• Vt. Olympians fuel next generation
     | August 11,2014
    Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo

    Olympic cross-country skier Jessie Diggins (holding microphone) joins Vermont teammates Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell (respectively, fourth and sixth in line) during a “Fast and Female” girls’ empowerment program Sunday at Stratton Mountain School.

    STRATTON — When Vermont Olympic cross-country skiers Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins and Ida Sargent train off-season, they usually jog up hills and down valleys. But for the first time Sunday, they tried running something else: An empowerment program to fuel the next generation of Green Mountain girls.

    Six months after competing in the Winter Games in Sochi, the trio teamed up with 40 area youth for a “Fast and Female” series of body- and soul-building activities Sunday at Stratton Mountain School.

    “Sports give you the power to feel strong, make and work toward goals, and have patience, persistence, self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment that can spread to other areas of your life,” said Diggins, a Minnesota native who now trains at Stratton.

    Caldwell spoke of volunteering during the academic year for Girls on the Run of Vermont, a 10-week, 138-school, 700-coach empowerment program for some 3,000 third- through eighth-graders.

    But what, Diggins wondered, can those students do in the summer? The 22-year-old decided to add the state to the growing number of sites in North America and Europe offering a “Fast and Female” event on the website www.fastandfemale.com.

    Olympic gold medalist Chandra Crawford and her Canadian women’s cross-country teammates held the first gathering in 2005 in hopes of spurring more girls ages 9 to 19 into sports. Little did they know that seemingly onetime local meeting would snowball into an international movement featuring elite-level athletes, noncompetitive fitness activities, inspirational speeches and healthy snacks.

    “The goal is to give girls a powerful and positive experience with sports and local role models to keep them active and build a foundation for success in life,” Diggins said.

    Caldwell, 24, of Peru spoke of the high of her sixth-place finish in the February Winter Games’ sprint final — the best U.S. women’s Olympic cross-country result ever.

    “My teammates were cheering me on,” she said, “and that’s what motivated me.”

    That, and a little help from back home, one girl in the audience revealed. Caroline Tarmy, 8, of Putney told Caldwell how she watched live Internet coverage with the skier’s 85-year-old grandfather, John, a 1952 Olympian who literally wrote the book on cross-country skiing with his trailblazing 1964 how-to guide.

    “He said, ‘Sophie never stopped, she never gave up, she kept on going,’” Tarmy recalled.

    Sargent, 26, of Orleans shared a different story: “I’m a professional skier, I started as soon as I could walk, and I went to the Olympics. But I used to hate skiing. I thought it was so boring.”

    Sargent credited her turnaround to fellow girls at the Northeast Kingdom’s Craftsbury Outdoor Center and its Green Racing Project, and later to Caldwell and Diggins, which whom she attended the Sochi opening ceremony.

    “We locked arms because we didn’t want to lose each other,” Sargent said. “We walked into the stadium to a wall of noise. The most special part was I was able to share it with my teammates.”

    Although all Vermont girls see plenty of snow, they don’t all have the same opportunities as the Olympians, who currently are running, roller skiing, cycling, swimming and weightlifting.

    “It’s always good to have options,” Diggins said. “That’s why I thought it would be great to have something in the summer to keep girls going.”

    Participants joined in teamwork and trust-building activities before talking and listening to the Olympians — part of a 2014 U.S. team that included 14 Vermonters, a dozen of them women.

    “It’s cool just to see the smiles on their faces,” Diggins said of the next generation. “It’s one event on one day, but sometimes that can really change people’s outlook. When you’re body feels good, everything is better.”

    @Tagline:kevin.oconnor @rutlandherald.com

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