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How Do I Finish My Homework Fasterskier

Paddy Caldwell racing to 53rd in the World Cup 15 k freestyle on Dec. 16 in Toblach, Italy. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

Earlier this month, after the World Cup sprint qualifier in Davos, Switzerland, Patrick “Paddy” Caldwell stood in the mixed zone, distracted.

When a passing U.S. Ski & Snowboard board member congratulated him on his race, he brushed it off – graciously, not rudely – saying that “I ate it on that corner there.”

As he answered questions, he also looked hard at each athlete who passed through the media gauntlet.

“Someone took my poles from the start/finish area,” he explained. “I’m watching all the poles go by. Mine have a little green tape on them.”

Such is life for a 23-year-old U.S. Ski Team B-team member, who had just passed the halfway mark on his first period of European World Cup racing.

“A lot of up and downs,” was how Caldwell described his season up to that point, where he had finished anywhere from 108th (in that crash-marred sprint qualifier) to 19th (in a World Cup freestyle pursuit in Ruka, Finland).

But Caldwell was in a good mood, as he usually seems to be. Crashing? Finishing outside the top 100? Losing his poles?

Paddy Caldwell (U.S. Ski Team) racing to 41st in the World Cup men’s 15 k freestyle on Dec. 10 in Davos, Switzerland. (Photo: Reese Brown/U.S. Ski & Snowboard)

“Overall, I’d say it has been really positive,” he said. “It has been a really fun experience. Just racing with all these guys every weekend has been amazing. Just soaking it all in has been amazing.”

The next day, he finished 41st in the 15 k skate, and the following weekend in Toblach, Italy, he skied to 53rd in the 15 k skate and then had the 39th-fastest pursuit time in the 15 k classic.

Depending on the day, he has been the fastest male American distance skier in the field, or the second, third or fourth one. But the good days earned him the option of starting the Tour de Ski, and so Caldwell stayed in Europe after Period 1 finished. He spent the holiday break with family in snowy Austria on a ski vacation for some, and training camp for him.

And rather than flying back myriad time zones to Anchorage, Alaska, for U.S. Cross Country Championships, he’s staying on the World Cup in search of more ups and prepared for a few downs.

For most American skiers in his position, the Tour de Ski is a dicey proposition because of Olympic qualifying. By the end of the Tour de Ski, athletes have to be ranked in the top 50 of the distance or sprint standings on the World Cup to be likely nominees to the Olympic team. Caldwell is currently ranked 46th in the distance standings, but will likely need to score more points (meaning more top-30 finishes) to stay there.

Going to the Tour necessarily means forgoing U.S. nationals, from which part of the team will likely also be named. A bad Tour de Ski could mean no Olympics.

Caldwell was circumspect about the pros and cons of his decision, and says that he has both short- and long-term goals.

“I would love to qualify for the Olympics,” he wrote in an email from Austria. “It has been a goal and dream of mine for a long time to represent USA at the Games. That would be a huge honor and privilege.”

But at the same time, he is focusing on developing as a World Cup skier.

“This season one of my primary goals is to gain as much experience on the World Cup and racing in Europe as I can,” he wrote. “Starting the Tour de Ski is a great opportunity to do that. It’s hard to say what will happen after the Tour but I am hoping to do more racing in Europe in 2018.”

Pat O’Brien, Caldwell’s coach at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team in Stratton, Vermont, was more blunt about what an extended World Cup tour would reveal about his athlete.

“They both have a lot of promise as future U.S. skiers,” O’Brien wrote in an email, referring to Caldwell and teammate Julia Kern, “But they need starts to see if this is a lifestyle they want to participate in, and if so, how can they be the best at what they do. As a coach I don’t really care the outcome of these two months of racing early in the year. I want them to have good support (they do over there), I want them to face a big challenge stepping into the deep end (they surely feel that), but I also want enough hits that they feel they can make a to-do list and know where to go for this season and upcoming ones.”

The ups and downs that Caldwell described, then, were part of the plan.

