The Athletes of the Year

BY LISA LYNN AND ABAGAEL GILES

Who made the news—or made history—in 2018? Here’s a look back at the outstanding performances and contributions to sports athletes from around the state made this past year.

NORDIC’S GOLDEN GIRL: JESSIE DIGGINS

“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” For anyone who watched the women’s cross-country team sprint at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, those words are forever etched in our brains.  “Yes! Yes! Yes!” screamed NBC analyst Chad Salmela, a Middlebury College graduate, into his mic as Jessie Diggins, with teammate Kikkan Randall, secured the U.S. team’s first ever Olympic gold medal in cross country skiing.  

It was the highlight of Diggins’ career in a season that was exceptional. Beyond her gold-medal performance, Diggins had best-ever finishes in every Olympic race, taking fifth in the skiathlon and 10-kilometer freestyle races, sixth in the classic sprint, seventh in the 30k free, and she anchored the 4 x 5km relay to finish fifth. (Until the 2018 Olympics, the best finish for the American women had been Sophie Caldwell’s sixth place in the freestyle sprint at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games).

In 23 World Cup races last season, Diggins finished in the top 10 twenty times, putting her in second place overall, just 40 points shy of claiming the overall crystal globe trophy (Heidi Weng of Norway won).

So why is Diggins, who hails from Afton, Minnesota, one of Vermont’s Athletes of the Year? Because for the last six years, the 27-year-old has trained in the Green Mountains and owns a condo in Stratton. 

Diggins moved to Vermont in the summer of 2012. She had just finished a successful first season on the World Cup tour, taking second in what was only her third World Cup race (a team sprint with Kikkan Randall) and regularly earning points.

In spring 2012, she learned that her two coaches on the CXC Elite team, Jason Cork and Gus Kaeding, were leaving—Cork to the U.S. men’s team and Kaeding to his alma mater, Stratton Mountain School in Vermont. Sverre Caldwell, SMS’s Nordic director, was about to launch the SMS T2 team, a post-graduate team of elite skiers with their eye on World Cup competition. Caldwell’s daughter, Sophie, was on the team, along with World Cup sprinters Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton. Kaeding would be their coach. To Diggins, 21 at the time, it looked like a good fit.

“Most kids go off to college, so this was sort of my version of, OK, I want to try something new,” said Diggins.

Still young, Diggins knew it was important to stick with a coach whose style of training worked for her. “That was a really big important thing to have that trust already there,” she said, “to not start over with someone new.”

She also liked her new teammates. “I was like ‘Wow, this is awesome, their strengths and my strengths are very different things, which is what you need in order for everyone to raise the level,’” she explained. “For example, if you get a ton of people who are all really good at classic distance, you don’t improve in freestyle sprinting. So, it’s really cool that we all brought something new to the table.”

The change of scene worked well for Diggins. After her first season training with the SMS T2 team, she became a world champion, along with Randall, on the team sprint.

Diggins has come to love her adopted home. Outside of race season, she spends about five months a year in Vermont—minus travel for training camps and for sponsor obligations.  One of her favorite workouts is level 3 ski-walking up Stratton with the younger skiers on the SMS team. “It’s really fun to have that much uphill,” she said. “You go up, and yes, we do have to jog down, but just having that much hill is really fun. It’s a beautiful view at the top, it’s a very rewarding workout. Then you see all these people from the area hiking, which is also very cool. There are so many people enjoying being outside.”

Diggins can also be found roller-skiing and running along the quiet paved roads around Stratton. One summer Diggins mapped out a marathon-length route on the Appalachian Trail. The route crossed four 3,000-plus-foot peaks and took 6 hours, 45 minutes—and ended up being closer to 30 miles. “To be able to run up and over mountains, it was such an empowering feeling,” she said.

And during the summer leading up to the 2018 Olympic Games, she roller-skied 100 kilometers—“because if you can ski for six-and-a-half hours straight, you can do anything,” she said. —Peggy Shinn

BUILDING THE CROSS-COUNTRY LEGACY: SOPHIE CALDWELL

It’s hard to single out any two members of a team that, as a whole, has been rocketing upward in the rankings. But along with Jessie Diggins, this past year, Vermont native Sophie Caldwell sprinted her way to multiple World Cup podiums.

