Anyone who has had the pleasure of interacting with Katharine Ogden, also commonly known as KO, can tell you that she is humorous, kind, and thoughtful – both in regard to others as well as in her own self-introspection. She is also a wicked good skier, proving herself both nationally and internationally in competition. Ogden recently shared that she was stepping away from professional skiing, having already experienced a range of career ups and downs at her relatively young age of twenty-four.
I had the privilege of overlapping with Ogden for two years as teammates on the Dartmouth Women’s Ski Team, during which time I was undergoing my own personal, though distinctly less significant, reckoning with ski racing. Thus, when Ogden announced her retirement at the end of last month, I asked to be the one to write this piece, hoping to do justice to the story of a career that is as important in its low moments as it is at its heights. Ogden herself wrote an eloquently expressed reflection of her career on the SMS T2 blog which can – and should – be read here.
Ogden began skiing at the tender age of two, after her family moved from Seattle to Vermont. Shortly thereafter her brother Ben was born and as Ogden explained it, “I was now living in Vermont, no longer an only child, and so I spent a lot of time with my dad, while my mom was having, you know, the baby. And my dad, once we moved back to Vermont, kind of re-engaged with the Nordic ski community and started coaching the local ski program.” Ogden’s father, John, has long been an active member in the Eastern ski community, most recently through his work with the timing company, Bullitt Timing, which he runs with a colleague. “Pretty much since I can remember, my dad has been coaching for [West River Sports] my childhood club, and bringing me to practices and he would also go to the local races and bring me along,” said Ogden.
These early memories of ski racing instilled a strong sense of ski community within Ogden and given the high level of participation in Nordic skiing among her elementary school peers, Ogden explained that this was a big reason why she stuck with ski racing. “And, of course, my dad coaching the team,” she added, “Definitely he encouraged us to do it.” Racing with her best friends throughout elementary school and middle school, while participating in events like the Bill Koch Festival, played a big part in growing Ogden’s love for the sport.
Entering high school, Ogden attended Stratton Mountain School in southern Vermont, the well-known private school which, according to its website, “provides a unique environment that offers each student the opportunity to pursue excellence in competitive winter sports and college preparatory academics.” Around the same time, Ogden was earning her first international starts, as she participated in the U18 Scandinavian Cup trips in 2013 and 2014. “That was kind of a cool progression up to World Juniors,” shared Ogden, “I think it’s very important, and honestly sometimes underrated in my opinion, to build up your international experience in that way.”
For at least one, if not both of the years, Ogden had also qualified for World Juniors but she explained that her coaches encouraged her to choose the U18 trip instead. “Sometimes there are really young kids who got to World Juniors and I think that it’s a bit of a missed opportunity, because those U18 team trips are still a really high level of competition,” Ogden said, “And a good way to be like with people your own age, which really improves the experience.”
After having built some international racing experience, Ogden attended her first FIS World Junior Ski Championship in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2015. “At that point, I had made a lot of good friends in the ski world,” shared Ogden, “I knew Julia Kern and Hailey Swirbul really well, so that was a blessing for me to have people that I knew and cared about and relied on in that type of situation being there for support. [It] makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable and it takes a little bit of the pressure off to just be able to treat it as a fun trip.”
This approach seemed to pay off as Ogden placed 11th and 6th in the individual races, besting some familiar names such as this year’s Tour de Ski winner, Natalia Neprayeava. “[It] was fun to go to a crazy country that I wouldn’t normally go to and be able to experience that, while also getting to focus on some higher level racing,” explained Ogden. Her second World Juniors appearance came in Rasnov, Romania the following year where she placed 13th in both individual races.
In June of 2016, Ogden graduated from Stratton, and having applied to college but deferred her acceptance to Middlebury College – her father’s alma mater – she embarked on a gap year. Remaining at SMS, she began training more with the pro team (SMS T2) and focusing a little more seriously on ski racing. “That was definitely an interesting experience for me, it was a pretty mentally difficult year,” said Ogden, “it felt like a convergence of a lot of things in my life that were difficult for me to emotionally handle.”
