The NNF presents Origins, A new monthly posting that looks at the rise of ski sport in the US. We kick off the series with this collection of anecdotes from, renown skier, coach and leader, John Caldwell. Often referred to as the father of US Nordic skiing. He wrote the first American text on how-to Nordic ski in 1964, now in its eighth printing. Caldwell coached three Winter Olympic Teams and numerous well known US racers including, Bill Koch. He lives near Putney, Vermont.
(photo: Z. Caldwell)
My first skiing recollections date to the mid-30’s when I lived in Somerset, PA. My folks gave me a pair of skis for some unknown reason. (They never skied.)Wood, no edges, and with toe straps. So I tell people I started skiing almost 80 years ago. My skiing did not last long. In the first place, there was not a lot of snow in town and I knew of no other skiers. Next, I did go out one day, I know. I stepped into the skis and started down this long hill in some fairly deep powder. I coasted to a stop, fell out of the toe straps–that was expected–picked up the skis and climbed back up the hill. Next time down I went farther because the trick was to follow the original tracks and so I went faster. Fell down, found my skis, climbed back and probably did one more trip. End of the start of my skiing career.
We moved to Putney in 1941 so my father could take the job as business manager of the Putney School, a private, co-ed boarding school; a pretty rare thing in those days. I really started skiing in the winter of ‘42 and it was all Alpine and jumping until we formed a team two years later. This was during WW II, complete with gas rationing, and there was precious little traveling for something as frivolous as going skiing, or going to a ski meet. In 1946 the rationing eased and our coach wanted to take us to the state high school championships. The problem was we needed four xc skiers and we only had one or two. I volunteered, got hold of my sister’s five foot wooden Alpine skis ( no edges), adjusted the bindings to my very flexible downhill boots (which also doubled as jumping boots) and I was ready to go. We went off to the state meet and did well enough to qualify for the New England Championships the next week-end. I thought I should get serious about training for xc and went out one day in the week preceding the New Englands. I got tired after a few minutes of thrashing around and quit, went to the New Englands and finished forty-eighth of fifty-two. Those three days on my sister’s alpine skis were the end of my high school xc career. Luckily, I got into Dartmouth in 1946 (It was fairly easy to get into colleges back then) and of course went out for the freshman ski team. I didn’t have xc skis, but the coach lent me his for a race with Kimball Union Academy. I couldn’t keep the bindings on and was a DNF. At the end of the season we went to a race in Rumford and again the coach lent me his skis. They came off just once–I had learned how to put on bindings by then–and I finished 26/26. So through my freshman year in college I had trained for xc one day, entered four races, finished three and that was that. What a sterling start in the world of xc!
The College Years
At the beginning of my sophomore year, the college bought me a pair of xc skis and thus began my professional career. Seriously, I was thrilled, and started training for XC instead of sticking primarily with the other three events (DH, SL and J). Our coach had collaborated with two other authors to write a then-definitive book on four events and he wrote something to the effect that “when fall came it was time to stop smoking and start training for XC.” Thinking I could get a head start on my college competition, I even ran a few times during the next summer in between baseball games in our summer league. Things went well for me in college skiing after sophomore year, doing four events. The breakthrough for me came in the winter of 1950. The FIS had scheduled the World Nordic Championships for Lake Placid but they had no snow and so Chummy Broomhall and some other ski fans in Rumford offered to run the XC races and they did. (It was easier to run big races in those days…not so much red tape.) After the FIS, I entered a jumping meet in Berlin (at the time it was the biggest jump in the east) and won the North American B Class Championships, which was a big deal for me. I got promoted to A Class as a result and was probably ranked 6th or 7th of all the eastern jumpers. Meanwhile, the US Team guys were around after the FIS and some entered a combined meet in Laconia, which I also attended. I beat a couple of them in Nordic Combined. Since I had been pondering trying out for the ‘52 Olympic Team in either Alpine or Nordic, the Laconia result settled it for me. In addition, the Alpine tryouts were to be out west the next year (1951) and I didn’t have the wherewithal to go out there for several weeks.