A scion of Putney’s legendary family of Olympians (her grandfather, John Caldwell literally wrote the book on cross-country skiing; her father, Sverre Caldwell, runs the SMS T2 team, and her cousin, Patrick is also on the U.S. Team) Sophie had a year that started off with two World Cup bronze medals in the sprint finals and team sprint finals in Dresden, Germany on January 13 and ended with World Cup silver in the sprint finals in Davos, Switzerland on December 15.

Peru’s Sophie Caldwell sprints to a silver at the Davos World Cup in December, 15, 2018. Photo by Reese Brown

And in between, Caldwell, 28, earned a World Cup gold in Seefield, Austria last January 28 and finished second in the SuperTour sprint at Craftsbury Outdoor Center last March. She was part of the team that placed fifth in the 4×5 relay at the PyeongChang Olympics and eighth in the sprint finals, just two places behind Jessie Diggins.

Caldwell earned enough World Cup points to finish third overall in the sprint standings—only the second American to finish in the top three at the end of the sprint season (the other, Kikkan Randall, has done so four times.)

Going into her Davos races this past December, Caldwell was nursing a cold. After winning her silver medal, she felt differently. As she wrote in her blog: “As my teammates and sports psych and coaches reminded me, hard work doesn’t just disappear in a week or two weeks and things can turn around really quickly.  Often, all it takes is one bad race, or a cold, or a fall to lose your confidence. It’s important to remember that, conversely, all it takes is one good race or one good feeling or one good corner to gain your confidence back.” —Lisa Lynn

FREESKIING PHENOMS: MAC FOREHAND AND CAROLINE CLAIRE

On November 23, as a crowd of 40,000 gathered to cheer on Mikaela Shiffrin at the World Cup races in Killington, another Vermonter stood on the World Cup podium in Stubai, Austria. Winhall’s Mac Forehand, 17, opened his second run at the slopestyle event with a switch left double cork 1260 mute. In plain English: he started down a steep slope backwards, hit a huge jump, twisted 1260 degrees, grabbed his skis and landed. From there, it was more jumps, flawless landings, rails, air and more landings—all good enough to earn him a silver.

Claire on her way to winning World Cup bronze at the 2018 Toyota Freeskiing Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, Calif. Top photo courtesy Jesse Mallis, below Sarah Brunson/USSA

His previous best finish at the World Cup level had been an eighth, in big air, and in August, he won the Junior World Championships in Cadrona, New Zealand. In 2018, Mac was the FIS NorAm Cup Overall Champion, USASA Men’s Open Class Slopestyle Champion and the Junior National Champion in both Slopestyle and Big Air. And in December, he was one of three skiers to lead the Faction Skis team to a silver in the team event at the Dew Tour.
“Mac is really in his element now,” said coach Jesse Mallis, who has been working with Forehand since he was 13. Forehand, a former weekend skier from Southport, Conn., moved to Vermont with his family to train and attend Stratton Mountain School.

Now 17, he’s made the U.S. Ski Team’s Rookie Freeski and Slopestyle team and is poised to become one of the team’s anchors in skiing big air, an event that will be part of the 2022 Olympics. Last March, Forehand placed eighth in the World Cup in Quebec and has been putting in wins or strong finishes in Nor/Am Cups in big air.

Above, the Stratton Mountain School dream team: Mac Forehand, coach Jesse Mallis and Caroline Claire.

 

Forehand’s former teammate at Stratton Mountain School, Caroline Claire has also had a stand-out season. Claire, who lives in Manchester, Vt., has been on skis since she could walk and at 18 (she turns 19 in February), is in her third year on the U.S. Ski team. Claire, who trains at Mount Snow, took the bronze in slopestyle at the World Cup in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., last January, beating one of her idols, Devin Logan (who finished ninth). 

After that, Claire was invited to join the Olympic team. In PyeongChang, she finished 23rd in slopestyle but came back to the World Cup to win gold in slopestyle at Seiseralm, Italy in March.

Both Claire and Forehand have been working with coach Jesse Mallis and training at Mount Snow’s Carinthia parks. It seems to have paid off. —L.L.

A PIONEER IN NORDIC COMBINED: TARA GERAGHTY-MOATS

This last year was a year of frustrations for Tara Geraghty-Moats, but a year that paid out big in recent weeks. In September 2017, the ski jumper from West Fairlee, Vt., fractured her elbow, an injury that led to three surgeries, the most recent in March, 2018.  It also sidelined her during an Olympic training season. She finished fifth in the Olympic Trials but after fourth-place finisher Nina Lussi, tore her ACL, it looked like Geraghty-Moats might make the Olympic team. However, when it came time to choose the squadron headed to PyeongChang, the U.S. Ski Team chose to take only three female ski jumpers. Geraghty-Moats was left home.