For one, the 2017 World Junior Championships would be held at Soldier Hollow in the US, an exciting prospect that simultaneously created pressure to perform for the American young athletes who would be in attendance. “There was a lot of hype about it being in the US, which was cool, don’t get me wrong, but I felt that – not by anyone else’s fault other than mine – but that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because of that.”
Self-aware and reflective, Ogden was open about the difficulty of this time, “Because I’d had previous success at the other two World Juniors that I went to, it kind of felt like it was a lot of pressure on me for those races. On top of that, I didn’t have school to focus on anymore, so I was really not doing much other than skiing, which is not something I would recommend to anyone, even if you’re a professional skier.” Ogden stressed the importance of having something else to balance your attention, “whether it’s a job or school, or even just working on your self-marketing or whatever – something that takes some brain power that is not just directly related to training.”
In addition to these pressures, Ogden’s father, who earlier had been diagnosed with cancer, was in worsening condition. “So that was also kind of weighing on me,” explained Ogden, “all of those things culminated into me not having a good time.” She shared that she has struggled with anxiety since she was young, but in 2017 it morphed into something that became unmanageable at times. (Read Ogden’s January 2020 narrative on her experience with severe anxiety here.)
“I couldn’t functionally live with it anymore,” said Ogden, “So at that point, I was really struggling to eat because the manifestation of my anxiety disorder was that it really caused me to have a lot of gastrointestinal distress and a really upset stomach, so it was difficult for me to fuel myself enough to train and I didn’t have a lot of energy, partly from not eating and partly from just being stressed all the time.”
In Ogden’s own words it was “against all odds” that she made it through the week of racing at World Juniors in Soldier Hollow. However, to simply say she completed the races is a massive understatement. In the skiathlon event, Ogden became the first American to podium in an individual race at World Juniors, earning a bronze medal. Days later, Ogden helped propel the US relay team to a historic bronze medal performance in the 4 x 3.3 k event, setting a precedent for the many successful US junior performances in the ensuing years.
Reflecting on this achievement, Ogden shared, “Because I haven’t really had a ton of podium results since then, on an international scale, that is something that my ski career often gets boiled down to. It’s really bittersweet for me because it was a really incredible achievement, especially the relay day, when I was able to work with three of my best friends to accomplish something pretty cool. I still have a lot of pride and such about that experience, but on the other hand, it’s really hard for me to remember that without remembering how awful I was feeling, and how that was really honestly one of the hardest parts of my life to date.”
Returning home to Vermont in early February, Ogden started just one other ski race that season, “I think I did one random Eastern Cup ski race that I ended up actually dropping out of,” she explained. “[After] that race I didn’t put on my skis or anything… I did not go for a ski or a run or do anything for the rest of that year, basically up until May.” At this point, Ogden thought her ski racing career might be over. However, the idea of collegiate skiing started to bring her back around.
Rewind to early December 2016, before World Juniors, and Ogden and the SMS team were in Silver Star, BC for the season-opening Nor-Am events. “My dad was on that trip, because he was helping SMS with some waxing and logistics, and we talked about how I wasn’t very happy, how I wasn’t feeling well, and I was struggling to want to ski and ski race,” said Ogden. While she had accepted a spot at Middlebury, she explained that “no part of me really thought I would go to college.” Examining this feeling, she reflected, “I think part of SMS is that, it’s an interesting environment where sort of everyone’s expected to got to college, but on the other hand, the people who are having a lot of success in their respective sport are almost really expected not to go to college.”
Referring to the infamous US Ski Team “pipeline” and expectations for members of the national team at that time, Ogden said, “I honestly didn’t think a ton about going to college. From pretty early in my high school experience I was like, ‘I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna be like Liz [Stephen] and Kikkan [Randall] and Andy [Newell],’ and I have so much respect for their ability to focus on skiing that much,” she added, “Like Jessie [Diggins], those people who are really emotionally and mentally healthy and ready enough to be able to accomplish what they did in the ski racing world, without distractions, it’s amazing to me.”
