Earlier this month, after the World Cup sprint qualifier in Davos, Switzerland, Patrick “Paddy” Caldwell stood in the mixed zone, distracted.
When a passing U.S. Ski & Snowboard board member congratulated him on his race, he brushed it off – graciously, not rudely – saying that “I ate it on that corner there.”
As he answered questions, he also looked hard at each athlete who passed through the media gauntlet.
“Someone took my poles from the start/finish area,” he explained. “I’m watching all the poles go by. Mine have a little green tape on them.”
Such is life for a 23-year-old U.S. Ski Team B-team member, who had just passed the halfway mark on his first period of European World Cup racing.
“A lot of up and downs,” was how Caldwell described his season up to that point, where he had finished anywhere from 108th (in that crash-marred sprint qualifier) to 19th (in a World Cup freestyle pursuit in Ruka, Finland).
But Caldwell was in a good mood, as he usually seems to be. Crashing? Finishing outside the top 100? Losing his poles?
“Overall, I’d say it has been really positive,” he said. “It has been a really fun experience. Just racing with all these guys every weekend has been amazing. Just soaking it all in has been amazing.”
The next day, he finished 41st in the 15 k skate, and the following weekend in Toblach, Italy, he skied to 53rd in the 15 k skate and then had the 39th-fastest pursuit time in the 15 k classic.
Depending on the day, he has been the fastest male American distance skier in the field, or the second, third or fourth one. But the good days earned him the option of starting the Tour de Ski, and so Caldwell stayed in Europe after Period 1 finished. He spent the holiday break with family in snowy Austria on a ski vacation for some, and training camp for him.
And rather than flying back myriad time zones to Anchorage, Alaska, for U.S. Cross Country Championships, he’s staying on the World Cup in search of more ups and prepared for a few downs.
For most American skiers in his position, the Tour de Ski is a dicey proposition because of Olympic qualifying. By the end of the Tour de Ski, athletes have to be ranked in the top 50 of the distance or sprint standings on the World Cup to be likely nominees to the Olympic team. Caldwell is currently ranked 46th in the distance standings, but will likely need to score more points (meaning more top-30 finishes) to stay there.
Going to the Tour necessarily means forgoing U.S. nationals, from which part of the team will likely also be named. A bad Tour de Ski could mean no Olympics.
Caldwell was circumspect about the pros and cons of his decision, and says that he has both short- and long-term goals.
“I would love to qualify for the Olympics,” he wrote in an email from Austria. “It has been a goal and dream of mine for a long time to represent USA at the Games. That would be a huge honor and privilege.”
But at the same time, he is focusing on developing as a World Cup skier.
“This season one of my primary goals is to gain as much experience on the World Cup and racing in Europe as I can,” he wrote. “Starting the Tour de Ski is a great opportunity to do that. It’s hard to say what will happen after the Tour but I am hoping to do more racing in Europe in 2018.”
Pat O’Brien, Caldwell’s coach at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team in Stratton, Vermont, was more blunt about what an extended World Cup tour would reveal about his athlete.
“They both have a lot of promise as future U.S. skiers,” O’Brien wrote in an email, referring to Caldwell and teammate Julia Kern, “But they need starts to see if this is a lifestyle they want to participate in, and if so, how can they be the best at what they do. As a coach I don’t really care the outcome of these two months of racing early in the year. I want them to have good support (they do over there), I want them to face a big challenge stepping into the deep end (they surely feel that), but I also want enough hits that they feel they can make a to-do list and know where to go for this season and upcoming ones.”
The ups and downs that Caldwell described, then, were part of the plan.
“Lillehammer was brutal,” Caldwell said of a skiathlon where he finished 56th, seven minutes and 43 seconds behind the winner. “I was just totally off the pace in that 30 k. That was a tough day.”
Another example: sprints, which even the most specialized of distance skiers must start in tours and mini-tours.
“That’s a long-term goal for me,” Caldwell laughed. “I would love to qualify for a sprint someday. But you know, it’s not on the top of my list right now.”
But then there are the ups, like the Ruka pursuit.
“I was not surprised he was able to put down a good pursuit result in Ruka and came very close to points in Davos,” O’Brien wrote. “We talk about gamesmanship in a bad way. But if you are a guy distance skier you need to know what you do well and how to optimize that… Guys’ racing is brutally hard and deep. There are people that are faster and will recover sooner than you, for natural and unnatural reasons. Paddy is damn good at standing on a ski and finding time where most people give it up — he won a SuperTour in Craftsbury on a manmade loop a few years ago by 90 seconds or so. That was a course where it was hard to find time. We sat down earlier this year and figured out races and courses that suited his strengths, and built training around it.”
And so in the service of those long-term goals, one of Caldwell’s tasks in his first European World Cup tour was to learn the courses. He found it to be an enjoyable assignment.
“I’m definitely really psyched to learn all the courses, and have that image for the offseason to know what to expect,” he said. “It’s cool to see all the venues. We see all of them in video and stuff, but it’s so different when you actually show up and ski them. Ruka was really fun and punchy. Lillehammer was a bit of a grind. But I really liked all the courses. It has been great.”
And learning Period 1 courses has an extra benefit: “They really don’t change too much year to year, and you need to know what you need to do to be competitive there,” O’Brien wrote.
When Caldwell crossed the finish line in the 15 k skate in Davos, he had the fastest time of the day. That lasted for all of 28 seconds until he was knocked back by former U23 World Champion Paul Constantin Pepene of Romania, who had started one bib behind him and notched a time 1.6 seconds faster.
In the cutthroat men’s World Cup field, that equated to three places in the 15 k race, when all the racers had crossed the line and the times had been tallied.
Caldwell hadn’t even had time to sit in the traditional leader’s chair.
“Oh, I know it,” he said. “Bummer.”
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.