The next season, after graduation, when I was a teacher/coach at Lyndon Institute in northern Vermont, the USSA scheduled the only two Olympic Nordic Team tryouts in the east, one at Berlin, New Hampshire and one at Rumford, Maine. I was familiar with the venues, entered the tryouts, came second in both and made the ‘52 Olympic Nordic Combined Team. Just to show you the state of skiing in those days, I got a single notice from the USSA in May, 1951 telling me I had made the Olympic Team and my flight to Oslo left from Idlewild Airport at 8:30 PM, 22 January, 1952. Be there, it said. There were no plans for a training camp or anything like that. But our XC coach, a ski instructor at Sun Valley named Leif Odmark, had arranged for training at the resort and we eventually all (four XC skiers and four combined) ended up there in November, ‘51. The US was involved in Korea at the time (when haven’t we been “involved” in some sort of war?) and the make-up of our group was interesting in that we had a Naval Cadet (Paul Wegeman), an Air Force enlisted man (Ted Farwell), a regular Army man (Bob Pidacks) and a Naval officer (yours truly, having taken ROTC in college). We had a good deal at Sun Valley. In return for working mornings on the trails we got room and board and I think $250 a month. We servicemen were on temporary assigned duty and also received our regular pay–another sign of professionalism! I have never since earned so much money I could put away.
On Being an American in Europe
To say most of us were suffering from a lack of exposure to European skiers would be an understatement. The whole combined team–four of us–was new to the possibility of European competition. For myself, I had seen some older XC skiers from Europe, as well as a few has-been jumpers when I was on the college circuit for four years, but that was about it. However, we all trained XC dutifully with Leif at Sun Valley. We combined guys had no jumping coach, so tried to help each other. Sun Valley had a 50 meter jump which we spent a lot of time packing (they had near-record snowfalls that season), but I can’t say our jumping improved much. Finally, we came east in early 1952, entered the Hanover Relays (which we won, fortunately), went to Rumford for some training, may have raced at Berlin, and then made our plane to Oslo on 22 January. There were two coaches on the trip—Leif for XC, Pop Sorrensen for jumping– and a manager, Hjalmer Hvam (of safety binding fame). No combined coach. In Norway we “kombinerts” alternated between XC workouts with Leif and jumping workouts with Pop, although he never seemed to be anxious for us to show up. We felt a little bit like orphans. When we arrived in Norway we were made to feel like heroes. Good lunches with plenty of aquavit, nice looking ladies, meetings with some of Norway’s big wheels in Nordic, and so on. Before the trip we were told not to bring XC skis because we could easily pick them up in Oslo. That was the first order of business and they took us to a department store, not a ski shop and I picked out a pair of fairly wide 215’s as instructed. I began to get a hint of what we were in for when one day a banker offered to take us on a tour out in Nordmarka, go to a hut for lunch, and then come back. That sounded like a good idea and we showed up at the assigned meeting place and took off. Pretty soon some of us, including myself, were off the back, seriously off the back. “Hmmm, this is a banker and he’s skiing us into the ground?”
During the few times we skied the xc trail a few other nations’ skiers would come by, apparently touring, talking to each other, etc., but surely going faster than we were accustomed to. “Hmmm.”
The jump was yet another matter. The famed Holmenkollen hill was open regularly only a few days a year. Apparently several extra Norwegians–non-Olympians–were given a chance to jump and so all these very good jumpers were clamoring to get up the trestle and go for it. On my first try I got passed on the stairs–all dark and enclosed–by several other skiers–just like in the xc–and when I got to the place where you put your skis on there were two bleacher-like platforms, three steps each on either side of the inrun. These were enclosed and I couldn’t see anything but a wall when I stepped into my bindings. Too soon I got onto the spot where I would launch and again, there was a wall–actually a gate, much like they use in horse-racing to hold the horses in before the start–and suddenly it opened. The official (starter, I guess) yelled something at me but I didn’t understand him. I was overwhelmed with the view–steep inrun, take-off seemingly a long way from me, but I scanned over that because most of what I was looking at was the city of Oslo, the harbor, the boats out there, and so on. The starter may have pushed me onto the track, I forget. Anyway, I was off, suddenly airborne, landed, sat down, dragged my hands and that was it.
