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

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

Caitlin Compton leans over her ski poles, her muscles tense beneath her bright red racing tights. She is still, waiting.

"Racers to your mark!" the official calls out.

"Three...," the official yells. "!"

The foghorn blares—the start of the race. Compton's body reacts a split-second late. She launches forward, double-poling, hard. Her torso bobs as her bent arms push and her strong legs pump. She concentrates on avoiding the skis of the woman next to her. It's always crowded at the start of a sprint.

Compton propels her body fast over slushy snow melted from the warm winter air. Her glasses slide down her face. She tears them away and throws them to the ground, then trips over a divot. She tumbles to her knees. The other women keep racing. They leave her behind and cruise around the corner, into the downhill slide.

Compton picks herself up and chases them. She stabs her poles into the snow and powers her legs forward. There is no time to coast. She rounds the corner tight and pulls into second place for the return up the hill. She takes the lead.

Compton relaxes just a bit once she's in the first position. She needs to save energy for the next heat.

Again, the countdown, the foghorn blow. A thick crowd has gathered to watch in the cool January evening. It's the final heat of the women's elite sprint at the City of Lakes Loppet, the Twin Cities' biggest Nordic event. Compton knows these women. They've skied for the U.S. in cross-country and biathlon at the Olympics and around the world. And she can beat them all. She lunges on, powering forward to finish 50 feet ahead of everyone else.

Skiing has never been easy. It wasn't easy when Compton first started racing in high school on second-rate equipment from the school gym. It wasn't easy two years ago, when she beat the top skiers in the nation but got passed over for the national team. And it wasn't easy last month, when she paid her own way to the World Cup in Canada. But Compton seems to thrive when things aren't easy.

"Maybe it's a better situation anyway because it keeps me working that much harder," she says. "Perhaps it's the difference between qualifying for the Olympics and doing well at the Olympics."

Compton was born in New York City and learned to downhill ski as soon as she could walk. She moved with her mother to Vermont when she was nine, after her parents divorced. In high school, Compton switched from downhill racing to cross-country skiing—the kids winning alpine races trained at camps in Europe and Oregon, spending thousands on the latest equipment, and Compton's family couldn't afford to keep up.

She was relieved on the day she walked into the basement of her high school and saw the rows of mismatched Nordic skis that all the athletes used. This was a sport she could afford. She bought a $10 pair of used boots at a ski swap. They were flashy, pink and green, and she'd heard that former Olympian Brenda White had once owned them. Compton remade herself as a Nordic skier, and won the Vermont state championship two years in a row.

During the Junior Olympics in McCall, Idaho, Compton got a taste of what life was like for elite youth skiers. She met kids from ski prep schools and year-round training programs. These prodigies didn't bother with state championships—they were shooting for the national team or the Olympics straight out of high school. Compton placed well at the Junior Olympics, but she knew she'd have to step it up a notch for Olympic gold.

Compton took a year off after high school to ski full-time. Thanks to a local ski shop that let her work for gear, and a coach who trained her for free, she got good enough for a scholarship to Northern Michigan University, a top ski school. Each summer, as her college teammates returned to rigorous training programs, Compton pushed herself alone.

She wasn't good enough to make the U.S. Ski Team yet, and planned to race with the prestigious Subaru Factory Team, a notch down from national, after graduation.

But everything changed when she got a call from her mom, who had moved to Minneapolis.

"I've got cancer," her mother said.

Compton immediately packed her things. She drove her rusty blue Ford pickup to the Twin Cities. For months, she cared for her mom. When her mother lost her hair and wore a bright pink headscarf to cover her baldness, Compton wore one, too. The young athlete shopped for groceries. She cooked and cleaned. Olympic gold was the furthest thing from her mind.

But her mom encouraged her to continue. After some disappointing results that winter, Compton found Piotr Bednarski, a local skiing and biathlon coach. To pay the bills, Compton stacked air conditioners and moved pallets of joint compound at Menards. Her income hovered around $9,000 a year. At races, she'd take home leftover oranges, granola bars, and bread slices to supplement her meager income. She fell into bed each night exhausted.

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."

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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