As the race season was about to get underway, Ogden was reexamining her priorities. Among the many skiers and teams present for these Nor-Am races was the Dartmouth Women’s Ski Team (DWST), who were wrapping up their annual Thanksgiving camp at Silver Star. “I was kind of watching the Dartmouth team from afar,” said Ogden, “they were always smiling, and they were nor-pining (alpine skiing on nordic skis), and they were going on long skis together. And something about seeing that, I was like, ‘That seems like something I want.’”
Recognizing this, though still not ready to fully commit, Ogden met with long-time Dartmouth coach Cami Thompson-Graves. Like many of the US Ski Team athletes, both alpine and nordic, who chose to attend Dartmouth, Ogden was drawn to the flexibility of the Dartmouth “D-plan”, and thought that perhaps she would take classes in the spring but continue ski racing full time in the winter. Breaking some rules with Middlebury, to whom she had already committed attendance, Ogden applied to Dartmouth that winter. When her acceptance letter arrived in the spring following World Juniors, she talked to Thompson-Graves again. “I was like, ‘I don’t really know what’s going to be the case by the time September comes around. I want to try to ski, but I’m going to ski for Dartmouth, I’m not going to ski for SMS or the national team.’”
With this new plan in place, Ogden started to re-engage with training and the ski world. “That summer, I was back to training with Stratton some. I also worked at a preschool that summer, which I loved. I generally went on a bit of an upward trend,” she said. When fall rolled around, she showed up in Hanover unsure of what to expect. “When I got to Dartmouth, it was honestly life changing,” she said, “The team was incredible, full of inspiring and interesting and passionate women, people who were passionate about ski racing, yeah, but also a million other things, which was not something I’d really been exposed to. Stratton Mountain School is incredible in a ton of ways, and was instrumental in facilitating my ski career and getting me to where I got to, but that being said, there’s not a lot of diversity of opportunity there. Because it really is, as advertised, very focused on skiing and ski success.”
Ogden explained that arriving at Dartmouth opened her eyes to the many possibilities that existed beyond the realm of ski racing. “When I got to Dartmouth, it was kind of the first time I’d been able to be like, holy cow, there’s so much else out there that I could be passionate about, not just skiing.” She detailed how the team of women her freshman year displayed the many ways in which one could be both an amazing ski racer and also completely invested in an opposite pursuit. “Lydia [Blanchet] for example, to be so excited about skiing and so talented as a ski racer, but then also sometimes, she would prioritize whitewater kayaking. Or, Taryn [Hunt-Smith] who was casually one of the best skiers on the team but also getting citations in every class and being pre-med… I think that was really eye opening to me.”
With these role models and examples, Ogden allowed herself to pursue other things outside of skiing. She also devoted herself wholeheartedly to the team and racing collegiately and didn’t compete in any international races for those first two years of school. “My freshman year that was kind of on purpose,” she explained, “I just needed a break, and I just wanted to focus on college skiing.” In November of the following year, as she was warming up to the idea of returning to international racing, Ogden broke her hand. “I was like, man, I don’t need to do that, I’ll just ease into the season and get my hand healed. But in the process of not going to the U23 [Championships], I also got booted off the national team, because I didn’t do any international racing for two years at this point.”
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Ogden. “I think in the moment I was sad about it, I had been on the development team for three years at that point, and I was a little bummed to lose that,” she shard, “But also, I wasn’t as sad about it as I expected to be and that next season, when I wasn’t on the national team, it was like a huge sigh of relief, if anything, because I felt a lot less pressure to perform.”
However, the lack of international racing didn’t stop Ogden from achieving outstanding results. In 2018, as a freshman named to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) team for Dartmouth, she took the win in both events at the championships by astonishing margins. In addition she earned seven collegiate victories that season, landed on the podium ten times, and never finished lower than fourth place. The next year, recovering from a broken hand, Ogden finished on the podium in every collegiate race she entered, save for one fourth place finish at NCAAs.
