In a winter when most Americans could use a good news story to lift their patriotic spirits, we find one unfolding — albeit 4,000 miles from here — in snow-covered places like Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Finland. That’s where the women’s U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, led by the standout performances from its top racers Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan, is opening new ground in a sport long dominated by European nations.
Since the first Winter Games in 1924, the United States has just two Olympic medals in cross-country skiing: Brattleboro, Vt.’s Bill Koch won a silver in the 1976 Olympics, and 42 years later the women’s team eked out a gold in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. (For comparison, Norway has 121 Olympic medals in Nordic ski racing. Russian and Soviet skiers have 109. Sweden and Finland, 80 apiece. With its two medals, the U.S. is tied with Slovenia; only Bulgaria has fewer, one.)
While this year isn’t a Winter Olympics year, the U.S. women are leveling up on the World Cup circuit, the slate of cross-country ski races held mostly in Europe from November to March, with unprecedented individual and team performances that suggest they’re in contention to medal at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
We find the U.S. women second (behind Russia) in World Cup standings this winter, and we find Diggins and Brennan ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in individual World Cup standings. Historically, this just doesn’t happen for American cross-country skiers. But Diggins and Brennan have been on fire, winning races or coming close and making history in the process. For example, in the 10-kilometer World Cup race in Val Mustair, Switzerland, the pair finished first and second — a first for U.S. skiers that had other nations’ jaws melting the snow. If this was football, Diggins and Brennan would be packing their bags for Tampa Bay. (For the record, cross-country skiing’s equivalent Super Bowl takes place in March in China and the U.S. team is going.)
Across the United States, Diggins and Brennan aren’t household names. Neither are their teammates’, like Sophie Caldwell-Hamilton, Hailey Swirbul and Julia Kern. Or their coach, Matt Whitcomb. But in southern Vermont and Massachusetts, which enjoy a proud but low-key reputation in turning out competitive cross-country skiers at the international level, many of these folks associated with this women’s team are our neighbors.
Diggins, 29, spent her formative skiing years studying and training at Stratton Mountain School, the powerhouse boarding school in Stratton, Vt., favored by aspiring winter sports athletes. So did Caldwell-Hamilton, 30, the southern Vermont native who grew up and still lives in Peru, Vt. Kern, 23, hails from just outside Boston, where she grew up skiing on a man-made snow loop just outside the city.
And Whitcomb, who coached the women’s team for several years prior to his promotion to the overall head coach of the U.S. Ski Team last summer, grew up in Worthington, Mass. and skied competitively for Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, Mass.
Indeed, the pandemic has put an asterisk on the season. Some powerhouse teams, Norway in particular, sat out a few World Cup meets, and that may or may not have opened opportunities for all other competitors.
Nevertheless, the U.S. women are putting forth inspired performances that will likely inspire young athletes and fuel interest in the sport. At their levels, these professional skiers and coaches work as tirelessly as the Tom Bradys and Bill Belichicks of the world — without the glory, the salaries or unlimited funding that come with more-popular professional sports.
These skiers also know why it’s important to inspire youths who love to ski. That Caldwell-Hamilton came home to Vermont during a recent break from World Cup competition and led a clinic for her old youth ski league speaks to a generous caring for the future of the sport, both as a competitive endeavor and as an enjoyable recreational activity.
The world of international cross-country ski racing is foreign to a good many Americans who prefer their sports be played on fields, with spheres, in games that require an offense and a defense. And it’s unfortunate that the World Cup races aren’t being televised in the United States this year. (Norwegian and Swedish broadcasts can be found on YouTube.)
But Americans like to rally around whatever it is we’re winning. So, psst! Here’s an inspirational, good news story, America: The women’s U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team.