sponsors signed on yet, but Caldwell said they are “cautiously optimistic” that recent talks with a potential title sponsor and several local companies would yield funding.
For training facilities, the team already has Stratton’s gym at its disposal, which sits empty while the students are in class.
The central component of a new team, the athletes, was the most recent piece to fall into place. Newell and USST D-team member Skyler Davis were two obvious choices, as both already live and train out of the Stratton area and wear the SMS suit whenever they race domestically. Joining them is Dartmouth senior Eric Packer, who most recently won the classic sprint at SuperTour Finals to cap off a strong final collegiate season.
The women’s team will consist of fellow Dartmouth teammates Sophie Caldwell and Erika Flowers. Caldwell, also a Stratton alum, finished her collegiate career in a photo-finish in the NCAA 15 k classic, in which she was second to Amy Glen (UVM) by mere inches. Flowers, a Bozeman, Montana native, was twice an All-American at NCAAs this year.
Stratton also plans to add two to three more PG athletes to its roster to fill out the training group for both the senior and SMS athletes to work with.
Assembling the team while they finalized its funding was a challenge, said Caldwell.
“In the best of all worlds you have a sugar daddy and say, ‘This is what we can offer.’ We put it out there before we lined up the housing and funding and said, ‘This is what we’re working on.’ We’ll try to have housing and funding for fall camps, Nationals, the eastern circuit and an international trip. That’s our goal, and we [had] to line up athletes at the same time. It’s a chicken-egg thing; if you have these big names it’s easier to raise money.”
In the press release that announced the team selection, Caldwell included an endorsement from Vermonter and American ski legend Bill Koch: “This Elite Team is poised to create a critical mass of energy that once in motion, has the potential to take on a life of its own — reminiscent of a generation ago in southern Vermont.”
Once in motion, Kaeding and Caldwell have a specific kind of momentum in mind for the program — a master’s program, junior camps, work with local club West River Nordic, training days for skiers to join team workouts — “our goal is to be accessible for southern Vermont…to be a hotbed of skiing, and have everyone feel invested in it,” said Caldwell.
The formation of the SMS elite team brings the tally of senior programs in the northeast to three. With the Craftsbury Green Racing Project and Maine Winter Sports Center relatively nearby, the ultimate goal is for more local competition to raise everyone’s level of skiing.
“All of a sudden you don’t have to travel all around to get good competition,” said Caldwell. “The more programs in the East, the better. If we can help push the Green team to do better, awesome. The bottom line is skiers on the podium.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.