But that did not stop her from training or looking ahead. You see, the sport Geraghty-Moats really wants to pursue is Nordic combined and the light at the end of the tunnel was the hope that the International Olympic Committee would finally include a women’s Nordic combined event in the 2022 Games. 

West Fairlee’s Tara Geraghty-Moats is leading the new women’s Nordic combined events. Courtesy photo

Nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing) is a sport Geraghty-Moats seems made for. Growing up in West Fairlee, Vt. She started competing in Nordic races at age eight and ski jumping at age nine. By age 15, she was a multi-time medalist in the junior cross-country nationals and was jumping well enough to be named to the USSA Visa Development Team. At 16, after tearing her ACL, she gave up jumping and became a biathlete but soon was back among the top five ski jumpers in the U.S.

An all-around athlete, Geraghty-Moats has maintained her cross-country skills even as she’s been traveling the globe competing on the World Cup ski jumping circuit.

However, in July, when the International Olympic Committee announced the addition of seven new events for the 2022 Olympics, a women’s Nordic combined event was not on the list. It is the only winter sport that does not have a competition for both men and women. Geraghty-Moats, though disappointed, channeled her energy into competing in the sport’s first season with sanctioned Federation International du Ski (FIS) events and is looking forward to a 2019/2020 World Cup season for Nordic combined.

And how’s that going for her? On August 19, 2018, racing on roller skis, Geraghty-Moats tied for first in the inaugural FIS Ladies Nordic Combined Summer Grand Prix in Oberwiesenthal, Germany, which drew 11 competitors from six countries. It was an historic event in that it marked the first time that women have been able to compete at the international level. In December, Geraghty-Moats won the first women’s Nordic combined event on U.S. turf, a Continental Cup in Steamboat Springs, handily beating Gyda Westvold Hansen of Norway and Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova, with whom she had previously tied.  So far, she’s at the top in world standings. —L.L.

DUAL DOWNHILL DEMON: MAZIE HAYDEN

“I knew I wanted to go somewhere where I could bike and ski,” says Mazie Hayden of how she chose the University of Vermont after completing high school at the Killington Mountain School. It didn’t hurt that the college has a mountain bike team and is not far from her home in Pittsfield. For Hayden, helping her UVM Club team win the Collegiate Nationals, was “Just fun—really different from racing World Cup.”

And that’s where Hayden has spent most of her time this year, racing at the world-class level on both skis and on bikes. On August 27, 2018, Hayden finished second in ski cross—the sport where multiple skiers race down a course of banked turns and jumps—in the FIS World Junior Ski Championships in New Zealand. Two weeks earlier, she finished third at the UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Cup at Mont St. Anne, Quebec.

Pittsfield’s Mazie Hayden has been going downhill fast, snow or no snow, but this year will focus on mountain biking. Photo courtesy Mount Snow.

Hayden grew up skiing and mountain biking around Killington Mountain Resort, where her father works. She earned her first USASA National Ski Cross Championship title in 2012 when she was 11 and has won every USASA National title since. She’s also competed at the national level in bouldering and sport climbing, and, as a 12-year-old, was sending 5.13 routes at her local climbing gym, Green Mountain Rock Climbing in Rutland.

“My ski legs and bike legs aren’t really great for climbing now,” she admits. But they are good for ski cross, where Hayden has excelled. This summer, she competed as a pro mountain biker. She finished sixth at the Fox U.S. Open at Killington and won her first pro downhill race at the Mountain Creek (N.J.) Pro GRT Spring Nationals where the women’s field was packed with top pros from California, Canada, Colorado and the East Coast. In August, Hayden was one of 17 women from all sports across the country to receive a Travel and Training grant from the Women’s Sports Foundation.

What’s it like to compete in two sports at the international level? Hayden acknowledges it can be a challenge to schedule races and training. But, as she says, “I have so much fun biking and I really enjoy competing in ski cross. There are lots of movements you do for both, like ‘popping.’ And the most important thing is the mental preparation for each race and that carries over for both seasons—and overcoming the fear,” she says, adding, “that said, it’s better to fall on snow.” However, after dislocating her shoulder twice this season and going in for surgery in December, she’s laying off the skiing for now and sticking to what she calls the more “fun” type of racing: downhill mountain biking. —L.L.