“Lillehammer was brutal,” Caldwell said of a skiathlon where he finished 56th, seven minutes and 43 seconds behind the winner. “I was just totally off the pace in that 30 k. That was a tough day.”

Another example: sprints, which even the most specialized of distance skiers must start in tours and mini-tours.

“That’s a long-term goal for me,” Caldwell laughed. “I would love to qualify for a sprint someday. But you know, it’s not on the top of my list right now.”

But then there are the ups, like the Ruka pursuit.

“I was not surprised he was able to put down a good pursuit result in Ruka and came very close to points in Davos,” O’Brien wrote. “We talk about gamesmanship in a bad way. But if you are a guy distance skier you need to know what you do well and how to optimize that… Guys’ racing is brutally hard and deep. There are people that are faster and will recover sooner than you, for natural and unnatural reasons. Paddy is damn good at standing on a ski and finding time where most people give it up — he won a SuperTour in Craftsbury on a manmade loop a few years ago by 90 seconds or so. That was a course where it was hard to find time. We sat down earlier this year and figured out races and courses that suited his strengths, and built training around it.”

And so in the service of those long-term goals, one of Caldwell’s tasks in his first European World Cup tour was to learn the courses. He found it to be an enjoyable assignment.

“I’m definitely really psyched to learn all the courses, and have that image for the offseason to know what to expect,” he said. “It’s cool to see all the venues. We see all of them in video and stuff, but it’s so different when you actually show up and ski them. Ruka was really fun and punchy. Lillehammer was a bit of a grind. But I really liked all the courses. It has been great.”

And learning Period 1 courses has an extra benefit: “They really don’t change too much year to year, and you need to know what you need to do to be competitive there,” O’Brien wrote.

When Caldwell crossed the finish line in the 15 k skate in Davos, he had the fastest time of the day. That lasted for all of 28 seconds until he was knocked back by former U23 World Champion Paul Constantin Pepene of Romania, who had started one bib behind him and notched a time 1.6 seconds faster.

In the cutthroat men’s World Cup field, that equated to three places in the 15 k race, when all the racers had crossed the line and the times had been tallied.

Caldwell hadn’t even had time to sit in the traditional leader’s chair.

“Oh, I know it,” he said. “Bummer.”

— Andrea Potyodny-Smith contributed

I’ve been dreading this post for a little while now. Putting things on paper, or in this case the form of a blog post, always makes them seem much more concrete and real. I can’t quite figure out how to put it in a way that seems less harsh, but here it goes: I’m finished with competitive XC-ski racing. For some this may not be a shock as I made the decision a little while ago, but it has taken time to really sink in. Before you come to any conclusions, however, let me back track some and explain the entire situation. This is not your standard “retirement”. I’m not a 10 yr USST vet that’s realizing my time is up–just a pretty conflicted 17 yr old trying to figure out where I’m headed. And so, the story begins.

My path to this point started during the college process. Choosing what college to attend is a big one. Although no college will guarantee success any more than the next, each college will have a unique impact on the rest of your life. Ever since I started to really ski, all I could imagine when it came to my future and college specifically was skiing. I spent so much time doing it that I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without it or what I would do. This all changed during my year at Burke Mtn. Academy. I had a really rough season and it kind of hit me that skiing won’t always be there for you. It’s a heartbreaker. No matter how much you train and how much you care, sometimes things just don’t fall into place. Even with this realization, though, at the beginning of the college process I knew I was going to ski. Maybe I didn’t want to put skiing over academics anymore, but I would go to a school with a ski team. Both my brother and my sister are at Middlebury and my oldest brother, Willie, was planning on going. Naturally it was pretty high on my list of schools I was interested in. As time went on, however, it started to occur to me that maybe the traditional liberal-arts skiing schools weren’t really the schools I wanted to be at. They are perfect for a lot of people I know, including my siblings, but there was a little inkling that maybe it just wasn’t for me. During this same time period my interest in politics was increasing. It was an interest that I really got into during my rough season last year when I ended up with a lot of spare time. For this reason, I had considered Georgetown, but wasn’t a huge fan of what I heard/saw and so I went back to looking at ski schools. Later on I heard about another DC school, though. George Washington. I looked at it some and heard great things, but still wasn’t sure how I felt about going to a non-skiing school. My season was turning out to be better than I originally expected and I was pretty excited about skiing. Come application time I decided I’d apply to GW, but to a specific political communications program that I doubted I’d be admitted to. I finished my season and was really happy with how it had gone, but as you could probably guess by the nature of story telling, I had also been admitted to GW’s political communications program. It was an unbeatable situation- studying political communications in the heart of DC (literally 3 blocks from the White House). I started to really think about it. This was an opportunity for me to take a leap of faith and study something that I was really interested. After a lot of thought and a lot of discussion I concluded that this was something I couldn’t pass up. I chose to attend and leave skiing behind.

