Sophie Caldwell has not quite had the winter she envisioned. The 28-year-old cross-country skier missed over two weeks of training and racing in December when she was sidelined by a cold that turned into a nagging cough.
Then she spent a couple of unexpected weeks at home in Vermont in January because her mother is ill.
Despite these struggles, Caldwell has had a memorable season.
While skiing together in Vermont in January, Caldwell’s longtime boyfriend Simi Hamilton proposed. The two have been friends for years, meeting long before they each competed at the Olympic Games (three for Hamilton, two for Caldwell) and before either one scored world cup sprint podiums. They have not yet set a wedding date. The earliest is this fall, but most likely summer 2020.
Caldwell’s results this season have also been stellar. She has landed on the world cup podium three times — the first time in December in a sprint in Davos, Switzerland, when she was still on antibiotics trying to kick that nagging cough. Then she and Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins shared a sprint podium on New Year’s Day, a race that was part of the eight-day Tour de Ski.
Most recently, Caldwell finished second in a sprint at the Lahti Ski Games in Finland on Feb. 9. She had flown back to Europe just two days prior.
“I didn’t have too many expectations going into the weekend,” she said by phone from Cogne, Italy, where she raced one final world cup sprint before heading to the world championships. “But I was feeling pretty good and excited to be back.”
Caldwell is now in Seefeld, Austria, for the 2019 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships — her fourth world championship. And she’s proven to be a factor in sprinting from her very first world cup — in December 2012 in Quebec City. Back then, she was a recent college graduate (Dartmouth) who decided to try skiing for a year rather than teaching. She finished 14th in that Quebec world cup and was the second American behind Kikkan Randall, who won.
Just over a year later, at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, Caldwell was the only American to move on to the freestyle sprint final. Randall had been favored to win a medal in that race but then didn’t advance beyond the quarterfinal. Meanwhile, Caldwell calmly moved from the quarters into the semis, then into the final.
A quiet, introspective person who smiles easily, Caldwell never seems rattled. She stood on the start line of the 2014 Olympic sprint final and displayed no nerves. She even smiled. Had she not become tangled with a Swedish skier in that Olympic final, who knows what might have happened? Caldwell ended up sixth — at the point the best finish for a U.S. women’s cross-country skier at an Olympic Games.
Two weeks after the Sochi Games, Caldwell finished third in a world cup sprint — sharing the podium with Randall, who retired after winning the team sprint gold medal the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and is now recovering from a battle with breast cancer.
Then at the 2017 world championships in Lahti two years ago, Caldwell made the sprint final again, this time with Diggins and Randall — three American women in a six-person final. Diggins and Randall claimed silver and bronze; Caldwell was, again, sixth.
Since then, Caldwell has claimed seven of her 11 world cup podiums. What are the secrets to her success?
Experience, she said: “Each year, you build a little confidence and you learn a little more on the world cup. I definitely feel the effects of that year after year.”
Over the past six years, she has also deepened relationships with her teammates, coaches and wax techs. And, over that time, she has (mostly) remained healthy and injury free. She had consistent training at home in Vermont over the summer. And even the bad cold that she fought in December did not derail her.
“When I got sick, I was obviously bummed out because I missed a couple weekends and wasn’t sure how it was going to go after that,” she said. “But often when you get sick during the winter it’s a sign, your body telling you that you need some rest. Usually you come back even a little stronger because you’re more rested.”
If Caldwell makes the sprint final at the 2019 world championships, she will be a favorite to win her first world championship medal.
“I’ve been skiing into skate finals all year, it’s something I’m confident I can do,” she said. “If I’m having a good day, there’s no reason a world championships or an Olympics can’t be any different, not even if there are a little more nerves and a little more media and all that comes along with a championship event.”
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Caldwell is currently tied with Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins for the most sprint podiums by an American skier this season (three each). Diggins won her first world cup sprint in Cogne, Italy, on Saturday (she has world cup, world championship and Olympic wins in the team sprint, a two-person race).
Peaking at the right time, Diggins heads to the Seefeld as a favorite to add to her collection of four world championship medals. At the 2017 worlds, Diggins claimed a silver in the freestyle sprint and bronze with Sadie Bjornsen in the classic team sprint. She also won a world championship gold medal in the team sprint (2013) and silver in the 10-kilometer freestyle in 2015 (this year, the 10K is a classic event).
Diggins, Caldwell and their teammates could win medals in several events at the 2019 world championships — with Caldwell, Diggins and Bjornsen likely competing in the freestyle sprint and two of them in the classic team sprint. Diggins and Bjornsen could also factor in the distance events. Diggins was close to a podium finish in the Olympic skiathlon, 10K and 30K races last winter.
And the U.S. women hope to move up from three consecutive fourth-place finishes in the world championship 4x5K.
“Everyone seems good, healthy and injury free,” reported Caldwell. “So I think we’re in a good place.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. Her book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” was published in February 2018.