Moving into her junior year of college, Ogden found herself back on the international stage for the Tour de Ski (2019/2020) as well as for the Scandinavian Ski Tour. “It was kind of a perfect system for a college student because it was a ton of World Cup racing, but really condensed, into just two weeks of missed school,” she explained. In this way, Ogden was able to accrue eight and six World Cup starts from each event series respectively, making for fourteen international appearances after several seasons away. “That year, I got pretty inspired to pursue that a little bit more fully. So throughout the winter, I started making the decision that I wanted to ski more for the national team and for Stratton again, instead of Dartmouth, the next year, after my three years of skiing for Dartmouth, so that I could take the winter term off from school and try to do a few more World Cups because I was feeling really excited about that, and had some success, especially in the Tour de Ski.”
Ogden finished in the top-thirty in her first attempt at the challenging multi-stage event, ending up 28th overall. “I was feeling confident in my ski racing, and excited and passionate about it again, so I wanted to pursue it,” explained Ogden.
If you’ve been following the timeline of this story, you will know what happens next. Enter COVID-19.
At the end of the 2019/2020 season, the World Cup finals scheduled to take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota were canceled and everyone headed home. For Ogden, the timing of the global pandemic happened to work in her favor. The following race season, 2020/2021 was virtually non-existent for the eastern collegiate circuit and with college classes moved online, Ogden was able to keep up with her studies no matter where in the world she was. “When COVID hit, no one was skiing for Dartmouth, it turned out, so I got really lucky on that one, and I was able to take some online terms and continue training with Stratton. So, it was really a year where I was skiing professionally, even though I was still in college.” Ogden reflected that she got “weirdly lucky” with the COVID, “because otherwise, I think I probably would have graduated late if I hadn’t been able to take those remote terms.”
As it was, Ogden graduated from Dartmouth in June of 2021, having completed school in just four years, and the 2020/2021 race season became the first season that she was fully on the World Cup circuit. Ogden wasn’t guaranteed a full season of World Cup racing to begin with but she had starts for Period I, and if she raced well there she could stay for Period II, and so on. Racing in Davos before Christmas break, Ogden finished 22nd in the 10 k skate, securing her ticket to later season races. “That worked out great for me, partly because of COVID, it meant that some of the World Cups were a bit poorly attended, so it was pretty easy to score points and keep on racing, whereas in a normally year it’s a little tougher to score points in Period One,” she explained.
Although, there were other, less desirable outcomes from COVID. “I really enjoyed being on the road longer in the fact that I was able to get to know the team really well and feel like I was really a part of it, and feel really accepted in that environment and that group, but parts of it were also, really, really hard for me,” she said.
For one, as a COVID precaution, the US Ski Team implemented “bubbles” and athletes stayed with the same roommate all season, limiting interactions even among teammates. “One thing that was really tough was, because of the COVID travel restrictions, it was very claustrophobic because we weren’t really supposed to leave to go home at all, or leave the bubble,” Ogden explained. “And even if we could, like if we wanted to, for me it was hard because I was really worried about my parents.” At this point, Ogden’s father, John, was undergoing another round of chemotherapy for cancer, putting him in a high-risk category if he were to catch COVID. “So I didn’t want to travel home and get him sick, but I was feeling very stuck. I couldn’t leave, and I’m definitely a homebody, so being on the road for that long was really tough for me.”
These feelings were building, particularly as Christmas break approached, “right before Christmas, I was definitely overwhelmingly homesick, where I was just like, I don’t even know what to do,” said Ogden. “I was feeling stuck, I couldn’t go home, the coaches didn’t want me to go home, and I didn’t really want to put my parents in any sort of danger because I was worried about that.” Thankfully, around this time, John became eligible for a vaccine which took some of the worry off his daughter’s plate. “[That] was one of the most exciting things, I was just thrilled about that because I had to worry a bit less about him, but also because it meant I could feel okay about going home.”
Ogden stayed in Europe to race the Tour de Ski, her second showing at the event. She finished 23rd overall, having posted two top-twenty finishes over the course of the Tour and several more top-thirties. After completing the Tour, Ogden returned home to Vermont for two weeks before the World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany.
