Vt. ski pioneer sustains Olympic spirit
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | February 23,2014
Caldwell family photo
Vermonter John Caldwell, 85, is the father of U.S. cross-country skiing and the grandfather of 2014 Olympian Sophie Caldwell.
John Caldwell, the Vermonter who literally wrote the book on cross-country skiing 50 years ago — his trailblazing 1964 how-to guide reaped the Boston Globe rave “the bible of the sport” — stopped writing updated editions after the eighth a quarter-century ago. Now 85, he’s entitled to sleep in.
But the man considered the father of U.S. Nordic is also the grandfather of 2014 Olympian Sophie Caldwell, 23, of the Green Mountain town of Peru. That’s why he has risen the past two weeks before dawn to watch the third generation of his family compete in the Winter Games.
“Despite what the governor says, and he’s a Putney boy, we don’t have high-speed Internet here,” says Caldwell, who has been waking in the town he shares with Peter Shumlin as early as 4 a.m., then driving to his nephew’s ski shop down the road to watch live online races from Sochi.
So much has changed since Caldwell himself competed in the 1952 Olympics, where a lack of television coverage required family and friends seeking results to await the newspaper the next day.
“That was back in the dark ages,” he says only half-jokingly. “When I was racing, nobody knew much about cross-country, and people hardly knew we were there. Everything is much, much better than it used to be. All this ease of communication has helped.”
Caldwell has helped, too — by turning his lowest point of adversity into a lifetime of achievement.
Some Vermonters may remember his Oslo Winter Games as the ones where Rutlander Andrea Mead Lawrence became the only U.S. woman to win two skiing gold medals. But while the late female legend experienced the thrill of victory, Caldwell felt the agony of defeat.
“I was on the combined team — cross-country and ski jumping — but I was poorly prepared.”
Born in Detroit in 1928, Caldwell had moved to Putney with his family in 1941. When his high school needed a cross-country racer for the 1946 state championships, he strapped on his sister’s wooden alpine skis. Continuing on to Dartmouth College, he borrowed his coach’s slats before the school bought him a pair.
Caldwell tried out and made the 1952 Olympic team. But knowing little about proper training, he toured too many Norwegian bakeries beforehand. The onetime 145-pound athlete weighed 170 by the time he dressed for his event. But that wasn’t why he needed help buttoning his shirt — his shoulders ached from falling so often in practice.
The rest is history — just not Olympic history.
“That really inspired me to help better prepare athletes so they wouldn’t be so flummoxed, overwhelmed and thoroughly thrashed.”
Caldwell started by coaching at his alma mater, the Putney School, where he worked with such up-and-coming skiers as Bill Koch, the first U.S. Nordic athlete to win an Olympic medal (silver in 1976). That, in turn, led him to help the American team in a succession of Winter Games.
Off the job, Caldwell befriended Brattleboro publishers Stephen and Janet Greene.
“They said, ‘Are there any books on cross-country?’ I said no.”
Soon there was one — his simply titled “The Cross-Country Ski Book” — which he updated until its eighth and final edition in 1987.
Caldwell also nurtured the sport by helping found the New England Nordic Ski Association and by forging a family with his wife, Hep, and their four children: Tim competed in the Olympics in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984. Peter raced undefeated in college. Jennifer made the U.S. ski team. And Sverre coached the Americans in 1988 and fathered the latest generation of family champions, Sophie.
John Caldwell has been waking in the dark the past two weeks to drive to Putney’s Caldwell Sport — owned by his nephew Zach, who’s assisting U.S. skiers in Russia, and wife, Amy — to watch live Sochi races that, because of the time difference, have started as early as 4:15 a.m.
“I’m a Luddite,” he says, “but I emailed Sophie before the sprint and said, ‘Go fast.’”
Caldwell then cheered her sixth-place finish (the best U.S. women’s Olympic cross-country result ever) before, a week later, she ended up eighth in the team sprint.
Seen the way skiers collapse after a race?
“I joke with them, ‘Are you suffering?’ I spell and say it ‘s-u-f-f-a-h.’ It sounds masochistic, but that’s the way it is. When you do it you hurt, but you feel great afterward — like when you stop hitting your head against the wall. All of us must be nuts, but it’s a lifestyle, a culture.”
It’s the same for the spectator back home.
“It takes me a long time to recover from these early mornings,” the grandfather says.
Even so, after rising this past Wednesday before dawn, Caldwell still stayed up for his weekly 7 to 10 p.m. bridge game. Then on Saturday, he was set to watch grandson Patrick, a freshman at Dartmouth College, compete in the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association championships in Middlebury.
The grandfather of 10 still takes a turn himself. But the cross-country pioneer says he’s going downhill fast — as an alpine season pass holder at Stratton.
“A guy who’s 88 and I go over together. It’s slow getting the strength back. I got a new hip in May and two new knees in October. I have a plastic heart valve and fake shoulder, too.”
So goes life. So much “s-u-f-f-a-h-ing.” So much satisfaction.
“I’m bionic — and still plugging along.”