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Olympics Series: Sophie Caldwell Hamilton

Olympics Series: Sophie Caldwell Hamilton

Sophie Caldwell Hamilton is a two-time Olympic cross-country ski racer. She was the second U.S. woman ever to win a World Cup race and became renowned for her sprinting prowess and strategy. She comes from a long line of Nordic Olympians, graduated with a degree in psychology from Dartmouth College, and just retired at the age of 31 last year. She joins us from her home in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado.

To hear the full story from Caldwell Hamilton herself, listen to our podcast here.

Q: You have Olympic blood running through your veins—your grandfather, cousin, and uncle were all Olympians. Did you have it in your head from a young age that you wanted to follow suit?

Caldwell Hamilton: I don’t think there was pressure to be an Olympian, but I definitely come from a family of skiers. My sister, brother, and I were all on skis about the same time we learned to walk. We were exposed to the sport very young and had the opportunity to fall in love with it. It was a legacy I was proud to continue, but I also was grateful that there was never a ton of pressure. 

Q: If you’re in the cross-country ski world, you’ve probably stumbled across a Caldwell.

Caldwell Hamilton: When people hear the Caldwell name, they think the family must be huge, because there are so many people involved in cross-country skiing. Our family’s not that big—it just happens to be that most of us cross-country ski. 

Q: This is not a sport that’s known to be easy. As a little kid, how did you feel about the difficulty and the endurance?

Caldwell Hamilton: I feel lucky I started at such a young age. When we were young, it was less about the endurance; it was more, like, do a little loop and have snacks and hot chocolate afterward. It was much more of a social thing we did with our family and friends. There were tons of kids in the area who did it—it was a very fun atmosphere around the sport. It was just what people did in my town.

Q: Let’s talk Sochi. You were in contention for a medal in the freestyle sprint, and then you had a tousle with Astrid Jacobsen that caused you to crash. Even still, you finished sixth, which was the best-ever result by a female American cross-country skier. What were some of the emotions that came with that?

Caldwell Hamilton: It was a whirlwind of emotions. Of course, it was a disappointment to fall on the Olympic stage when I felt like I was having one of the best days in my career. But at the end of the day, it was a result I was really happy with and proud of. At that point, it was my first full season on the World Cup. I had never been on the podium before, and I was so excited to make the Olympic team. I remember going around during the Olympic processing and picking out our outfits. I was roommates with one of my best friends, and we were like kids in a candy shop. I was so psyched to be there and so happy and didn’t have any expectations or pressure, and that’s why I was able to have that really good race that day. It was heartbreaking to fall in the final, but in the grand scheme of things, I had no business being in that final. The fact that I made the final at all already exceeded any expectations. So I was able to walk away being happy and proud instead of being devastated. It’s not worth dwelling on the questions—I try to remember the happy emotions.

Q: You’re one of only five U.S. women to have won a World Cup race, along with Jessie Diggins, who’s of course a household name for winning gold in the 2018 Olympics. Does it ever frustrate you that the Olympic stage is such a huge deal when the World Cup is arguably more important for your career?

Caldwell Hamilton: Yes, for sure. Cross-country skiing is definitely not one of the most popular sports in the U.S. So a lot of people think we only compete every four years at the Olympics, but that’s definitely not the case. The World Cup competition is often harder and more stacked than the Olympics. Countries like Sweden and Norway, the powerhouses of cross-country skiing, can bring 8-10 athletes to World Cup but only four to the Olympics, so that makes the competition field harder. Particularly after Jessie and Kikkan won gold, I am hoping people catch on to the fact that this is something they can tune into every weekend if they want to. 

Q: The women’s team has put the sport on the map for the U.S. What is their special sauce?

Caldwell Hamilton: The women’s team has been doing incredibly over the last 10 years. I feel so lucky to have joined in the beginning of this dream team that had been created. As it was happening, we had coaches from other countries come study us to see what the magic recipe was. There really wasn’t one. We had good leadership. We had a coach at the time who was very inspirational and made us believe in ourselves and that we had each had a very important role. We also had leadership among the athletes. Kikkan Randall had been one of very few women on the national team on the World Cup circuit, and she was so excited to have this strong group of women coming up. Her style of leadership was not to set herself apart but to make us feel like we were part of her success. If she could do it, that meant that we could do it someday. She was a wonderful role model and set a great example for what a team leader should be. The team was changing every year, but I think we had established this really strong foundation of team dynamics, and we could adapt and evolve. Because we had that foundation, we were unstoppable.

Q: You were credited for having a very quiet, strong leadership style. You weren’t the person vying for the limelight, you were behind the scenes providing support for the team. Your coach at one point called you, “the best human on the planet.” Was it ever hard to balance that kindness with your competitive nature? In such a cutthroat sport, was it counterproductive?

