I don’t know how you feel about vanity plates, but the one on John Caldwell’s Toyota Prius is spot on.
“Yeah, ‘X-C Ski.’ That’s my license plate,” John says. “I shuffle along in cross-country. A little bit. Not much.”
At 89, John’s had knee problems and multiple hip replacements, hence the “shuffling along.”
But that doesn’t stop cross-country ski enthusiasts in the United States from hailing John Caldwell as the “father,” “grandfather,” “godfather,” even “guru” of their sport. After all, he wrote the book on it: 1964’s “The Cross Country Ski Book.” It was the first time anyone had ever written a guide in English.
“It’s out of print now — it went through seven or eight editions. It was a bestseller,” John says. “I guess it sold over 500,000 copies. It’s the only reason I’m not in the poorhouse.”
In 1941, when John was in eighth grade, his family moved from small-town Pennsylvania to small-town Vermont; John’s father had gotten a job as a business manager at the progressive Putney School.
Basketball had been John’s game, but Putney didn’t have a team. It did have a downhill ski team, which John’s dad convinced him to join. And, as John recalls, cross-country wasn’t on his coach’s radar.
“In ’45 — the winter of ’45 or ’46 — we went to the state ski meet. We needed a cross-country skier,” John recalls. “We needed five cross-country skiers, as a matter of fact, so I volunteered and I borrowed my little sister’s wooden skis. They were about as tall as I was — about 5 feet — and I adjusted them to my jumping boots and skied cross-country. That was my first cross-country race.”
John’s team finished second in that state race and got invited to the New England championships.
“And I said, ‘Oh, boy. Well, I’ve gotta train now.’ So I went out one day in the woods on these skis and trained, but I got tired very quickly. And that was my training,” John says. “And then I went in the race in the New England championships, and I think I finished 48th out of 50 or something like that.”
Road To The Olympics
John enrolled at Dartmouth College in 1946. For the first time, he got a real pair of cross-country skis and a bit of instruction.
As a senior, John went to a Nordic combined ski meet, a mix of ski jumping and cross-country. He beat some guys who’d made the Nordic combined world championship team.
“I said, ‘Well, this, this is pretty good. I should try Nordic combined,’ ” John says. “So I tried Nordic combined the next year and made the Olympic team in ’52.”
When I asked John to describe his first Olympic experience, I expected to hear nostalgia in his voice — or spot a tear in his eye. Instead, he laughs.
“It was terrible,” John says with a chuckle. “I’ve done a lot of sports through my life. I have never been so poorly prepared for an event. I was 26th out of 26th.”
“No, you were 22nd,” Zach Caldewell — John’s nephew — interjects. “We just looked it up here. You just got upgraded to 22nd out of 22.”
“I knew I was last,” John says with a laugh. “You had three jumps in the Olympics for Nordic combined. I fell in the first two. The coach came up to me after I’d fallen twice, and he says, ‘No sense your taking the third jump. You can’t run the cross-country unless you stand up once, so why don’t you just quit?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not gonna quit.’ So I came down the inrun in a crouch, I went off in a crouch, and I landed in a crouch, and then I stood up so I could run the cross-country the next day. I wanted to compete.”
John quit racing shortly after the 1952 Winter Olympics. But his feeling of unpreparedness at the Games led him somewhere else.
“It gave me impetus to say, ‘This should never happen to anybody again,’ ” John says.
The Next Generation
So in 1953, John returned to the Putney School as a math teacher and cross-country ski coach. The following year, John and his wife Hester — “Hep,” for short — started having kids. And it wasn’t long before those kids started skiing.
“After they were born and before a year was up, when they started to walk, we had plenty of time to get them on skis before they tried walking and got into bad habits,”
John says. “And they would ski around on the rugs in the living room. We put skis on them, they’d go skiing, they’d say, ‘This is good.’ They liked that.”
One of John’s three sons, Sverre, says he doesn’t remember skiing around the living room. But he does remember what a low-pressure thing it was — even with a high-profile dad.
“You know, we’d ski to school. We’d ski with friends. So it was never about racing; it was just, you’d go out and ski,” Sverre says.
By this time, John wasn’t just coaching students at The Putney School, he was coaching the best skiers in the country, on the U.S. Ski Team. His career advanced quickly. The sport was still young in the U.S. and by now John had gotten some very positive attention from “The Cross Country Ski Book.”
In 1968, John made his Olympic coaching debut at the Winter Games in France. He coached cross-country skiing again at the 1972 Winter Games in Japan. And that was the year another Caldwell made his Olympic debut, as a racer.
Tim Caldwell was John’s eldest son. Tim and his siblings were among John’s students at the Putney School.
