FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — Sophie Caldwell had only six World Cup starts under her belt going into the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships, but where she lacks in experience she made up for in poise, adaptability and sheer speed on Thursday in the classic sprint. After “squeaking” into 30th by 0.12 seconds in the qualifier, the Stratton Mountain School T2 skier raced as if she belonged in the world-class heats, finishing fourth in her quarterfinal to place 20th overall.
“I’m really happy,” Caldwell said after finishing. “I just looked at it as, I can only go up from 30th place. Right before the start [U.S. Ski Team head coach] Chris Grover told me the first heat is usually the fastest one, so I would really have to fight for every spot.”
The 22-year-old followed the advice admirably, fighting for fourth and sometimes the third position in a heat that contained Mona-Lisa Malvalehto (FIN), the top qualifier, Denise Herrmann (GER) and Katerina Smutna (AUT). Though she got off to a slow start in the double-pole zone, Caldwell’s position in the better tracks to the right side of the first hill allowed her to climb better than her competitors and she quickly moved from the back to third.
“Then I just sort of hug on for dear life the rest of the way,” Caldwell said. “I got passed in the finish and double-poling is not my strength, so I was happy with fourth.”
The rookie’s performance was the high point of the day for the American team at the opening event of World Championships. Miscalibrated kick wax held back athletes like Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell that had hoped to do much better, but Caldwell was the outlier for the team on Thursday by exceeding expectations.
“For Sophie that was an awesome day for her to qualify against that field and then for her to get in that quarter and really get in the mix,” Grover said. “She really got in there and skied in third or fourth pretty much the entire quarter, so that was really exciting.”
Caldwell is not a complete newcomer to World Cup sprint heats, but measures of her progress on the international stage this season have come with caveats so far. Her 14th-place finish in the Quebec City freestyle sprint in December was against a watered-down field in Canada, as was her 23rd in Canmore. In her final tune-up against a fully competitive start list in Davos last weekend she just missed the heats in 32nd. So for her to wind up 20th only days later in a pressure-filled race and against a world-class field at its best may have all but sealed her place as a regular World Cup skier down the road. It’s certainly caught the attention of the national team.
“She skied great and she’s been demonstrating all season long that she’s been able to make a big step forward,” Grover said. “She’s going to be one of our contenders for the future.”
Caldwell’s original plan was for the classic sprint to be her only race at World Championships, but she isn’t going home until after the team sprint on Sunday. The American team for the only remaining sprint event in Val di Fiemme has yet to be named.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.