As the Winter Olympics kicks off, the U.S. Women's cross-country ski team — including those with ties to Vermont like Ida Sargent, Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen, Sophie Caldwell, Kaitlynn Miller, and Caitlin Patterson — is favored to bring home a number of medals.
If they do, it’ll be a first for a team that’s historically come in at the back of the Olympic pack.
Rutland Author Peggy Shinn explores this dramatic transformation in her new book, “World Class, The Making Of The US Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team.”
Shinn is a senior contributor to the US Olympic Committee's website, Team USA, and she's been reporting on skiing for 20 years.
In a recent report, Shinn wrote that in 28 World Cup races this season, the US women’s cross-country skiers have finished on the podium in over a third of them.
Shinn talked about the team's rise from her home in Rutland last week, as she prepared to travel to Pyeongchang to cover the Olympics.
Their success is so amazing, she said, considering how the team used to do.
“When you looked at results from the '70s '80s and '90s and early 2000s, they were finishing below 30th, which is out of the World Cup points.”
It's not that American women weren't trying, she said, but they've faced an uphill battle — including early stereotypes that endurance sports were dangerous and unbecoming for women.
Talking about how she researched her book she explained, “I don’t think you can tell a current story without relying on history. And these women will tell you that they are standing on the shoulders of the women before them."
Cross-country skiing has been an Olympic event since the first winter games in 1924, but only for men. It wasn’t until the 1952 games in Oslo, Norway that women’s cross-country races were added.
But Shinn pointed out that it was another 20 years before American women fielded a team.
In her book, Shinn chronicles early pioneers like Alison Owen and later, Martha Rockwell, a Vermonter who competed in the Olympics in 1972 and 1976.
She also writes about John Caldwell of Putney (Sophie Caldwell's grandfather,) who she says is regarded by many as the father of cross-country skiing in America. And Marty Hall, the first US women's cross-country ski coach. Shinn said both men fought hard to help women compete.
But she says it wasn’t until team funding was drastically increased in 2006 and an Alaskan skier named Kikkan Randall began finishing on the World Cup podium that things really began to change.
“Kikkan is a key component of this story,” said Shinn. “She was gradually improving in the standings and she just had this attitude that she was going to win the first Olympic medal for US women’s cross-country skiing and nothing was going to stop her.”
Randall became a team leader, said Shinn, but not a diva. While members of the team lived in different parts of the country, they trained together several times a year, and Shinn said Randall encouraged comradery, support, even playfulness.
For instance, Shinn said Randall dyed the tips of her hair pink for big races and pushed teammates to wear matching striped socks, glitter and red, white and blue face paint.
The women worked hard, said Shinn, but the team created a bubble that was supportive, nurturing and fun.
"So, the other women who had been training with her were starting to realize, ‘Wow, if Kikkan can do it, I can do it, too.’ So a lot of it was the women had to start believing that they belonged," said Shinn.
"They had to get the mental component of, 'I belong at the front, I don’t belong at the back of the pack.'”
2012 was the turning point.
In November of that year, Randall and fellow Alaskan Holly Brooks, along with Liz Stephan of East Montpelier, and Jessie Diggins, who trains in Stratton, did the unthinkable at a World Cup relay race in Gallivare, Sweden.
The US women beat Russia and Finland and came in third behind perennial powerhouses Norway and Sweden.
“The US women finishing as a team on the World Cup podium was akin to a Norwegian baseball team coming to the United states and beating the Red Sox,” said Shinn smiling.
In her book, she points out that since 2012, every woman on the team has won at least one World Cup medal and three of them have won world championship medals.
She believes part of that success is due to continued funding and what she describes as superb coaching from Chris Grover and Matt Whitcomb.
Shinn also points to strong feeder programs in Vermont like the Craftsbury Green Racing Project and the Stratton Mountain School – both of which recruit and train up-and-coming skiers.
But Shinn said the US women’s strength as a team can’t be overstated. She said the members have learned how to communicate with each other to work out problems; they celebrate individual talents, and do their best to squelch negativity.
“Plus they cheer their brains out for each other at big races,” Shinn added with a laugh, “I think it takes that kind of positivity on a team to raise everybody up.”
Shinn said the only question now is will it be enough to finally bring home an Olympic medal?
The first of their six events is Saturday.
Members of the U.S .Olympic cross country skiing team include: Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, Kaitlynn Miller, Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Jessie Diggins, Rosie Frankowski, Anne Hart, Caitlin Patterson and Kikkan Randall. Learn more about the Vermonters, here.