Aspen’s Hamilton commits to at least one more season on World Cup, looks to future
Feel free to make fun of Simi Hamilton for becoming the old man who refused to hang it up. He won’t mind, as he did the same when he was younger. Of course, there is a drive behind the Aspen Olympian’s desire to keep going that is worth noting.
“I’m turning into one of those people I always kind of made fun of a little bit,” Hamilton joked. “I felt like I learned a lot of things about my body and my mind this year where I can kind of tweak a lot of things this coming training season and put in a really good next year. I’m psyched about giving it one more shot.”
Hamilton, 32, is an Aspen native and longtime fixture on the U.S. cross-country ski team. After time at Middlebury College in Vermont, Hamilton went on to compete in three Winter Olympic Games (2010, 2014, 2018) and every world championship since 2011.
For both he and his wife, fellow U.S. ski team athlete Sophie Caldwell, retirement has been on the tip of their tongue for a few years now. Neither sees the 2022 Winter Olympics as part of their future, but neither is willing to rule it out, either. The one thing that drives both to keep going for at least another season is to be role models for the country’s up-and-coming talent.
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“I guess retiring is harder than we thought. I think it’s a really cool time in skiing right now because we have so many young athletes coming up, and it’s really cool for us to be able to overlap with them,” Caldwell said. “We both think it’s really important to have some time on the road with them, not only to show them the ropes but because they are really fun and inspirational to have around.”
Caldwell, 30, is a Vermont native who competed in both the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics. She remembers fondly her days as a young skier looking up to veterans like the now-retired Kikkan Randall, who in 2018 along with Jessie Diggins won the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in cross-country skiing.
And both Caldwell and Hamilton feel the best is still coming. Young athletes like Alaska’s Gus Schumacher, who became the first American male to win gold in an individual race at junior worlds earlier this winter, are providing them that extra bit of motivation to keep grinding for another year on the World Cup.
“Jessie and Kikkan and all the rest of the girls, they’ve shown us what is possible and they’ve kind of broken through that glass ceiling. So I think for these skiers coming up, it’s just a matter of now they know it’s a possibility,” Hamilton said. “Those boys just inspire me so much every single day and I want to be around for a year while they are emerging onto the level I’ve been skiing at for a while. I feel that’s a pretty cool opportunity I really want to take advantage of. It would be pretty stupid to just hang my skis up as they are just emerging.”
A YOUNG MAN’S GAME
According to his FIS profile, Hamilton has 132 career World Cup starts with four official podiums and a single win, coming back in 2013. For the most part, he’s exclusively been a sprinter, which typically is an advantage for the younger athletes. The longer distance events tend to benefit the older athletes, which is what makes Hamilton’s longevity as a sprinter stand out.
“What is unique about Simi is he still is relevant in the young man’s game of sprint. He’s sort of turning the world upside down,” said August Teague, the Nordic program director for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. “It’s a testament to his mom and his dad in terms of how they brought him up and the natural skills that he developed as a young athlete that he’s been able to continue his career for the length he has, but also in sprinting. It’s pretty unique and pretty cool.”
Fighting injury and illness much of the 2019-20 World Cup season, Hamilton didn’t have a lot of good things to say about his season. He finished 61st in the overall standings and 24th in sprint, leading the American men in both.
Caldwell led the U.S. women this season by finishing sixth in the sprint standings. She was 25th overall, with Diggins leading the American women by finising sixth on the season-long points list.
“There were a few good moments, but a lot of really disappointing moments for me,” Hamilton said. “I just knew I still had a lot of fire inside of me to keep competing and training.”
Looking ahead to next season, the highlight will be the 2021 world championships in Germany, which would be a sixth trip to worlds for Hamilton. As of now, the 2022 Olympics in Beijing have little to no appeal for him.
“When you look at it from the outside and when you look at it objectively, it’s really hard to think we would be retiring the year before the Olympics come around again. To me, I don’t feel a lot of motivation to go to another Olympics,” Hamilton said. “I’m really psyched for all the athletes out there that still are, and I think we are going to put together a really, really good team for that games. I’m psyched to support our athletes that are going to go to those games and maybe I’ll go as a spectator or something.”
LIFE AFTER SKIING
Hamilton and Caldwell met back when they were competing at the junior level. They married this past October in Vermont, where they’ve been since the last week or so of the cross-country World Cup season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Caldwell is two years younger than Hamilton, she doesn’t see herself sticking around much longer, if at all, after her husband calls it quits. She’s all in on this next season and like Hamilton looks forward to being a role model to the younger athletes, such as Basalt’s Hailey Swirbul, but can see the finish line approaching after that.
Life could take them any number of directions after they retire from competitive skiing, but a strong candidate for a landing spot could be back in the Roaring Fork Valley at some point.
“I recognize our job is one of the coolest jobs in the world and we get to travel, do what we love and we get to do it together. But there are also other parts of life that I’m looking forward to when I’m finished skiing,” Caldwell said. “We’ll see where life after skiing takes us. I’ve never lived in the west; I think I would really enjoy it. And he’s a western boy at heart, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up out there somewhere.”
Hamilton has dreams of starting a family here in Aspen, and Teague has dreams of one day getting he and Caldwell involved with coaching AVSC athletes, completing the circle of when Hamilton grew up with the club.
But those dreams remain at least a year away. There’s one more World Cup season, one more world championship and one more chance to experience life as a professional athlete. Hamilton wasn’t ready to critique his career as whole, or judge the progress the U.S. has made in the sport over his time, but believes he’ll be plenty happy with it when he reflects back decades from now.
“You are always going to have a few regrets about how things went, but I think that’s just the nature of being involved in a really complex, a really fun, a really cool sport like cross-country skiing,” Hamilton said. “I am proud of what I’ve been able to do. I feel like the biggest thing for me is to have been part of an incredible team. I think it will be a lot easier in 20 years to look back and really realize exactly what this team accomplished.”
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