BY PEGGY SHINN I JULY 30, 2013
CRAFTSBURY, Vt. — Elsa Sargent remembers the Christmas that her little sister, Ida, received her first spandex cross-country ski racing suit.
“I think she wore it the entire day,” said Sargent.
She also remembers when her little sister started winning Bill Koch League youth races, then began “racing up” — competing in the next age category, which happened to be her older sister’s age category. Little sis won those races as well, and it made her elder sibling grumpy.
But deep down, Sargent and older brother Eben knew that their little sister was going to be the Olympian in the family.
“We might have told the neighbors and our friends that we had Olympic dreams when we were ski racing in Vermont growing up,” she said. “But Ida lived it.”
Now Ida Sargent, 25, really is living it. In only her second full season competing on the world cup circuit, the Vermont native earned three top-10 finishes in sprints, moving into the coveted Sprint Red Group (the top 30 ranked skiers). She also earned World Cup points (finishing in the top 30) in distance races as well — thus making her “dangerous as both a sprinter and distance racer as we march towards Sochi,” predicts U.S. women’s cross-country coach Matt Whitcomb.
For the younger Sargent, who smiles and laughs easily, it’s all fun. And fun and teamwork have propelled her throughout her career. As well as a good dose of competitiveness and a touch of sibling rivalry.
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|Ida Sargent (right) skis for the first time on her older sister Elsa's
(left) favorite wooden skis.
The youngest of three, Ida Sargent grew up in Barton, Vt., and the family cross-country skied at the nearby Craftsbury Outdoor Center, now an elite training center for Nordic skiers and rowers. Young Ida always wanted to do what her older siblings were doing (Eben is five years older, Elsa two years her senior), so they affectionately dubbed her “little me too.”
“I was really competitive, so I would always try to keep up with Elsa and try to beat her and follow her around and do everything that she did,” admitted Sargent with a laugh. “I’m sure it was really annoying for her.”
As they grew up and training hours increased, the two sisters trained more together, something her older sister began to enjoy. But Sargent was still striving to beat her older sister. She still remembers when her older sister won both the freestyle and classic titles at the Vermont State High School Championship. Sargent, a freshman, came in second in both races and was disappointed.
The following year, Sargent went to Burke Mountain Academy, where she trained under Whitcomb and with future U.S. Ski Team teammate Liz Stephen. Her older siblings went to Dartmouth College, where both raced successfully on the NCAA Division I ski circuit.
When it came time to apply to colleges, Sargent wanted to differentiate from her siblings. But emails from both of them convinced her that Dartmouth was the best college for a smart, aspiring Olympian. And the sibling rivalry was easing.
“Honestly, I was happier to see her do well than do well myself,” said Elsa Sargent. “I knew she was headed for a big ski career, and I was transitioning after college into new interests.”
Sargent thrived on Dartmouth’s strong women’s Nordic ski team. In addition to her older sister, other Big Green teammates included Sophie Caldwell, who was named to the U.S. Ski Team this year, Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker (both on the U.S. Biathlon Team), and Rosie Brennan, who competed in several world cups this past season.
Between studying psychology and biology at Dartmouth, and competing (and often winning) on the competitive collegiate Carnival circuit, Sargent raced internationally at the world junior championships and 2010 U23 World Ski Championships, where she finished fourth in the sprint.
That fall, she went back to Dartmouth for her senior year but was mostly focused on training. After placing well in the early season races in Finland, she earned her first world cup start. But a month later, she was in a car accident, and a minor neck injury hampered her results. She still raced all over Europe that winter, taking several top-10s in lower tier races, competing at the world championships and U23s, and finishing the season second in a U.S. Super Tour sprint just one spot behind her idol, Kikkan Randall.
Sargent went back to Dartmouth for the spring quarter in 2011 — happy to use her brain again, she said — then finished her bachelor’s degree with one final quarter in spring 2012.
The past two winters, Sargent has competed on the world cup full time. With support and motivation from her teammate, she quickly adapted to racing with the best in the world. In February 2012, she was a member of the 4x5km relay team that finished fifth in a world cup — the team’s best relay result ever at the time. Nine months later, after the U.S. women took third in a world cup 4x5km relay (Sargent wasn’t chosen for the relay that day), she was so inspired by their effort that she had her best world cups the following weekend, taking her first top-10 in a sprint and first top-20 in a distance race.
“My first world cup, I remember staring at [three-time Olympic gold medalist Marit] Bjoergen for so long,” Sargent recalled with a laugh. “She probably was like, ‘Why is this American girl staring at me?’”
Sargent is no longer intimidated by her one-time idols and counts many of her international competitors as friends, making the world cup circuit feel more like the collegiate Carnival races.
And then there are her U.S. teammates, six other women who have become like family to the Vermont skier. They all agree that this team chemistry has led to their unprecedented success on the world cup the past two seasons, with all seven U.S. women scoring world cup points.
Whitcomb credits Sargent’s ultra competitive nature with her world cup successes.
“She skis aggressively in a pack and is quick to control tactical situations,” he said. “Ida doesn’t get pushed around often.”
But she also knows to leave it on the trail. As soon as the race (or time trial or interval workout) is over, her smile comes back. And so does her laugh. Whitcomb calls her a key contributor to the great team chemistry.
At the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the events that best suit Sargent are the freestyle sprint and classic team sprint, as well as the 10km classic race and the 4x5km relay. She knows that she will be competing with at least six other very strong teammates for spots in each race (up to four per nation qualify to compete in each individual Olympic race). But any medal won in Sochi will feel like a team victory.
“We’ve come to realize that it’s a lot more than just the four people who are racing or the two people in the team sprint who are racing,” Sargent said. “It’s all the people who are out there cheering, the whole team training every day, and the waxers, the coaches, the staff, everyone.”
“Everyone makes the team,” she said.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.