At the 2021 World Championships, Ogden was joined by her brother Ben, who made an impressive championship debut, qualifying 11th in the sprint and ultimately finishing in 17th. Regarding having her brother around, Ogden shared, “Having Ben on the World Cup was great. He’s an entertaining kid. It has also been really fun to watch him finding success and navigating the World Cup in his own unique way. I am really proud of the way that he approaches training and racing, he doesn’t let anyone tell him what he can and can’t do, and makes sure he prioritizes school and jobs and his teammates, even when it appears on the surface to be the detriment of a perfect training/racing plan.”
Ogden finished out the 2021/2022 World Cup season with the rest of her teammates in Engadin, Switzerland before returning home. “I was pretty excited to go home at the end of the season, but a little bit less desperate at that point.” In spite of this, Ogden had realized that being on the road for such a long time was a significant challenge and said it was “hard for me to rationalize doing it again.” Surrounded by older teammates who had been navigating this challenge for many seasons, Ogden asked for advice. “They [told me] this year has been really different than every other year, because of COVID, and you can’t judge the experience based on a COVID year.” Hearing this, Ogden decided to give it another year.
At the same time, she was wrapping up her time at Dartmouth. Given her gap year experience, Ogden was nervous about losing the balance and distraction that school provided from skiing. “I actually, that winter, started applying to grad schools with remote programs for social work,” explained Ogden, “I wanted to have something to do the next year and also, because I was kind of thinking maybe this [skiing] wouldn’t last that much longer for me, because I just really was not enjoying myself that much.” Ogden also pointed out that, perhaps an oft-underrated part of professional skiing is the challenge of earning money from it. “It’s pretty tough to do,” said Ogden, “and involves either being very fast, or extremely good at Instagram marketing… so [that] made it a little bit less sustainable for me, on top of the homesickness and not really enjoying the traveling too much.”
Recognizing this, Ogden started graduate school online in September (2021) through the Columbia School of Social Work. Having committed to these studies, Ogden would soon have to make another decision, given that part of the program requires a practical, internship component. “At the end of the winter, I had to decide if I would not be ski racing next winter so that I could do my practical, and I had pushed that off for a year, so that I could just do the online classes and some ski racing.” With this knowledge, Ogden entered the 2021/2022 season with an open mind, asking herself the questions, “is this sustainable? Is it something I want to do for longer? In which case I will apply for a leave of absence from school? Or is it something that I’m not really that excited about anymore and I will instead start the process of getting myself placed for that internship?”
An added boon to keep racing this season was the fact that it was an Olympic year. In the end, Ogden was not named to the 2022 Olympic team but she was quick to make it clear that this did not factor into her decision to retire at the end of the season. “I wanted to put my best foot forward, to see if I could qualify for the Olympics. Which obviously, I didn’t. But I would like to clarify that was not why I wanted to stop… I was thinking about it before that.”
That being said, Ogden shared candidly that it was difficult not to make the team. “[I] can’t understate the fact that it was really hard emotionally to not qualify, to put that much effort and training and goals and everything into trying, and then fall short. That was definitely hard, emotionally.” But putting on a positive spin, Ogden noted, “I got really lucky, because when I was home, instead of going to the Olympics, I was in Vermont and I love it in Vermont.”
Taking a bit of a mid-season break, Ogden lifted a little pressure off herself for training and skied for enjoyment, rather than in pursuit of a goal. She also did some volunteer coaching for the local ski club, Ford Sayre Nordic. “I really loved doing that, and it got me really excited about that aspect of the ski world,” explained Ogden. “During that month of the Olympics, I was kind of sad from not qualifying but also kind of happy because I got to do this stuff where I was hanging out with kids and going skiing with different people, and skiing for fun and going to the eastern SuperTours… I sort of forgot how much it’s like a blast. The eastern ski community is pretty cool.”
