The pale wood grain of a wax trailer’s interior walls and the sound of a power-tool firing up can only hold one’s attention for so long, especially if that someone has the coaching gene. As the grandson of John Caldwell, a former U.S. Ski Team (USST) head coach, and son of Sverre Caldwell, the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) nordic director and head coach, it may be no surprise that John — who goes by his middle name of Austin — Caldwell, also heard the call to coach.
After spending this past winter working for Caldwell Sport as a wax technician, Austin, a 24-year-old Dartmouth grad, wanted a challenge and change. Not only in his work, to include a greater focus on interactions with athletes, but in his whereabouts as well.
“I really enjoyed working with Zach and Amy [Caldwell] wax-teching last year,” Austin said on the phone while in Bozeman, Mont. “But part of me wanted to spread my wings a bit and try some new place outside of the east and outside of Vermont where I’ve lived all my life.”
Growing up in Peru, Vt., alongside his two sisters Isabel and Sophie Caldwell (the latter of which is a USST member), skiing was not just what Austin spent his spare time doing. It was the family mealtime topic of choice; it was how vacations were spent with relatives — his uncle Tim Caldwell, a four-time Olympian, and cousins are all avid nordic skiers as well.
Surrounded by skiing his entire life, Austin did not want to give it up anytime soon. When the head coaching position for the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) elite nordic program opened up and his cousin, Anya Caldwell-Bean, BSF’s U18/U20 junior coach, told him of the opening, he saw an opportunity to not only stay involved with skiing, but further himself and his experiences in it.
“I loved wax-teching last year, that was really fun, but I also enjoyed coaching in the past for junior skiers,” Austin said. “My dad is a coach and I’ve always been interested in coaching … so now I get to coach and wax tech.”
Stepping into his new role and responsibilities as the head coach for the BSF elite team — his first coaching position of this caliber — Austin is aware of the challenges that rest ahead for himself and his athletes. Prior to this year, his work with athletes involved coaching juniors last year in Putney, Vt., and at SMS youth summer camps over the past five years.
“I have gained most of my understanding of coaching from my relationships with Sverre, Ruff Patterson, and Zach and Amy Caldwell,” Austin wrote in an email, referring to his father, college coach, and first cousin once removed (and his wife), respectively. “Those four have been great mentors and in the process they have taught me almost everything I know about skiing.”
Currently eight athletes will work with him during the summer and throughout the season. Three athletes, Jennie Bender, Silas Talbot and Nick Power comprise the elite team, and five others make up the post-graduate crew, with a few of them heading to college in the fall and being replaced with new post grads for the upcoming school year.
“We’ll have some kids taking classes and then partway through the winter, people will be going different ways depending on how they do [during the season],” Austin explained. “So that will be, as far as managing at that point, that will be one of the bigger challenges.
“But I think it’s something all teams face,” he added. “Just having kids at different levels and different age groups as well.”
On a personal level, Austin admits one of his biggest adjustments so far has been learning Bozeman’s trails and rollerskiing roads, as well as not getting the team or team van lost in Montana’s mountains.
“For me, I guess the biggest challenge that everyone has been helping me with is finding my way around Bozeman and finding new routes for rollerskiing,” Austin said. “Every week I’ve been trying kind of to add a new place to rollerski … because it’s important to switch it up.”
“I plan on staying in the ski world for as long as I can, so far BSF and Bozeman have been great and I plan on remaining here for the coming years.” — Austin Caldwell on becoming BSF’s elite head coach
But even if navigating Bozeman has been a bit of a learning process during the beginning stages of his coaching career, the city and a well-established elite program were two of the draws that pulled Austin to apply and eventually take the position.
“Having a strong program in place and being in Bozeman were the two main factors [why I considered working with BSF],” Austin said. “I also talked with Dragan [Danevski, BSF’s head coach and program director] and with my cousin Anya and it just seemed like it would be a good fit.”
With the goal to remain involved with skiing for as long as possible, Bozeman and BSF struck Austin as the ideal program and place to be a part of.
“I plan on staying in the ski world for as long as I can, so far BSF and Bozeman have been great and I plan on remaining here for the coming years,” he wrote in an email.
Danevski respectfully declined to comment on Austin’s hiring. In the last two years, the BSF elite team has weathered several coaching transitions, most recently with the departure of Bernie Nelson — the team’s coach since the fall of 2014.
In his first season as an elite head coach and with eight athletes to oversee, his greatest ambition involves pushing his athletes to their full potential. Talbot, 23, Austin’s former classmate, co-captain and fraternity brother at Dartmouth College, and now an athlete for the BSF elite team, saw the transition to having Austin as a coach as uniquely strong.
“For myself, it has been hugely beneficial to have Austin coaching because he knows my athletic background so well,” Talbot, originally from Anchorage, Alaska, wrote in an email. “He already knows my strengths and weaknesses (which are especially prevalent in the dryland season), and so there is no need to build up the trust and/or understanding between us from scratch. In short, having someone I know well as a coach makes the adjustment to the new program — something that for many after college is a tough step — much easier.”
Entering her fourth year on the BSF elite team, Bender also found Austin a positive addition to BSF and the greater Bozeman area.
“Austin waxed for me during the last few World Cups at the Canadian Tour this past March, and I was instantly impressed with his professionalism,” Bender wrote in an email. “Austin taking the head Elite/PG coach position is a great attribution to not only BSF, but to the Bozeman ski community as a whole.”
So far, Austin too, cannot ask more of his athletes and training group. The higher level of focus and preparation he finds evident with the BSF elite and PG level athletes gives him confidence in the season and performances to come.
“I think the key to success is having a group that motivates each other and pushes each other,” Austin said. “And I’m very excited about this training group we have going into the summer. They’re all working very hard and they’ve come together really well. It’s like they’ve been training together a lot longer than three weeks … everyone in this group is always trying to push the limits and do everything they can do to get better.”
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.