Sophie Caldwell Hamilton competes at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on Feb. 25, 2021 in Oberstdorf, Germany.
After nine years as a professional ski racer, the time has come to say goodbye. I’m not saying goodbye to the sport, because I’m confident I will be a skier for life, but my days of donning a race bib are over.
I fell in love with cross country skiing and sports in general at a very young age. I came from a family of skiers, so I was put on skis at about the same time I learned to walk. To say it’s shaped my life for the better would be an understatement. Growing up skiing was mostly a social activity, but I enjoyed competing too and ended up focusing on ski racing in high school and then racing NCAA for four years at Dartmouth.
My senior year at Dartmouth, I waffled back and forth about whether I wanted to pursue skiing professionally. Ultimately, I decided to give it a go, figuring I had one chance to give it a shot and the rest of my life to do the rest of my life. I’m glad I did!
I was able to race my first World Cups the year after college and was named to the U.S. Ski Team that spring. I’ve spent the last eight years racing on the World Cup, competing at two Olympic Winter Games and watching our women’s team grow from being one fearless and successful leader (Kikkan Randall) and a bunch of girls who idolized her to a skiing powerhouse where four or five different women had a shot at the podium on any given weekend.
When I think about the last nine years, it’s impossible to fit all the memories on a page, but I do know that I want to say thank you. Thank you to my family, my coaches, my teammates, my partners, and my friends.
I remember attending my first Olympic Winter Games in 2014 and thinking “it can’t get better than this.” Those were some of the most fun weeks of my life. I also ended up having my best result to that point, placing 6th in the sprint - the best finish by an American woman at the Olympic Games to that point.
I remember my dad writing me an email the night before the sprint saying, “Remember, you ski the fastest when you’re having fun :).” That result was due to the fact that I was enjoying every moment of that experience. My first World Cup podium came a few weeks later: Kikkan won the race and I was third. I remember thinking that I literally couldn’t write a better fairytale than sharing my first podium with my idol.
When I won my first World Cup a couple years later, I spent the next 24 hours not being able to believe what had just happened and feeling overwhelmed (in a good way) by the amount of support I was receiving from my teammates and everyone back home.
Yet when I reflect back on my ski career, it’s not the races I will remember (though some are certainly fun to think about). It’s the connections I’ve made with people through this sport that will always be my favorite memories. I’m a firm believer that a result is made special because of the people you share it with, and I’ve had an incredible support team who has ridden through the highs and lows of life with me.
The teammates I’ve had looked me in the eye and told me they were proud to be my teammate when I won my first World Cup and looked me in the eye and told me they were proud to be my teammate when I imploded on the first leg of the relay at the Olympics. My coach stood next to me on the best day of my life and sat with me on the hardest day of my life, neither of which had anything to do with skiing. The feeling of going into the wax truck after a special result and having the techs erupt in cheers, sharing the giddiness of your first Olympics with some of your best friends, and chatting your way through beautiful skis on the days between racing are what makes this life so special.
When I joined the team as one of the young ones, I had leaders and role models who made me feel like I was part of their successes, which allowed me to believe I could find success too. They answered my questions, gave me tips on how to pack my bags for five months, and showed me this team could be my family away from home. We spent Christmas on the road together each year, celebrated every birthday with cake, and held each other up when we were going through hardships and feeling the distance of being 4,000 miles away from home. I’m not sure where the time went, but now I find myself as one of the oldest athletes on the team.
While it’s become more difficult for me to find my own competitive spark, the joy I’ve gotten from being able to overlap with my younger teammates more than makes up for it. I find myself wanting to impart as much “wisdom” as I can on them, but I also know they’re going to forge their own paths that are different from ours, but can hopefully be shaped by ours, like I felt mine was shaped by those who came before me.
I’ve trained with a lot of these young athletes year-round and others I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know on the road. I think the expectations they have of themselves can sometimes be hard, but it’s also really special because when I was a junior, getting a top 30 at World Juniors was a great result; now these kids are winning, which shows how far we’ve come. They’re good kids who are going to do great things, and my hope is that they remember that regardless of results, they can always control what kind of people they want to be.
Living out of your suitcase for five months at a time isn’t always easy and results were often out of my control, but being kind and taking the time to understand people and personalities that are different from my own was in my control. If I could do that, I could be the kind of person I wanted to be regardless of the results I was getting. Being a good teammate requires work, and I was lucky to be part of a team of women who put in that work. As a result, we had a team chemistry that would have been hard to break and results that reflected that.
I’ve had a lot of feelings about moving on from competitive sport, but I’m mostly excited. I’m excited for whatever comes next (with Simi, my husband, by my side). I’m excited to watch my team continue to grow and kick some booty. And I’m excited for these connections to continue into life after skiing. So one more huge thank you to my people. Damn, that was a good time!