Skier Caitlin Compton's long, cold trudge toward Olympic glory

Minneapolis transplant's cross-country skiing career hasn't been easy

By 2005, Compton's performance was good enough to make CXC, a regional Olympic development team based in Hayward, Wisconsin. She spent two weeks at a time in Hayward, focusing on skiing and rest. Finally, her performance began to improve.

During her 2006-07 season, Compton, then 26, seemed destined for the national team. She skied faster than U.S. Ski Team racers. She won a national title and the prestigious Super Tour. On the day the new roster was announced, Compton clicked open her web browser, full of hope. She scanned down the list. Her name wasn't on it.

"You've had an awesome season," the national coaches told her, as Compton remembers it,"but you're too old for our team at this point."

In her race toward the Olympics, Caitlin Compton has battled poverty, family illness, and a system that favors younger athletes
Nick Vlcek
In her race toward the Olympics, Caitlin Compton has battled poverty, family illness, and a system that favors younger athletes

The U.S. Ski Team women were several years younger than Compton and had been recruited right out of college, if not earlier. By Compton's age, competitors were expected to be veterans of the international racing scene.

Then, just as the future seemed bleakest, Compton got a big break—though not in the form she'd hoped. The U.S team in biathlon—the combined sport of freestyle Nordic skiing and marksmanship—was looking for strong skiers. Compton had picked up a gun only a handful of times, but the coaches promised to teach her to shoot.

Compton couldn't believe how luxurious the accomodations were. The athletes trained 11,000 feet above sea level in the Italian Dolomites, by quaint villages the likes of which she had only seen rendered in miniature as part of a snow globe. Ski specialists tested and waxed their skis. Massage therapists and a nutritionist took care of their bodies. Compton felt like a rock star.

That sensation intensified when she traveled to Ostersund, Sweden, to compete in the World Championships. Ten thousand people filled a stadium and cheered Compton's every shot. Cross-country skiing in Europe is roughly equivalent to basketball in the U.S.—skiers drive fancy cars and become millionaires and celebrities. She loved it.

The path to the Olympics was shining brightly before her when Compton was the top American biathlete at the World Cup in South Korea. But she still wasn't ready to give up her dream of medaling in cross-country.

This season, Compton returned to Nordic skiing. So far, she's won three major races and skied the World Cup in Vancouver. She is determined to make the national team and then the Olympics. This weekend, she'll be in the Czech Republic for the World Championships, which could guarantee an Olympic bid. "If you were a betting person, you'd look at the people we chose for the World Championships, and a year from now for the Olympics, it's likely to look similar," says John Farra, Nordic director for the U.S. Ski Team.

Compton isn't taking any chances. Every hour she spends training, every penny on racing, she thinks of as a step toward her Olympic goal. There is no room for error, she says. "Every race for me, I need to shine." 

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