WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — Sophie Caldwell (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) has been winning ski races for a long time. From her junior days at SMS to collegiate dominance at Dartmouth, the 22-year-old is no stranger to showing up at the top of results.
Past success didn’t necessarily mean she expected to win against a stacked SuperTour field on Saturday, but that’s exactly what she did. In her first sprint race as a professional skier Caldwell dusted her competitors on a 1.6 k point-to-point course by 4.59 seconds. Seventeen-year-old Anika Miller (Payette Lake Sports) took second and Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was a close third (+6.63).
“I really had no idea,” Caldwell said of her pre-race expectations. “I felt awesome on the flat parts and just tried to ski whippy and relaxed and quick. The legs were burning on that last part and I just did all I could to hang on.”
The course went finished where the 9 k started the day before. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for rest; Caldwell said she V2-ed all of the flats and threw in some no-pole skating on the working downhills. The 1.6 k-distance also made for a fairly long sprint race; Caldwell’s winning time was 3:33.19.
Though nothing was guaranteed, Caldwell’s victory shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given her strong background and recent focus on shorter distances. Since leaving school, where there aren’t many opportunities for sprint racing, she’s been working on bringing her fast twitch back up to speed.
“I’ve always liked sprinting a lot but in college we didn’t do much of it, so my distance skiing improved a lot then,” she said. “But this summer I’ve gotten to work a lot more on speed.”
The West Yellowstone sprint race was just a qualifier and results have no bearing on team selection for the upcoming World Cup sprints in Quebec. Still, results were a good indicator of where everybody’s legs are at this early point in the season. Caldwell’s speed work is already playing dividends, and the confirmation that she’s on the right track has her looking forward to the real freestyle sprint in Bozeman, Mont. on Thursday.
“That would be a dream come true [to qualify for Quebec],” she said. “That would be my first World Cup, so it would be pretty exciting.”
SMS T2 head coach Gus Kaeding credits Caldwell’s victory in part to some technique tips she’s learned from her male teammates this week.
“She’s picked up a couple tips this week from the guys, sprinting-wise — the techniques they have that are advantageous on a course like this,” Kaeding said. “She’s worked on being able to ride the skis stable, being comfortable at a really high speed and working on putting that ski straight down the track. A true sprinter — you’ll see a lot of the men and sometimes the women — are really quick on that edge. And Sophie’s as comfortable as anyone riding her skis, so we encouraged her to lengthen it out and add some power there.”
Behind Caldwell came a relative unknown. Miller is a J1 from McCall, Idaho, and according to Miller herself, second place was right where she should be.
“A top one or two was the goal,” she said.
The high school senior battled symptoms of compartment syndrome last winter while she attended Stratton Mountain School, which put a damper on her training. Miller had always planned to return to McCall for senior year, and now that the health of her legs has improved she’s been able to log more hours.
“This is the payoff of all that training,” Miller said. “This course actually favors my kind of skiing. I’m not really good at scrambly, tight uphill courses. An open V2 course really favors me.”
Miller’s prologue performance has her excited for the true sprint tests in Bozeman next week. Like many of her competitors, her primary goal this winter is to compete in a World Cup bib in December.
“That’s what we’re going for, so I’m psyched,” she said.
When preliminary results were posted on site at the finish, Caldwell and Miller were listed as 1-2. They held on to those positions once results were calibrated to include start data several hours later, but the third finisher moved up a spot from her initial placing. Patterson, originally listed as fourth, found out she was actually third after hitting refresh on results all afternoon.
(The bump reflects the fact that she started late in the 6-second legal starting window relative to Caitlin Gregg (Central Cross Country), who switched places with Patterson in the final results.)
Like Caldwell, Patterson has ramped up her sprinting since graduating from the University of Vermont.
“It’s definitely one of the better sprint races I’ve had both in terms of results and how I felt,” Patterson said. “It was a really difficult course and it was hard to tell how you were doing.”
She gauged herself off the woman in front of her, fifth-place Eliska Hajkova (University of Colorado).
“Relative to her I couldn’t tell at all,” Patterson said. She ended up beating Hajkova by a slim 1.35-second margin. The top end of the field was tightly packed; second through seventh finished within five seconds of each other.
“I’m extremely happy with third place,” Patterson said. “The girls in front of me, and the whole field, were so close together.”
Despite just missing the podium Gregg felt her sprint performance was a good step forward after her seventh-place showing the day before.
“I definitely feel each race will get better and better,” she said. “All in all it felt good to go hard and get back in the swing of things.”
Gregg has been working with Methow Olympic Development coach Scott Johnston this summer, and his advice to her after the 9 k was to bring more quickness to her stride.
“Today I had a couple of extra cups of coffee to get a little more pop in my step. It’s still not quite there but it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
Gregg was a podium regular on the SuperTour last winter. The top three women on Saturday were all relative newcomers to the domestic circuit. There’s a long winter still ahead, but in just one weekend it’s safe to say it will be a different kind of season than the last one.
“It’s always exciting to see young blood on the top of the results there,” Gregg said. “Sophie has always been a super talented sprinter and now focusing full-time she’s really going to turn some heads.
“And Anika Miller — it’s always exciting when the person that beats you a little over half your age! (Gregg is 32). I’m really psyched for her and hopefully she gets excited and keeps doing well this year.”
Complete results (scroll for women).
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.