BLAZING A TRAIL: MOUNTAIN BIKER KYLE EBBETT

Kyle Ebbett may not be a household name but in mountain biking, he is something of a legend. In a 2013 interview with MTBVT, Ebbett talked about his early years of riding in Cape Cod on BMX bikes and then mountain bikes.  “I was a tech school autobody grad, and thought I was on track for a life of fixing cars. Then my best friend Larry lost his driver’s license, and he got a mountain bike to get around. My dad had a MTB that I borrowed and [used to go] on rides with Larry. Wow! We got hooked quick and that’s all we did. I quit my job at the body shop and got a job at a bike shop.”

From there, Ebbett began racing downhill (with a top finish of fifth in a World Cup downhill in Slovenia) and making dirt jumps in his backyard, adding BMX tricks to his downhill runs. He turned pro in 1998 and while on the downhill circuit, he met downhill mountain bike racer Donna Fletcher, a ski racer from Vermont. He moved to Essex and married her.

In Vermont, Ebbett (a.k.a E-Bot) started to work with fellow trailbuilder Knight Ide. The two built Kingdom Trail’s first groomed downhill run—Knight Slayer—and went on from there. Ebbett has  built trails and parks ranging from the Maple Street Bike Park in Essex, Vt. and Smugglers’ Notch Resort’s trails to world-renowned parks such as the Crankworx in Whistler, British Columbia (at the time, in 2011, the biggest course ever) and Highland Bike Park’s dual slalom. He also built features for the Sea Otter Classic, Red Bull and the Teva Mountain Games.

When he wasn’t riding or building courses, Ebbett was a regular race announcer and starred in the “Chain Reaction” video series.

In 2010, Ebbett suffered a seizure and underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. Twelve weeks later, he was back on his bike, doing his signature back flip. And in 2012, at age 38, Ebbett smoked the field at the Teva Mountain Bike Games in Vail in a dual slalom, on snow.

Over the past year, his seizures came back and on October 15, a windy Monday, Ebbett drowned while out fishing on Lake Iroquois, in Hinesburg. He was wearing a life vest and his boat was found capsized.

In recent years, Ebbett focused on building local parks, such as the new one in Bristol, and on teaching skiing. As Bristol Bike Park coordinator Alison Zimmer told Mountain Flyer writer Berne Broudy: “Kyle took no time in getting the community involved, letting the kids help him ride and be part of building their track. The pump track was an immediate success in bringing the community together and getting more people out riding.”

BEATING THE ODDS: DUATHLETE KAREN NEWMAN                          

In April 2018, Karen Newman of South Burlington, Vt., received a grim diagnosis:

Karen Newman, representing Team USA at the Triathlon World Championships. Photo courtesy Karen Newman

stage four metastatic breast cancer and four tumors in her pelvis. It was the third advanced breast cancer diagnosis she’d received in ten years. None of the other diagnoses had stopped Newman from competing in triathlons and the former age group World Champion decided she would keep training.

What happened next was nothing short of incredible. Newman underwent a radiation therapy so targeted and powerful that her doctors told her it was likely she would never walk again. Having qualified in 2016 for the 2018 World Championships in Triathlon in Denmark in July, she was offered the opportunity to compete instead in Aquathlon (sitting on a bike would have been too risky for her pelvic structure), a swim-run competition. She placed sixth overall and had the fastest 5K time of any competitor for the 55 to 59 age group.

Then, this fall, she was told that there were six more tumors in her pelvis. Newman underwent chemotherapy (again), taking treatment in stride. The 57-year-old mother of three battled through shooting pains in her legs and pelvis and terrible side effects like sores in her mouth and throat to train and compete at the 2018 Aquathlon National Championships in Miami, Fl. On November 10, she swam through alligator-infested waters to take first place in the 55 to 59-year-old category.

“They told us that as long as we all swam as a group, the alligators would be afraid, but I saw one sunning itself on the bank after my swim,” said Newman, who dealt with a horde of jellyfish on her swim at the World Championships in Fyn, Denmark this summer. “After all I’ve been through, I’m not scared of much anymore. I was just grateful to be there.”
Newman is a former age group World Champion in triathlon and has previously been a runner up at the National Championships, but in her 17 years of competing on the national circuit, this was her first outright win at Nationals.