Through these various outlets, Ogden was coming to a realization. “Showing up to a race where I knew so many people there and a community where I felt really valued for myself and not for how I ended up doing in the races, or that type of thing – it was just really amazing to see people and re-engage with that community in a way that reminded me that I’m a part of it because of who I am, and not because of any results I had.” The weeks that she spent in New England showed Ogden a path to fulfillment and engagement with the ski community outside of competitive racing, “I think over those few weeks, when I was home and racing in the east and really enjoying that, I started being ready to be done with skiing, in part because I was like, I’m really happy right now,” she explained.
For someone whose life and identity has been so integrally tied to ski racing, making the decision to step away can be a frightening prospect. “Part of me was scared of losing the ski community,” reflected Ogden, “It’s been such a huge part of my life that I was really scared of not having it anymore, and part of that experience reminded me that I’m not going to lose it. It’s not ever going to be something that goes away, I’m going to be a part of this community and with these people forever. I think it hadn’t really occurred to me that that was the case. I’d never been a part of the ski community as anything other than an athlete.”
With this decision “figured out,” Ogden was ready to return to the World Cup season to get some closure and to go race for fun. She rejoined the US team abroad in Lahti, Finland and was able to race the legendary Holmenkollen 30 k event where she finished 37th, before a positive COVID test took her out of contention. “So I didn’t end up actually doing my last World Cups,” laughed Ogden, “But I still had a great time being quarantined with Hailey [Swirbul] (who also tested positive). We were kind of suffering, but once we were feeling a little better we got to explore Oslo. And Hailey is one of my best friends and a really important part of my ski career, so it was kind of fun, honestly, [to have] a little impromptu vacation with just Hailey at the end of the season.”
Wanting to close out her career with her SMS T2 teammates, Ogden traveled to Whistler, BC for the combined Canadian Nationals/Super Tour Finals event once she was no longer contagious. Unfortunately, an untimely ear infection meant that she spent most of the week watching Netflix and taking antibiotics. “By the end of the week, [I] was finally able to rally for some races, where I truly had no expectations. I had literally not trained in the past month and still kind of had an ear infection and a cough from COVID, so not thriving, but it was pretty fun. It was nice to be able to celebrate the end of my career with my Stratton teammates who’ve been there, especially Julia [Kern] and Jessie [Diggins], since day one. So I was lucky to be able to do that, even though they were not the most enjoyable races of my life, per se,” she concluded.
Asked to reflect on her career highlights, Ogden mentioned the World Junior performances in Soldier Hollow, but added quickly, “I don’t like that to be my career highlight because I was not happy then. But I would say the 2019/2020 Tour de Ski was one of the real highs of my career. That was something that was a hard thing to do and I was really excited that I’d accomplished it.”
She also noted her first World Cup starts during the 2016 Canadian Ski Tour when she was a senior in high school were a high point. “I think it was an eight-stage tour, and the first World Cup I’d ever done, and that was really gratifying and exciting. Putting on my World Cup bib for the first time was a moment that I will not forget. I got to give my dad a hug on the side of the course when I was warming up, and he was crying. Very cute,” smiled Ogden.
Her collegiate races were another notable experience for Ogden, “Almost all the races I did for Dartmouth were really up there,” she said, “but going to NCAA my freshman year was a pretty incredible experience. I had never really had the experience of racing on a team until college. I absolutely loved being able to go into races and know that my result was going towards something bigger and that I was working with a bunch of people to accomplish a goal.”
Offering advice to the next generation, Ogden said “my advice to younger skiers would be to make sure you’re thinking about what makes skiing fun and making sure you prioritize that the whole time. And also, not trying to be just a skier — trying to focus on everything that makes you a complete person, because if you focus on being 100% skier, sometimes it can make this game a little harder.”
Though she is stepping away from competitive racing, Ogden fully intends to remain involved in the ski community. She applied to be on the NENSA board and says, “I’m going to really throw myself into this community, but in a way that’s a little bit more sustainable for me and feels more fulfilling and exciting.” She is continuing to work her way towards a master’s degree in social work, in the specific track of clinical social work with a focus on working with children and families. The current plan is to start her internship for the program in September and eventually graduate in the spring of 2024. “After that I hope to get a job, but as to what job, I’m not sure!” Ogden said, “Hopefully by that point I will have more clarity on that.”
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.