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A World-Class Journey: Book Chronicles Trials, Triumphs, of U.S. X-C Women



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 01, 2018

World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team by Peggy Shinn, University Press of New England, 228 pages (plus 16 pages of color photographs), $19.95 paperback, $14.99 e-book.

The U.S. women’s cross country ski team’s gold-medal performance in the team sprint at last month’s Winter Olympic Games riveted sports fans across the globe. Now fans have a way to learn about everything that led up to it.

In World Class: The Making of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, Rutland author Peggy Shinn, an occasional Valley News contributor, begins her narrative at the dawn of women’s involvement with the sport in the 1960s and takes readers through the 2016-17 season.

While Shinn’s work is formatted chronologically, it’s much more than a year-by-year account of events. The text is broken up by passages exploring the individual stories of the athletes, their families and backgrounds, all the while maintaining a central theme highlighting the strong relationships and competitive dynamics within the team.

“With any narrative, there is a time component,” Shinn said in an interview from Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she covered the team for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s website, TeamUSA.org. “But you can’t just trudge through the timeline, talking about this and that, and expect readers to remain engaged with you. As much as it’s about the development of the team, it’s about a lot of individual personalities, the people and their stories.”

Shinn has a knack for imagery, describing the gray gloom of places like northern Sweden that matched some of the early results for the team. Things were far from rosy when athletes such as Alison Owen first began making inroads in the sport in the 1960s, subjected to various forms of abuse — by everyone from spectators to race officials — simply for having the audacity to compete as a female.

Once their presence became more generally accepted and more women’s events were added to circuits such as the World Cup, challenges persisted primarily in the form of a lack of sufficient funding. As Shinn points out, despite cross-country skiing’s popularity in Europe, it was long considered the “ugly stepchild to Alpine” in the U.S. A lack of media coverage meant general difficulty garnering sponsors, and when sponsorships were attained, men often received more than women.

In one of the early chapters, Cami Thompson-Graves shares her story of being named to the U.S. “A” team, but still receiving less funding from the same source as a male counterpart on the “B” team.

Thompson-Graves, now Dartmouth College’s director of skiing and the Big Green’s women’s cross-country ski coach, is one of many athletes with Dartmouth or Twin State ties highlighted in World Class. Others include Bob Gray, a Newbury, Vt., resident and 1968 and ’72 Olympic cross-country skier; John Caldwell, a pioneer of the sport from southern Vermont; and former Dartmouth skiers Rosie Brennan, Sophie Caldwell and Ida Sargent, all of whom spent time with the U.S. team.

Readers will learn a lot about Kikkan Randall, who was one half of the U.S. unit, along with 26-year-old Jessie Diggins, that captured gold in the team sprint in Pyeongchang for the first U.S. Olympic gold in cross-country skiing and first medal of any kind in the sport since Vermonter Bill Koch’s silver in the 30-kilometer in 1976.

Shinn flew to Randall’s hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, to meet her and her family, and Randall’s personal challenges and triumphs take center stage for parts of various chapters.

Randall, 35, doesn’t entirely steal the script, however. Passages are also devoted to Sophie Caldwell, John’s granddaughter; Diggins, a bubbly Minnesotan who’d previously idolized Randall and whose personality was instantly infectious; and Holly Brooks, a gritty Alaskan who emerged on the team in her late 20s after a string of sterling results in a hometown mountain race convinced her to go for it.

“That’s kind of the classic American story, isn’t it?” Shinn said of Brooks. “She really beat the odds.”

Shinn’s expounding of results and milestones is well-presented, explaining significant achievements over the last half-century without drowning readers in statistics. Finish times are included tactfully, only to provide context.

While the U.S. women’s cross country team’s tale is generally one of steady improvement, more tribulations are unveiled in the later chapters. Injuries abound, some of them gruesome, and when Randall is on maternity leave, the team experiences bouts of jealousy and lack of leadership.

The penultimate chapter, titled “Sochi,” doesn’t mince words about the team’s disappointing results at the 2014 Winter Games. It placed ninth, for example, in the 4x5-kilometer relay, despite a number of then-recent podium finishes in the event on the World Cup circuit.

The team never wavers in its spirit, on display in their dyed hair, glittered faces and finish-line enthusiasm while other teams share polite hugs. The knowledge that it all paid off for these women in the form of a victory in Pyeongchang makes Peggy Shinn’s World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team an even more enjoyable read.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.