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Greene: Olympic Cross Country

Johnny Caldwell only took up cross country skiing in his junior year at Putney School, now famous for its cross country ski program, but he liked it. At Dartmouth, he joined the ski team and participated in four events: downhill, ski jump, slalom and cross-country.

When Caldwell graduated in 1950, he stopped by the placement office, for advice on trying out for the Olympic ski team. The counselor advised him to, “Get a real job.” So Caldwell ended up teaching and coaching at Lyndon Institute.

In the winter of ’51 Caldwell did make the 1952 ski team in Nordic Combined, which includes ski jumping and cross country. He recalls getting a notice in May of 1951 that said, “You’re on the Olympic team. Be at Idlewild airport for the 8:30 flight to Oslo.” In the Navy reserves at the time, Caldwell took 6 months off to train.

Back in ‘52, there were four members of the men’s Nordic team and no women’s team at all. There were no endorsements, nor were the skiers given equipment. Teammates hired a coach with whom they trained in Sun Valley. “We got killed in Oslo ,” Caldwell remembers. “It made a huge impression. I vowed to never go into a competition so poorly prepared again.”

When his stint in the Navy was over, Caldwell was hired to teach at Putney, where he coached various sports and taught math -- for 35 years.

After the ’52 games, Caldwell devoted himself to coaching -- at the Oslo World Championships in ‘66, the Olympics in ‘68 and ‘72, when his eldest son, Tim, made the team, then again in ‘80 and ‘84.

Most recently he’s been a wax coach. While touring skis don’t need wax, waxing for races is a very intense business in which snow conditions and micro climates are studied carefully.

Women’s cross country was slow catch on in the U.S. Caldwell remembers that people thought women cross country skiers were “Amazons”. A Swedish advisor recommended that he bring three women over from Sweden to demonstrate the sport. They were stunning -- and what’s more, one of them was so good she beat most of the men she competed against. Finally in ‘72, we had a women’s team.

Things are different now: skiers have what’s called “quivers” of skis. Caldwell ’s granddaughter Sophie, who just made the women’s team, travels with 10 to 12 pairs of skis when she’s racing.

Caldwell is sanguine about the 2014 team’s prospects. He thinks the women’s team is especially strong. Kikkan Randall, who just won the world cup in the cross country Freestyle Sprint, is an Olympic favorite.

Four skiers of the 11 member cross country team are from VT: Ida Sargent from Orleans, Liz Stephen from E. Montpelier, Andy Newell from Shaftsbury and Sophie Caldwell from Peru.

This showing doesn’t surprise Granddad Caldwell: “ Vermont is a cross country hotbed,” he says, “We have 25-30 cross country ski areas here, even more than alpine.”

This is how you raise great skiers.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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