A golden opportunity for young skiers

Stratton Mountain School's Olympians pay it forward for local athletes

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STRATTON — On February 21, 2018, while most people in the Eastern United States were sleeping, Jessie Diggins was making history — for the U.S. Nordic ski team, and for a little prep school in the mountains of Southern Vermont.

As NBC commentator Chad Salmela yelled "Here comes Diggins!" the Stratton Mountain School Elite T2 team member spent her last bit of energy in the final straightaway of the Nordic skiing women's team sprint event, giving the U.S. its first-ever Nordic gold medal.

That moment, and others like it featuring Stratton Mountain School's top athletes competing and winning in global ski and snowboard competitions, motivates the young athletes who train at Stratton during the summer.

At a recent training session at the Stratton Mountain Resort, recently-retired SMS Nordic coach Sverre Caldwell, along with his daughter, Sophie, who is a two-time Olympian and Simeon "Simi" Hamilton, a T2 team member and a three-time Olympian took time out of their busy schedules to help teach the next generation of winter athletes. On foot, on roller skis, and cross-training across different sports, they're building the skills and endurance required in a physically demanding sport.

Diggins joined the Stratton Mountain School's Elite T2 team in 2012 and is part of a group that since 1972 has sent 46 competitors to the Olympic Games in all sorts of disciplines, including alpine skiing, snowboarding and freeskiing. They've even sent a women's soccer player and a mountain biker to the Games.

Inspiring the next generation

With a gold-medal winning athlete representing your school, it brings in a lot more eyes from the outside. That's the thought behind the summer training sessions: To have athletes not just from SMS, but from around the region, learn from the best.

"It's cool when you get a hint from Sophie or Simi or Jessie, giving you pointers," Sverre Caldwell said. "We had a hike and a cookout [recently] and Jessie brought her gold medal. There were a lot of younger kids, 9 [years old] or under, and all of them wanted to hold the medal and you can see it in their eyes, it's like 'Oh my God, I want one of these.'"

To be one of the top ski schools in the country for 47 years, it takes a guiding force.

"Our mission is skiing for international excellence and local inspiration," Sverre Caldwell said. "I feel very strongly that it helps these top athletes to help the young kids for two reasons. One, they have to think like a coach, figure out how to explain it in a different way. Two, all the young kids look up to them as heroes.

"Cross-country skiing tends to be a lonely sport, and it's really nice knowing there's a community of support, right here in Southern Vermont. We're trying to build the skiing community, Southern Vermont is a great place to cross-country ski."

The summer is the time for racers affiliated with Stratton to train locally.

"Half of our senior team [Elite T2 team] is on the U.S. ski team, five of the 11," Sverre said. "They go to U.S. team camps and we build our schedules around that if they are here, we're all here."

In a non-Olympic year, skiers on the U.S. team are on the World Cup circuit throughout Europe from mid-November to the end of March. They take April off, then have another U.S. ski team camp in Oregon at the end of May. After that, the next official camp is at the end of August.

"So for those six or seven weeks, we have the whole team here," Sverre Caldwell said. "We know they'll be gone in August and two weeks in October before they go [to Europe] in November. In the summer and early fall, Stratton is the home base and they've all agreed to come here and train."

As Stratton hosts a pair of camps for kids from fifth to 12th grade, they are training using a myriad of techniques, including running, bounding with poles, dryland simulation and balance, roller skiing, hiking, strength and agility training.

Count the rings

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Along with Diggins, Stratton Mountain School boasts five other Olympic medals — two of them in snowboarding, as current SMS snowboarding coach Ross Powers won a bronze in 1998 at Nagano and a gold at Salt Lake City in 2002 in the halfpipe. Kristen Luckenbill won women's soccer gold in 2004 in Athens, Lindsay Jacobellis took silver in the snowboardcross in 2006 at Turin and Alex Deibold, a Manchester native, won bronze in the snowboardcross event in 2014 at Sochi.

In fact, for nearly a quarter-century, SMS has had at least one Junior National Champion and at least one member of the US Junior World Championship Team per year.

Despite the prestige that Stratton Mountain School holds on the winter sports stage, Sophie Caldwell, who has been a member of the Elite team since its formation in 2012, thinks Stratton is still a little bit of a hidden gem.

"It's funny, because we have a pretty big number of Olympians and it's a hot spot for Nordic skiing, with all these up-and-coming juniors, but I do think that not many people are aware of it," Sophie Caldwell said. "On one hand, it's kind of nice because we can just do our own thing, but on the other hand, we want to draw attention and people to the sport because we think it's an awesome sport that attracts great people. Training here is ideal, we have the Appalachian Trail going right through our backyard, the roller skiing in Southern Vermont is amazing, we have access to the gym here, it's the perfect setup for training for us."

Hamilton said the closeness of the SMS community makes it a terrific place to train during the summer.

"We spend so much time with the kids," said Hamilton, who joined the T2 team in 2013. "The ski community is small in general, but it's a cool part of the country right here. They look up to you as a big brother or sister. It's nice to be able to hang out and watch the kids be kids and having fun with the sport. That's how we grew up in our respective states, having fun with our friends on skis."

The 32-year-old Hamilton has been skiing on the World Cup circuit for the past decade. He grew up in Colorado, competing in both alpine and Nordic skiing, but went to college at Middlebury and was a three-time All-American.

Most — if not all — of SMS' Nordic Olympians were taught, coached or trained by Caldwell, the son of U.S. Winter Olympian and U.S. Nordic Ski Team coach John Caldwell of Putney. This summer, Sverre Caldwell was honored by the New England Nordic Ski Association with an award named for his father, widely acknowledged as the godfather of cross-country skiing in the U.S.

Here comes Diggins!

For all that success, and all the lives touched by a school that has been training student-athletes since 1972, there was just one thing missing from the trophy case. That brings us back to Diggins' golden moment in PyeongChang, South Korea.

A Google search for "Here comes Diggins" will bring you back to that last lap, now a moment frozen in time you can watch over and over. Diggins passes Sweden's Stina Nilssen on the final straight; she stretches her lead ski forward to the finish line, just 0.19 seconds ahead of Nilssen; she collapses in a heap, exhausted.

"It is Jessie Diggins delivering a landmark moment that will be etched in U.S. Olympic history, the first-ever cross-country gold for the United States," NBC play-by-play man Steve Schlager says, as teammate Kikkan Randall dives onto Diggins in celebration.

That's a moment dreams are made of for youngsters across Southern Vermont strapping on skis in the Bill Koch Youth Ski League.

"It's a huge asset to have Jessie," Sophie Caldwell said. "It's not a big deal to the SMS kids, but outside, it's really helpful to have the title of Olympian, or like Jessie with the gold medal, it's a huge draw. Kids can drive an hour and train with a bunch of Olympians, that's a cool thing."

Even though Diggins is originally from Minnesota, others on the team are from Southern Vermont, like Sophie and Andy Newell, who was born in Shaftsbury and grew up in Bennington.

"It's one of the best training places in the world," Sverre Caldwell said. "Andy grew up in Bennington, Sophie grew up in Peru, and they are out there skiing with the fastest people in the world. Ben and Catherine Ogden [both from Landgrove] won medals at junior world championships. The kids can see these are the steps you need to do to be successful."

Adam Samrov is sports editor of the Bennington Banner.


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