Nordic Skiing: 4 Women To Watch

Vermont has a legacy of top cross-country skiers that dates back to John Caldwell (who literally wrote the book on the sport,) and includes Olympic legend Bill Koch. Now, a new posse of top skiers is making Vermont their first (or second) home. By Peggy Shinn

Sophie Caldwell, Peru, Vt

The daughter of Olympian Sverre and Lilly Caldwell—and granddaughter of  Olympian John Caldwell, Sophie Caldwell grew up on the trails at Wild Wings, near her home in Peru. Sverre, who has coached at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) since 1980 (and is now Nordic director), never pushed Sophie to race. Instead, she played games with her siblings and friends, like pretending they were trolls hiding under bridges at Wild Wings.

When she was 14, Caldwell went to Sweden. It was a fun spring trip to give the SMS kids a taste of international competition. Sverre joked that if Sophie won, he would buy her a car. Not only did she win, she beat Swedish darling Charlotte Kalla.

Caldwell attended Dartmouth, where senior year she finished second at the NCAA championships, part of a UVM-Dartmouth sweep of the top six places. She had been thinking about teaching after graduation but decided to see how far skiing would take her, instead. She joined Olympians Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell on Stratton Mountain School’s new Elite Team.

In her World Cup debut in December 2012—a freestyle sprint on the streets of Quebec City—Caldwell finished an eye-opening 14th. Fourteen months later, she made the finals in the freestyle sprint at the Sochi Olympics and—as Sverre, Lilly, and their neighbor, Bill Koch, watched on TV from their home in Vermont—Caldwell finished sixth, the best yet by a female American cross-country skier. Two weeks later, she took third in a World Cup sprint, and in January 2016, she won her first World Cup sprint. She won another World Cup in February 2017—on the PyeongChang course.

This season, Caldwell, 27, has made it to the semifinals in all three World Cup sprints and will look to hone her fitness in January to make the final jump into the finals.

Ida Sargent, Orleans, Vt

Ida Sargent grew up near the Orleans/Barton town line and began skiing at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center when she was young. She always tried to keep up with her two older siblings, so they dubbed her “Little Me Too.” Sargent was soon racing up (in the next age category), beating her older sister, and  had her eye on the Olympics.

She wanted to attend Burke Mountain Academy  because of the strong program that Matt Whitcomb created. Sargent then followed her siblings to Dartmouth and began making a name for herself internationally. In 2010, she finished fourth in the sprint at U23 world championships. She joined the Craftsbury Green Racing project—also home to 2018 Olympic biathlete Susan Dunklee—and was soon racing World Cups.

In the past year, Sargent, 27,  has jumped another level, earning her first World Cup podium finishes in the PyeongChang test event last February. This season, she qualified for the sprint finals once (finishing sixth in Davos in December behind Randall, in third, and Diggins in fourth). And at the Alpen Cup in mid-December, in addition to finishing third behind Caldwell in the sprint, she finished third in the 5km classic race.

Strong classic skiers, Caldwell and Sargent will likely race in the sprint in PyeongChang (in the classic discipline at this Olympics), maybe the team sprint, and they could possibly make the 4×5 km relay as one of the two classic skiers.

Liz Stephen, Montpelier, Vt

Liz Stephen was also one of Matt Whitcomb’s young protegés at Burke. She grew up in East Montpelier—where her dad was an attorney and her mom a physical therapist—and she ran for U32 High School. She also loved alpine skiing, and her family would drive an hour to Burke every winter weekend. When she was 14, she enrolled at Burke Mountain Academy. But by her sophomore year, she no longer enjoyed alpine racing. She was about to quit when Burke headmaster Kirk Dwyer convinced her to try cross-country skiing.

Coach Matt Whitcomb drove to one of Liz’s running meets in Williston to convince her as well. Within a couple of years, she was a national cross-country ski champion (2006). She made her World Cup debut a year later, and in 2008, finished third in the 15 km freestyle at U23 world championships.

An anchor of the women’s team—both physically and emotionally—Stephen, now 30, has finished consistently in the top 10 of World Cup races since 2013, including fifth overall in the 2015 Tour de Ski and second in the final stage—a grueling uphill climb—that year. In January 2015, she earned her first World Cup podium—second place in a 10 km freestyle race in Rybinsk, Russia. Like Diggins, she has competed in every relay for the past six years.

A strong distance freestyle skier, Stephen will likely compete in the 10 km free in PyeongChang, as well as the relay.

Jessie Diggins, SMS Elite Teamcaldwell-and-diggins

Diggins, originally from Minnesota, is also on the Stratton Mountain School Elite Team and recently bought a home in Vermont. She burst onto the World Cup scene when she was 19, fresh out of high school. In her third World Cup start in January 2012, she finished second. Since then, the 26-year-old phenom has racked up 14 World Cup podium finishes, including four wins, and four world championship medals. Diggins can sink deep into the pain cave and has been key in anchoring the U.S. women to four podiums in the relay.

One of the best all-around skiers in the world, Diggins will likely compete in at least four races in PyeongChang, including the skiathlon, 10 km freestyle (she won  silver in the 10 km free at the 2015 world championships), and the relay—again as the anchor.

Top photo: Ida Sargent, Liz Stephens and Sophie Caldwell. Photo by Reese Brown/USSA