The take-off was really hung and the landing hill seemed flat (at least where I landed), but I wasn’t the only one having troubles. For the most part, or too often at least, the jumps in the US had a kicker (this is back in the 40’s and early 50’s, mind you) and so we all got used to that. We’d soar off the hills, fly pretty high but get saved by steep landing hills. In Oslo, even our special jumpers were getting a lot of height at the beginning of their flight and then landed very hard on a flatter hill than was typical of the US. At dinners some of them complained about headaches. The special guys came back and all four placed in the top 20 in a very competitive Olympic field. That was surely our best Nordic showing.
Anyway, I went off that hill 11 times and fell six. In one of my competitive jumps I thought it went pretty well, but I slipped after landing and spun rather slowly down the rest of the landing, came to a stop in a position to see the judges points high up on the scoreboard and one judge actually gave me one-half of one point. I got even with that guy pretty soon. Knowing very little about training, when I was told to mainly rest for the 10-14 days before the competition–one xc race and one jump–I took the advice and enjoyed several days walking the streets of Oslo and gorging on sweets in the bakery shops. My fighting weight when I tried out the year before was about 145, but when the Olympic XC competition came along I had ballooned to 170. I had also injured my shoulder the year before at a jump meet in Middlebury and kept aggravating it during jump practices in Oslo because I fell so often. So on the morning of our competitions my two shoulders were so sore I couldn’t button up my shirts without help from my roommate.
Waxing, Service and The US Beginnings
We were concerned about the waxing. Swix had made its entry into the US markets by then, but there were not many other waxes available in the States. “Young” Smith-Johansen made two waxes, one for dry snow and one for wet. The wax came in the shape of today’s energy bars and once in a while they worked. I had hung around my college coach, Walt Prager, when he waxed and had a year of waxing at Lyndon Institute, so I probably knew as much about waxing as anyone on the team, including our coach. He was a Swede and had arranged to get the info on what they were using the day of the big race in Oslo. That was fine. I’m sure the Swedes did not feel threatened by us. Walt Prager was the Olympic Alpine coach in 1948 and he came back with knowledge of ironing, which he immediately applied to XC. I picked that up and during practices with our team in late 1951 I almost always ironed, much to the chagrin of the coach. We argued about it. But when the day of the Olympic race came and the coach came in to us and announced the Swedes were using two coats of Swix Blue, ironed in, he gave me a serious look, acknowledging that I apparently had been on to something. I owe the credit to Walt Prager. The Olympic jumping competition came first and I fell the first two times. Leif told me after those jumps that it was no sense taking a third jump because I would be so far out of the combined results after the XC. But I knew that if I fell a third time I could not race the xc and I was determined to compete, at least so I could say I did compete in the Olympics. So, on the third jump I came down the inrun in a high crouch, never left the crouch, never jumped, but just glided off and did not fall. Ah hah, that judge that gave me a half a point on an earlier jump had to give me the minimum six for standing. Guess I paid him back. I hope it upset the rest of his day.
Since 1952, the waxes have improved, the skis are faster, and perhaps most significantly, the trails are faster and the grooming is superior. In 1952, event workers would ski in the track to prepare it for the race. The point I want to make is this: On the afternoon of the 4×10 relay, the women had a 10k race (their first in Olympic competition) and Finland swept the medals. The average time of these three female Finns, using the same course, was about 42 minutes, meaning they all skied as fast or faster than our fastest men. I can not recall the snow conditions. It’s possible the course was faster, but who knows? The point is that the fastest women in the world were on a par with our fastest men. When I came home I was more angry than disappointed or humiliated. I said to myself, if I had anything to do with it, no skier would ever go to Europe in the future so poorly prepared. That was my main motivation for coaching after 1952.
John’s motivation continued as a coach for a long time and lives on as a commentator and resource for nordic skiers everywhere. The legendary coach was one of several pioneers to put US skiing on an early path to success. Look for more Origin stories, more tales of history from the sport and more background from the NNF, supporting tomorrow’s nordic stars today and celebrating where we began.