Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Jeff Ellis, Kikkan Randall’s husband and the FIS media coordinator who interviewed Sophie Caldwell on television after Tuesday’s race.
American Sophie Caldwell’s classic sprint victory in Tuesday’s Stage 4 of the Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, Germany, is as much about empowerment as it is about tactical acumen and gut-it-out speed.
Someone had to be first.
Through a long legacy of U.S. women greats, only three have stood atop the podium in a World Cup individual race. Initially it was Alison Kiesel (formerly Owen-Spencer), who won the inaugural women’s World Cup event in December 1978 at Telemark in Cable, Wis. In modern-day World Cups, Caldwell, 25, did so Tuesday, following the path paved by teammate Kikkan Randall, a name synonymous with empowerment.
“Certainly I think Sophie is actually also the only other women to officially get an individual podium,” Randall said Tuesday on the phone from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. “Jessie [Diggins] has been on the team sprint podium, Sadie [Bjornsen] has been on a team sprint podium, but Sophie is the only one to have snagged an individual podium and so now this makes for the second women in U.S. history to the win the World Cup, so it’s pretty exciting.”
(Note: There is some discrepancy over whether Kiesel’s victory technically counts since it was later recognized as a World Cup test event.)
Randall is currently 10 hours behind Oberstdorf time, which makes watching the Tour de Ski in real-time a habit for Alaskan night owls only. Having been unable to watch the heats live, she caught up with the morning’s news quickly.
“I’ve been having good luck with being able to catch the race on YouTube in the mornings when I wake up, so I didn’t see the race live, but I had some good news to wake up to this morning,” Randall, 33, explained.
Her husband, Jeff Ellis, was the first to interview Caldwell as the International Ski Federation (FIS) cross-country media coordinator in charge of all post-race interviews with winners. He did so in front of a stadium packed with more than 4,000 spectators and on live TV.
“It’s always great to interview an athlete that I know, especially when it’s their first World Cup win,” Ellis wrote in an email. “I remember very clearly when Kikkan won her first, and especially when I got to tell her that she had won her first crystal globe. Those are the highlights of my job with FIS.”
Sitting out this season while pregnant* with her first child (due in April), Randall is often credited for performance milestones that revealed new possibilities for U.S. cross-country skiers. She showed that winning, and consistently winning, is possible on the World Cup stage.
Caldwell’s win is her own, but it’s also a part of Randall’s legacy.
“Since I am sitting at home not racing right now, it just makes me so excited, so proud,” Randall said. “I have so much fun watching these guys and to see the development that they have made and the changes and the increasing confidence. And to know that they are taking the lead now, it’s really exciting for me and I’m happy that could have played a part in it.
“I have a really strong friendships with everyone on the team,” she added. “So when I see them do well, it feels almost like a personal victory for all of us.”
For the U.S. Ski Team, victories have become something not unexpected. Simi Hamilton came close in second in Davos. Andy Newell notched fourth in Ruka. The women’s side is full of contenders on any given day. So is Caldwell’s win a surprise for Randall?
“I have to say I had good expectations for the team coming into today because everybody’s really been racing well and Sophie has been sprinting well, Sadie has been right up there, Jessie’s been right in there. Ida can be really be really strong classic sprinting,” she said. “So I was excited for the girls to all have a good day. I’m not surprised of course to see Sophie in the final and to see her win actually.
“Certainly sixth place in the Olympics [for Caldwell] was a surprise because that was her first really big performance at a major championship,” she continued. “But she’s been in several finals already this season, so she has proved she is in great shape. It’s just been a matter with getting comfortable with tactics, and being in the right position at the right place. When I saw that she had won today, I was super excited for her, but it wasn’t a huge surprise. You could tell she was ready to make this happen.
“It’s pretty neat and it’s cool to know that Sadie was close as well. Jessie was in there. All the girls are really can have their moment any day,” she added.
Asked about her first World Cup victory, Randall recalled, “That memory is still clear to me. It’s definitely a highlight of my career.”
The first of Randall’s 13 individual World Cup wins (all of which were skate races) came in December 2007 in Rybinsk, Russia.
“I was 24 years old and I remember actually waking up that morning not feeling great. It was kind of dreary outside, and an arduous Period 1, and I was excited to go home,” she said. “But I thought, OK, one more skate sprint, here we go.
“When out that day, I ended up finishing second in the qualifier, so I knew things were working well and then just felt strong in each one of my heats. … I remember being in the heat with Astrid Jacobsen and she was skiing really well at that point, so I thought, ‘Today, you know what? I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to try to stick to the front and stick with her, when she makes a move, I’ll kind of be ready to cover it.’
“We went around the course and as we got into the final climb, I realized that she wasn’t going as fast as I thought I could go, so I pulled out beside and made a spurt up and over the top of the hill. Which was risky because there was a draft effect on the downhill, but I was just in that kind of mode of going for it. I managed to get a little gas and stay in the front and come down that homestretch waiting to be challenged, and then crossing that finish line first and just almost a feeling of disbelief. … Now I can just imagine how excited everybody is and fired up right now to have another win coming through.”
Years from now it will be Caldwell’s turn to spin a yarn and reflect back on how she helped others believe.
*Side note: Why does FIS consider pregnancy an injury? Kikkan Randall’s FIS profile lists her as “active” yet “injured ” since October 2015. According to Ellis, the data-entry personnel at FIS are on working it.
“At the moment it is a generic form and isn’t even applicable to cross-country,” he wrote. “If an athlete declares ‘injury’ prior to the season then they are able to keep their FIS points from the previous season. This is the case for pregnancy as well so they are entered as the same. It will be fixed for sure for next season.”
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.