Japan would be the first of four Olympic appearances for Tim. He earned what would ultimately be his highest Olympic finish, sixth place, at the 1976 Winter Games in Austria. Another of John Caldwell’s students, Bill Koch, won a silver medal. It was the first and last time an American cross-country skier reached the Olympic podium.
In 1989, John Caldwell retired from coaching. In his 30-plus years running the team at the Putney School, he’d helped launch the careers of many Olympians: his son, Tim, plus Bob Gray, Martha Rockwell, Mike Gallagher and, yes, Koch — the only American cross-country skier to nab a medal at the Winter Olympics.
But the next year, something happened that could very well change that. On March 22, 1990, Sverre Caldwell and his wife, Lilly, welcomed a new baby girl. They named her Sophie.
The Newest Caldwell
“Let’s see. I don’t remember when I first learned how to ski because I think I was way too young to remember,” Sophie, 27, says. “But, according to my parents, I’m pretty sure I simultaneously learned how to walk and was put on skis, probably around the age of 1 or just shy of 1 years old.”
Sophie says she didn’t become serious about racing until much later. In seventh grade, she started cross-country skiing at Stratton Mountain School, a prestigious ski and snowboard academy in Vermont, where her dad, Sverre, was head Nordic coach.
“And it’s funny because I hear horror stories about people who have their parents as their coaches and they hate it, and I can’t really relate to that,” Sophie says. “I loved having my dad as my coach. He did an incredible job of knowing when to be ‘coach’ and when to be ‘dad,’ and ‘dad’ always comes before ‘coach.’ ”
But despite Sophie’s enthusiasm for skiing, her main passion was soccer.
“My idol was Mia Hamm,” Sophie says. “I had her biography next to my bed, and I would read that every night before falling asleep.”
Then came Sophie’s freshman year in high school, when Sverre organized a class trip to a national ski competition in Sweden. On that trip, Sophie had an epiphany.
“The biggest skiers in Sweden and Norway and Finland were the equivalent of football players back home. They were the national celebrities,” Sophie says. “And seeing that skiing really was a big deal in other parts of the world and really ingrained in the culture made me realize that I did want to pursue this in college and potentially beyond.”
Another Round Of Olympic Dreams
In 2012, Sophie graduated from Stratton Mountain School and became the fourth Caldwell to ski for Dartmouth College.
In 2014 in Sochi, Russia, she became the third Caldwell to ski in the Winter Olympics.
Back in the U.S., in a classroom at Stratton Mountain School, Sverre Caldwell, who’s placed more than a dozen Nordic skiers, including Sophie, on Olympic teams, was glued to the TV with his students. A local Vermont news team caught it on camera.
“I try to be a pretty calm person — you know, ‘it’s just another race’ — but my heart was beating,” Sverre tells the camera.
During the women’s sprint final, Sophie started strong. But then her ski tangled with another racer’s pole.
“I ended up falling in the final, but I think I crossed the line with a huge smile on my face because I never expected to see myself in the Olympic finals in Sochi, and there I was,” Sophie says.
Out of six skiers, she finished sixth.
“They touted that. They said, ‘That’s the highest Olympic finish by a female in cross-country skiing,’ ” John says.
But how does John Caldwell feel about his granddaughter’s best-ever U.S. finish?
“Big deal. That’s sort of like saying, ‘Well, that’s the best race you ever ran on blue klister on a cloudy day with a full moon,’ or something,” John says.
“She did better than that,” Sverre says, laughing. “Give her a break!”
But Sophie says she appreciates her grandfather’s frankness. She always has.
“My grandpa is a riot, which I’m sure you’ve found out by now, ” Sophie says with a laugh. “I pretty much get an email from him after every race, and they’re always so funny. I can tell he’s really happy for me when I do well. But, he also has a tendency to say things like they are, so when they haven’t gone well, he doesn’t sugarcoat it.”
Four years and several World Cup wins after the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sophie Caldwell is competing at the 2018 Winter Games. She joins half a dozen of her father’s Stratton Mountain School proteges, including her cousin, and fellow Dartmouth grad, Paddy Caldwell.
“I love the sport. You definitely don’t get the fame and exposure that you might in other sports, but I think it attracts really good people,” Sophie says. “So my family legacy gives me this sense of pride, and I think it’s something that I hope to continue to show future generations.”
This past November, the Caldwell family gathered at the Dartmouth Skiway, a skiing area just north of Dartmouth College, to accept the New England Ski Museum’s Spirit of Skiing Award.
And it’s no surprise. The annual honor goes to an individual, or group, who personifies an axiom coined by New England downhill ski pioneer Otto Schniebs: “Skiing is not just a sport, it is a way of life.”