West Lebanon — Picture a wooded space so far off the beaten path, a Google search won’t definitively find it. Paddy Caldwell returns to that place, if only mentally, if he needs a reminder of the importance of cross country skiing in his life.
Earning his first Olympic invitation with the U.S. Nordic skiing team has carried a sense of inevitability for years, through undergraduate and postgraduate time at the Stratton Mountain School to this winter’s arrival on the FIS World Cup circuit. The Caldwell name carries with it an expectation of on-snow excellence given the family’s deep relationship with the sport.
The beginning point is a location called Green Woodlands, a tract of land in Dorchester where the Caldwells — Paddy, dad Tim, mom Margaret and sisters Heidi and Lucy — have often skied. Come the snow, the tract’s overseers groom miles of trails and set up warming huts, encouraging the public to traverse through a quiet wilderness.
“Our big trip every year was Mont Sainte-Anne, an hour north of Quebec City; we’d go there every Christmas,” Caldwell said recently. “At home, we loved going to Green’s. It’s a fantastic network of trails, amazing skiing. That’s probably my favorite place to ski in the world. I’ve probably skied there the most.”
The world is now Caldwell’s stage. From his Lyme Center beginnings, he’s skied internationally for SMS, matriculated at Dartmouth, won an NCAA championship with the Big Green and gradually ascended the U.S. Ski Team ladder. A five-year national team member and World Cup newcomer who will turn 24 years old before these Olympics end, Caldwell hopes to compete in two individual races and a relay at Pyeongchang.
“I think it just takes time,” Caldwell said in a phone interview from Austria, where he was wrapping up World Cup competition prior to the team’s departure for South Korea. “You slowly build in more and more training every year, trusting in the process of working hard in training and racing. You’re trying to make improvements every year, and racing more and more internationally has been one of the big things for me. I’ve been exposed to more high-level racing.”
Caldwell’s career has been one of steady progress.
Growing up through the Ford Sayre Ski Council, for whom he won a pair of Junior Olympic titles as a 17-year-old, Caldwell left Hanover High for SMS and linked up with his uncle and Stratton coach, Sverre Caldwell. The teenager accelerated his progress at the southern Vermont ski school, to the point where college racing — and possibly more — became a reality.
Living 20 minutes north of Hanover and having a father who skied both at Dartmouth and in four Olympics may have made Caldwell the easiest sales pitch Ruff Patterson ever had.
“I was lucky at Dartmouth, because I had two things going there,” said Patterson, who retired from a 27-year ski team coaching stint at the Ivy League school in 2016 and now lives in Park City, Utah. “Getting into the school is the hard part, and a lot of good skiers, because of the skiing history there, want to go there. I’m not like the soccer coach pounding the pavement to find players. The Caldwells, he and his cousins, the whole lot of them, Dartmouth was on their list of going to school. I didn’t have to do much recruiting.”
Caldwell continued to blossom under Patterson’s guidance, spending two full years as a student-athlete and winning the 10-kilometer freestyle at the 2015 NCAA Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., as a sophomore. With that success in his pocket, Caldwell chose to revert to part-time status as a student, rejoining Stratton’s elite team for training and competition.
“It’s always been a goal and a priority to go to college and get a degree,” said Caldwell, who has one term left toward completing a geography major modified in economics. “I wasn’t ready to go into full-time skiing after high school. I loved the sport and racing and training, but I also wanted to get that sort of different stimulus of going to school and following the more traditional path of my peers. Going those two years in a row was really valuable.”
Strong finishes at the 2015 U.S. Championships in Michigan, which included an age-group second in the 15K classic in the former and an overall third in the 15K freestyle, also led to U23 World Championship invitations. Kazakhstan hosted one of those events, and it’s the farthest east that Caldwell had ever traveled until the U.S. team arrived in South Korea last week.
For as much as he’s advanced in recent years, Caldwell’s Olympic invitation wasn’t guaranteed. He needed to land within the top 50 in the World Cup standings by the mid-January cutoff for automatic bids, but he missed that mark. American coaches used a discretionary selection to add him to the 20-athlete U.S. roster; Caldwell believes it came from adequate results combined with the knowledge that he’d been battling illness during the season.
Caldwell is approaching, but hasn’t quite reached, the age where Nordic skiers — at least those who race the long distances — are entering their prime, Patterson said. Because of that, the former Dartmouth coach thinks Caldwell is likely to look at Pyeongchang as a springboard to the Beijing Olympics four years hence.
“We talk a lot about what a medal means in this sport and what it would really take to be in that ballpark,” Patterson said. “Although these games are what you dream about, and I think Paddy’s got this dream, but he sees this as a stepping stone toward the next Olympic season.
“You could get 10 coaches in a room and you’ll get 10 different answers, but I’m a believer for distance racing that (the prime age) is somewhere around 25 to 27 years old. There are people coaching high school athletes that are telling kids that if they make it to 21, they’ll be lucky. The one nice thing about him is his father has been there.”
So, should he ever need counsel, Paddy Caldwell can always come home. The voices of experience are still in his old Lyme Center home. The woods where he cut so many of his tracks are just a few miles up the road.
Story written by Valley News. Greg Fennell can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3226.