“This had been a big goal of mine. It really became this dream because it had eluded me for so long and I’d come so close. And to do it now, at 57 with ten tumors? It really felt good.”
When Newman found herself on the podium following her race, she experienced something that moved her to tears. “The announcer said, ‘This is Karen Newman. She’s a stage IV metastatic breast cancer survivor and she is our National Champion.’ I felt the girls on either side of me, my competitors, raise my hands. It felt like there was a lot of love,” said Newman.

She’s still battling cancer and Newman says she’s unsure whether she will compete in the World Championships. “I’ve been doing this a long time and…I’d like to give that [opportunity] to someone else and now, having won Nationals, I’ve really achieved my dream. I think I’m ready to try something completely new.”

She’s eyeing snowshoe marathons and biathlon as some prospective new hobbies and will be embarking on a speaking tour this year. On December 21, Newman discovered that the cancer is once again spreading. Her remarks for this story were made prior to her most recent diagnosis, but she continues to fight the disease and has said she is determined to continue her life as an athlete. Look for her on Good Morning America’s “Thriving Thursdays” program in January. —Abagael Giles

MAKING WAVES: SWIMMER VERA RIVARD

In July, Vera Rivard of Derby, Vt., became the youngest person, male or female, to swim the 25 miles from Newport, Vt. To Magog, Q.C. on Lake Memphremagog.

Rivard, then 14, didn’t just finish—she took second place. She was one of just two finishers to battle through choppy waters on the open lake and a grueling 20 MPH headwind to finish in just 16 hours and 24 minutes.

Early in 2018, Rivard became the youngest swimmer ever to participate in Kingdom Swim’s Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival. Rivard (who trains at Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction, Vt.), swam an array of events ranging from the 25m Butterfly to the 50m Freestyle in a lane cut from the ice of Lake Memphremagog. The water was 29 degrees Fahrenheit and her mother, Darcie Rivard, recalled the race organizers skimming newly-formed ice off of the water’s surface as her daughter swam. “It was definitely fun,” said Rivard.

Ninth grader Vera Rivard, shown here in Lake Memphremagog, hopes to swim the English Channel before she graduates from high school. Photo courtesy Vera Rivard

 

Rivard swam her first open water race at the age of 10, when she competed in a one-mile swim as part of Kingdom Swim in July, 2015. Later that summer, Kingdom Games director Phil White and Darcie helped her reach her goal of swimming the 1.5-miles from shore to Bath Tub Rock at Lake Caspian. “A week before the swim, Darcie wrote that [Vera] was thinking about swimming all three miles [to the island and back] and had been training to do so,” says White. “We decided she could swim to the rock and we’d see how she was doing when she arrived. When we all got to the rock, Vera swam up to it, slapped it, turned right around, put her head underwater and was quickly on her way back to the beach. No discussion; just determination.” The then-ten-year-old swam the three-mile route round-trip, through high winds. “Caspian is high in the hills. Winds can rip it. That’s why we call it the little lake that roars,” says White. “Vera took on the wind and waves like a seasoned open water swimmer having the time of her life.”

In 2018, Rivard completed the Winter Swim, Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association’s (NEKOWSA) 10-mile Son of a Swim, NEKOWSA’s In Search of Memphre, Kingdom Swim (a 10K on Lake Willoughby) and an open-ocean swim at Coney Island. Rivard also completed each race in the Northeast Kingdom Swim Week, in which contestants do eight open water swims over nine days. The longest involved swimming the length of Quebec’s Lake Massewippi in an 18-mile day. The same week, Rivard swam the length of Lake Willoughby twice as an out-and-back.

The 14-year-old has her sights set on swimming the English Channel in 2020 when she turns 16. At 21 miles across, it is shorter than the length of Lake Memphremagog but involves rough open-ocean conditions.

Rivard plans to prepare by taking on more open-ocean swims in the coming years. She has been invited to the illustrious 2019 Cork Distance Week in Ireland, a nine-day open-ocean swimming camp that challenges participants to swim through swarms of jellyfish, across inland lakes and even through small rapids on brackish Irish rivers–all through cold water. She is very excited.

“I do it for the adventure of it all,” says Rivard. “I find it relaxing and love the challenge. It’s all about the amount of experience you have and learning to cope with the conditions. There’s a mental process of working through to get to where you want to be.” —A.G.

Featured Photo Caption: Stratton resident Jessie Diggins, digging deep. Photo by Reese Brown

 

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