The Nordic Speed Demons

By Peggy Shinn and Lisa Lynn

It’s no secret that Vermont is a training ground for the U.S. Ski Team. In fact, more than 20 percent of the alpine ski racers on the team trained in this state. But what is more remarkable is the depth Vermont has brought to the U.S. Nordic women’s team.

In 2016, three Vermonters—Sophie Caldwell, Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent—helped the U.S. team ski to one of its best seasons in history.

In June, 2015, Sophie Caldwell, a 26-year-old Nordic ski racer from Peru, Vt., wrote down a goal and then posted a picture of herself holding that goal on Facebook. It read: “Be on the World Cup podium.”

Mission accomplished.

On January 5, 2016, in Oberstdorf, Germany, Caldwell claimed her first World Cup win. The race was the fourth stage of the Tour de Ski, but each stage is considered its own World Cup race. “I really surprised myself,” she said, explaining that her forte is freestyle (skate) sprints, not classic (traditional kick-and-glide). “But I’m thrilled.”

A few weeks later, Caldwell and Montpelier’s Liz Stephen helped their team (which included Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen) ski to a second place in the 4×5 kilometer relay in Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic—the first relay win ever for an American team. Then, this past November, in her second World Cup event of the  2016/17 season, Caldwell placed 11th in the Davos World Cup sprint.

One person who is not surprised at Caldwell’s performances is her father, Sverre, the Nordic program director at the Stratton Mountain School.

“She has been skiing really well so [a podium finish] seemed likely, but a win was more than expected,” he wrote in an email after watching his daughter’s win the sprint in Germany last winter.

“You could see that she was gaining confidence with each race,” he continued, “and it all came together for this one.”

A big part of the sprint win was the teamwork and training the women’s Nordic team has put in. Right alongside Caldwell, are Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent, forming a dream team of Green Mountain athletes.

Stephen, 30, who lives in East Montpelier, started off as an alpine racer at Burke Mountain Academy. But she quickly figured out that she could be as competitive going uphill as down. A strong runner as well, at 15, Stephen switched to Nordic an is now one of the world’s best climbers.

In 2016, she posted the second-fastest climb in Italy’s brutal 9 km Alpe Cermis, on the final stage of the Tour de Ski. The year prior, she posted the best finish of any American in the Tour de Ski,  fifth place overall.

Liz Stephen in the 2016 World Cup pusuit in Quebec Photo © Reese Brown
Liz Stephen in the 2016 World Cup pusuit in Quebec. Photo © Reese Brown

That year, 2015, was a big year for Stephen. After finishing 12th at the 2014 Olympics and spending 11 years on the U.S. Ski Team, Stephen had considered retiring. Instead, she began working with a sports psychologist. She learned to set very specific goals for each race and then visualize  how she would accomplish them.

It paid off. In 2015 she was named female Skier of the Year by the Nordic website, FasterSkier.

This past year, that paid off. In the Nove Mesto relay it was Stephen, the third of the four U.S. team members, who pulled ahead from the pack, allowing final racer Jessie Diggins to ski to a second place finish—the best ever for the U.S. team.

Rounding out the trio is Ida Sargent. Growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, the Orleans native learned to ski at age 2. She too went to Burke Mountain Academy and then Dartmouth and has been a regular fixture at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. After making the World Championship team in 2011 and 2013, she went to the Olympics in 2014.

Sargent’s individual finishes ranked her 23rd in the overall World Cup standing for 2015/16 but she helped her team ski to a fifth place in the team sprint in Planica, Slovakia.

This season, she’s come back even stronger, starting out by winning the FIS Australia New Zealand Cup in New Zealand this past September.

Look for the three women to help the U.S. team continue to move up in the rankings this 2016/17 season.

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