Caldwell Hamilton: There were definitely times that I questioned whether I was competitive enough. Ski racing was always important, but I wanted to have balance in my life. Sometimes competing, particularly toward the end of my career, I would be looking at these younger girls who would do anything to win, and I remember looking at them saying I don’t feel that way. I realized everyone has their own way of doing it. My best days came when I woke up in a happy place and felt like I was being a good, kind person and confident in myself. Maybe my leadership style was different—I definitely prefer connecting one on one—but I think it’s good for the younger girls coming up to see that there can be a lot of different ways to be successful. 

Q: You are known for your sprinting. But because you weren’t the racer who had the biggest engine, you had to outsmart your competition. Tell me about what your strategy was. 

Caldwell Hamilton: That’s one of the things I loved about sprinting: It wasn’t just a measure of your lung power. There are some people on the world cup who have insane endurance capacities, and it’s hard to compete with that. I always thought my strengths in sprinting were technique and tactics, so I tried to study the courses. I could be sneaky; I was good at following people and conserving energy and going the same pace, then sneaking by at the end. I was rarely the one to lead the race from the beginning. I thought that was so fun—figuring out the puzzle and how to play to your strengths.

Q: Tell me where your confidence comes from.

Caldwell Hamilton: I’m not sure where it came from. My sister, brother, and I were all raised to believe being kind is the most important thing. I feel like if I’m a kind and good person, that’s all the confidence I need. I don’t need to shout from the rooftops that I won a race. It’s easy to get nervous for a ski race, but the people who love you don’t love you because you got first place. They love you because of the person you are. I think that’s the mindset I try to apply to all parts of my life. In a way that helps take the pressure off ski racing and allowed me to be quietly confident. 

Q: You just retired. How does that feel?

Caldwell Hamilton: It’s been a big transition. I felt like I was applying for my first real-world job at age 31, which is pretty different from most people. Of course, I didn’t know how to do what I’m doing, but as long as I’m open minded and willing to ask questions and am excited to learn, it can come quickly. The transition has been easier than I thought it would be. I think I was also feeling pretty ready to be done with ski racing, and I felt like I was able to leave on my terms in a good place.

Q: You must miss it a little bit at times.

Caldwell Hamilton: I was very ready to be done with the racing part, because I felt like I was lacking that competitive drive, but in my last year I found value and meaning in showing the younger girls the ropes. I do miss having that built-in team. I was so lucky to have a lot of my teammates be my best friends, and you get to see them every day and travel the world with them, which is an amazing life. But it’s been a relief to be done with the racing. I miss the beautiful places and getting to explore them, but I live in a beautiful place now, and it’s really nice to be in one place and be settled. My sister-in-law had a baby, and I got to be here and meet him. And you miss out on things like that when you’re in Europe.

Q: You also live with a former teammate of yours, your husband. What is it like when athletes of your caliber marry each other? Do you have a funny rivalry?

Caldwell Hamilton: I always give him a hard time because I feel like whenever we exercise together, he puts this gap in in the beginning and then just holds it. I’m always, like, “You could just ski with me. Don’t you ever think it’s more fun to chit chat?” And he’s, like, “No not really.” I’m not offended. I do think it’s gotten better since we’ve retired because when I was ski racing, you’re constantly monitoring whether you’re going too hard or too easy, and wondering if this going to mess up my training. Now, if going a little harder means I get to keep up with Simi and enjoy his company for the day, then it’s OK to do that and be tired the next day. He’s doing a little bike racing and some skimo, he still goes out and does some training. I haven’t done a single interval since I retired. I was ready to be done with that. Now my exercise and training consists of adventures and catchups with friends and enjoying being outside.

Q: Do you backcountry ski as well?

Caldwell Hamilton: I didn’t even know what ski-touring was until somewhat recently. I grew up in Vermont, so when Simi and I started dating, that was the first time I tried it. I immediately fell in love with it. It’s the best of both worlds, and you can do it in these remote beautiful places that you feel like you have to yourself. It is just incredible.

Q: Your teammate Jessie Diggins has been open in speaking out about her eating disorder. I can imagine it’s not that uncommon in your sport. How did you keep yourself healthy and insulated from that?

Caldwell Hamilton: I’m so proud of Jessie for being as open about it. It’s a very important issue that needs a lot of attention. It was definitely something I saw a fair amount of. Probably for female endurance athletes, whether or not it’s directly affected you, it’s affected someone you love and you’re close to. I have a smaller build for sprinting, so I always knew that if I wanted to be competitive, I had to put on muscle mass and be strong. I could feel if I started to get too thin. I would get sick and tired, and I recognized that early in my career. I would make an effort to eat as much as possible. But in those longer distances, you do see it more often. It’s so tricky because people naturally have different body types and so many different criteria and elements that determine if they’re healthy enough to race. 

Q: What are you planning on doing for this Olympics? Are you having a watch party and if so, who should we put our money on?

Caldwell Hamilton: Yes, I’ll definitely be tuning in. I think for the U.S. Team, both Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan are having amazing years and are incredible all-around athletes. We have this great group of young women who are coming up, too. You never know, like my experience in Sochi, anything can happen. Definitely tune into the 4 by 5 K relay. The U.S. Team tends to do really well in team events because we have such good chemistry, and it’ll be a fun mix of veteran and young skiers.

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