Sophie Caldwell: What Makes a Champ

Courtney Harkins
2016-07-26 10:27

From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World.

As we continue to explore what makes USSA athletes champions, we’re learning more than we ever expected. To be a champion is holistic – it goes beyond the medals and the titles. It’s someone with great character and an undying belief in themselves; it’s someone who loves their sport with an unmatched passion. We are honored to share these stories with you. In this installation, U.S. Ski Team Content Manager Courtney Harkins sits down with Sophie Caldwell to discuss #WhatMakesAChamp.

Caldwell smiles with cows at her home in Vermont. (Sophie Caldwell)

Caldwell is a name synonymous with cross country skiing. And while 26-year-old Sophie Caldwell often gets grouped into her family that consists of Olympians, world-class coaches and World Cup champions, fans are starting to get to know the strong, smart and level-headed Sophie. Her quiet, determined attitude is evident in every part of her life—from attending an Ivy League college to winning her first World Cup this season in Oberstdorf. But what she really cares about is her team and she credits that team mentality to all that she is today. Read on to learn about the elite skier who poses a real medal threat in the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics.

“I come from a big cross country skiing family,” Caldwell said modestly about her famous pedigree. “I learned how to ski at about the same time I learned how to walk.” But she didn’t grow up in a pressure-filled environment. Instead, she was encouraged to have fun with the sport, not just race. “I think they wanted me to have the opportunity to fall in love with the sport like they had, whether that meant recreationally or racing.”

That attitude stuck with her throughout childhood and adolescence. She started playing soccer as a kid and continued when she began attending Stratton Mountain School in seventh grade. It wasn’t until about halfway through high school that she decided cross country was the sport she would focus on. “I wanted to be the next Mia Hamm and would read her biography every night before bed,” Caldwell laughed. “When I was quite a bit younger, I also gave gymnastics and ballet a go, but I think I preferred sports that were outdoors.”

Caldwell participates in a Fast and Female event. (SIA-Reese Brown)

The life of a cross country skier looks a little different than that of a typical elite skiing and snowboarding athlete. Many nordic sport athletes come to the sport later in life and attend college before pursuing it professionally. Caldwell chose Dartmouth as her path to the World Cup. “I truly believe that the decision to ski in college or not is totally dependent on each individual’s needs,” said Caldwell. “I enjoyed the challenge of balancing school, skiing and a social life, and I think when I graduated college, I was finally in a place where I was ready to pursue skiing full time. It was important for me to experience it all and recognize that life is bigger than skiing.”

It was a perfect path for Caldwell. She graduated Dartmouth in 2012 and kicked off her World Cup career that season, snagging a few top 15s. The next season, she was sneaking into the top 10 before stepping on her first podium in 2014. Last season, she took home her first ever World Cup win in the Tour de Ski.

Caldwell realizes that she took her first World Cup win. (Getty Images-Alexander Hassenstein)

So who influenced her successful career as a World Cup cross country skier? Caldwell credits many of the groundbreakers in the sport, such as her childhood neighbor and good family friend Bill Koch. But she also credits her teammates Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall. “Andy has been skiing for a long time and has always been someone I looked up to as a sprinter,” said Randall. “And Kikkan—I can’t say enough about what she’s done for women’s skiing.”

But it’s not only the standard cross country heroes that influence Caldwell. There have been myriad articles written and conversations held about the camaraderie of the current U.S. Cross Country Ski Team. In every quote throughout the successful 2015-16 season, each teammate seemed to thank each other, their coaches and their techs. Caldwell addressed it in her signature good-head-on-her-shoulders way. “I truly believe I have the best teammates in the world, but it’s not easy,” said Caldwell. “It’s something we’re constantly working at because we know if we’re going to be the best in the world, we need to be the best in the world together.”

At the 2014 Lahti World Cup, Caldwell stood on her first podium in third with Kikkan Randall in first. (Getty Images-Heikki Saukkomaa) 

Head Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb confirmed Sophie’s unequivocal devotion to her team. “Sophie is the type of athlete a lifetime coach will be lucky to come across even a handful of times,” said Whitcomb. “She puts her teammates before herself, and it happens naturally. A lot of people have to work very hard to be a good teammate, but it's not a stretch for Sophie. She welcomes the success of her female teammates rather than feeling threatened by it, and in this way is a role model not just for young kids, but for professional athletes as well.”

While Caldwell is expected to have more great results this season and has potential to medal in the 2018 Olympics, her success hasn’t changed her personality. She’s still the same girl that loved bouncing between sports and remaining well-rounded. “I think the biggest battle for skiers is finding the right balance in life that makes us happy, while also making us the best skier we can be,” said Caldwell. “I know I’m usually skiing the fastest when I’m happiest.”

Caldwell goofs off with her boyfriend and fellow U.S. Ski Team member Simi Hamilton. (Sophie Caldwell)

With that adage in mind, we sat down with Caldwell to discuss our three questions on what makes her a champion.

U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion?
SOPHIE CALDWELL: I think the term champion is often directly correlated with success and getting that number one on a results sheet, but in my eyes, what makes a champion is how someone handles success, not the actual success itself. Success should be celebrated, but I've always really admired humility in a champion. A true champion aims to lift others up with them rather than distinguish themselves as better. 

U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion?
SC: The first time I ever felt like a champion on the World Cup was when I got my first World Cup podium in Lahti, Finland in 2014. Kikkan was first and I was third and it was the first time two U.S. women had ever been on the podium together. We came back to the hotel to our entire team grinning ear to ear and we each popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate with the team. Kikkan grabbed the cork from the bottle of champagne I had popped and wrote "Sophie's first WC podium" on it. That cork still sits on the shelf in my bedroom and probably always will. 

U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today?
SC: I think the most important advice I've ever received came from my dad, who always reminds me that I ski the fastest when I'm having fun. When I got to Sochi, he sent me an email saying exactly that, and it reminded me to soak in the experience and enjoy it, rather than just getting nervous for my races. I ski the fastest when I'm feeling good, enjoying the process of ski racing instead of just the result, and having fun with my teammates. I would advise aspiring kids to find something that they're passionate about rather than something they're just good at because I think we can find greater success in the things we love. 


Follow Sophie through her training and racing on her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and tell us what makes YOU a champion using the hashtag #whatmakesachamp.



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