That might have been too long of a description for you to really care much about, but this next part is the part that is really important to me. Since making the decision, I’ve realized some more things that make me feel better about my decision. The #1 thing I think that every skier should know is that you should follow your interests, and not just skiing. This may have been unique to me and no one else has felt this way, but I had spent so much time skiing and ski training that I really hadn’t done anything else. Even before I ended my career, when I was having fun doing other things I did better in my races. By the end of this year this year I was having my best races, yet I was doing so many other things at the same time. Before then, I didn’t know what else I could even do. You don’t have to leave skiing to pursue interests either. For me, I just realized that I hadn’t learned to do something new and had the feeling of beginner’s frustration basically since I started to ski–so sometime in Kindergarten-2nd grade. I wanted to feel that again and since stopping training I feel liberated. I’ve taken up and learned to do/play things ranging from skateboarding to polo. Skateboarding may well be a short lived career (I’m still pending my first injury which will likely be the end), but on the other hand I joined the college Polo team. I’ve been working as a greenskeeper at a local golf course and as a host at a different country club. I’m seeing and experiencing things I was so removed from in the past. During college orientation a couple of weeks ago I was blown away by the number of clubs available. In addition to joining the Polo team I also joined Coast Guard Auxiliary. I still want to find some kind of sport, but the moral of the story is that there is so much else to do out there. This obviously isn’t applicable to everybody and a lot of people will still find a lot of joy and fulfillment in skiing for a long time to come, but recognize that it won’t always be there and if you are serious you’ll learn to thrive in those times. I’d heard coaches and older skiers say this so many times, but for me it just now sunk in. I hope to someday be able to give back to the skiing community that has given me so much. I’m planning on watching as many carnivals as possible and racing against as many master blasters as I can find (not hard to find), but I also hope that I’ll be pretty busy in DC. Skiing will never truly leave me–Johnnyklister does have archives you can look through–and my classmates must agree since even though I had already quit, I was the lucky recipient of the senior superlative “olympic bound”…maybe as a spectator I guess. I must say though, after leaving skiing I got an invitation to REG which was pretty close to reversing my decision. I’ve been waiting to be able to go to that camp for a while now, but I was able to turn that down so I decided that I would probably be able to do a fasterskier post without fear I would back out on leaving.

As for this blog it’s up to Topher I guess. If it doesn’t get deleted I’ll probably post a photo of me rollerskiing up capitol hill every once in a while, or the results of my latest domination of every 60+ yr old in the Jackson area over Xmas break. I know I won’t be able to rival @Justin Freeman’s blog, but a boy can dream, can’t he?

It’s really bittersweet to be finishing up this post, also a little scary thinking that this probably isn’t monumental at all to anyone else on fasterskier than me or my parents. I just want to thank everyone in the ski world for everything you have given me. It has be an unbelievable community to be a part of and I’ll hopefully be around here in the future. A final thanks to Topher for thinking a blog written by a J2 would be worthwhile. It’s been really fun putting my experiences in words and I hope that others enjoyed it as much as I did. Sorry for not putting any photos on this one, must’ve been a rough read.

-Peter

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