Cami Thomp­son-graves: Dart­mouth Women's Ski Coach

Dart­mouth's Calm, Com­pas­sion­ate and In­spir­ing Women's Ski Coach

SkiTrax - - Contents - By Sue We­myss

by Sue We­myss

We hear the ath­lete be­fore she comes into view, her pant­ing breath re­veal­ing the in­ten­sity of ef­fort that Cami Thomp­son-graves has urged her to reach. “Thatta-way . . . stretch it out . . . .” Thomp­son-graves cheers as the Dart­mouth col­le­giate crests the hill and tack­les the fi­nal sec­tion to the fin­ish. As each ath­lete passes, she calls to them, giv­ing both an en­thu­si­as­tic cheer and an en­cour­ag­ing pointer.

This is the start of Thomp­son-graves's 27th year coach­ing the skiers at Dart­mouth Col­lege, 26 of those head­ing up the women's Nordic team. This Septem­ber af­ter­noon, she is cheer­ing trail­side as the skiers per­form full-out ef­forts on a run­ning time trial up a sec­tion of the Ap­palachian Trail, the famed hik­ing trail that goes from Ge­or­gia to Maine.

“Flirt with that feel­ing of push­ing to your max­i­mum, with be­ing at that un­com­fort­able level of ef­fort, but see­ing how you can stay at that level, maybe even how you can take it up a notch,” Thomp­son-graves preps the team prior to the work­out. She calls up the im­age of Jessie Dig­gins fin­ish­ing the 2015 World Cham­pi­onship 10km in Falun, Swe­den, where Dig­gins put her all into rac­ing the course, fin­ish­ing in a heap and earn­ing the sil­ver medal. “That's the way to race – leav­ing it all on the course, and that's what to­day's ses­sion gives you a chance to work on,” Thomp­son-graves in­structs as the skiers pre­pare to go out on their warm-up.

Coach Thomp­son-graves knows what it is to race hard. She was a top col­le­giate skier for St. Lawrence Uni­ver­sity in Can­ton, N.Y., grad­u­at­ing in 1984. The fol­low­ing year, she made the U.S. Ski Team, trav­eled to Europe and com­peted in World Cup races and in the 1985 World Cham­pi­onships in Seefeld, Aus­tria. In her sec­ond win­ter of in­ter­na­tional rac­ing, she earned a 25th plac­ing at the World Cup held at Gi­ants Ridge in Bi­wabik, Minn. and a 30th at the World Cup in Lahti, Fin­land – out­stand­ing re­sults for U.S. women at the time. A big jump in train­ing hours at al­ti­tude and a lack of knowl­edge re­gard­ing ad­e­quate re­cov­ery led Thomp­son-graves to an over­trained state and her re­sults fell off. “If I only knew half of what I know now!” Thomp­son-graves light­heart­edly laments. But she quickly moved for­ward into the ca­reer she'd planned for, hav­ing ma­jored in phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion at St. Lawrence.

By ones and in pairs, the Dart­mouth women walk back by Thomp­son-graves on the trail, hav­ing fin­ished the an­nual Ap­palachian Trail time trial. A few stop by to talk; one proudly tells the coach she im­proved her per­sonal record by 50 sec­onds. Another pauses longer while her team­mates con­tinue on. She tells Thomp­son-graves about ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­culty with her breath­ing, which took her by sur­prise dur­ing the ef­fort. There is a quiver in her voice as she re­lates her thought process dur­ing the dif­fi­culty. Thomp­son-graves lis­tens in­tently. She ques­tions the ath­lete, puts forth a cou­ple of pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions and a rec­om­men­da­tion for ac­tion, all with a calm, sup­port­ive and re­as­sur­ing tone. This tone seemed to mark all of Thomp­son-graves' in­ter­changes with the women: very en­thu­si­as­tic and en­cour­ag­ing, yet calm.

Dart­mouth men's Nordic coach, Ruff Pat­ter­son, has worked with Thomp­son-graves through all of her 26 years at the col­lege. Top­ping the list of all her coach­ing strengths, Pat­ter­son em­pha­sizes her gen­uine com­pas­sion for her ath­letes. With a team that can range from top na­tional-level per­form­ers to less-ex­pe­ri­enced, de­vel­op­ing skiers, Thomp­son-graves cares deeply about each and ev­ery one of her skiers and their in­clu­sion on the Dart­mouth women's team. He sees in her the deep de­sire to help im­prove women's rac­ing and to move the sport for­ward for women, with­out see­ing it as a com­pe­ti­tion with men's ski­ing. She de­vel­ops in her ath­letes a strong sense of pride in be­ing a fe­male cross-coun­try skier.

The Dart­mouth Col­lege Ski Team is a peren­nial power in U.S. col­le­giate rac­ing. Year af­ter year, Dart­mouth Nordic skiers earn All-amer­i­can hon­ours by plac­ing in the top 10 at the Na­tional Col­lege Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion's (NCAA) Na­tional Cham­pi­onships.

They don't nec­es­sar­ily stop there, how­ever. Many Dart­mouth skiers chose to pur­sue their ski-rac­ing ca­reers af­ter col­lege, seek­ing spots on the US Ski Team and in­ter­na­tional rac­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Dur­ing Thomp­son-graves' ten­ure, eight fe­male cross-coun­try skiers have made it to the Olympics. They in­clude Nina Kem­pel, class of '92; Carolyn Treacy, '06; Sara Stude­baker, '07; Su­san Dun­klee, '08; Han­nah Dreis­si­gacker, '09; Laura Spec­tor, '10; Ida Sar­gent, '11 and So­phie Cald­well, '12. “Sochi was the best, as there were five of them; So­phie did so well and Su­san Dun­klee was

Coach Thomp­son-graves knows what it is to race hard ... she made the U.S. Ski Team, trav­eled to Europe and com­peted in World Cup races and in the 1985 World Cham­pi­onships in Seefeld, Aus­tria.

hav­ing such a great year,” said Thomp­son-graves, smil­ing broadly.

It's not by chance. Dun­klee, a top Amer­i­can fe­male biath­lete who has landed on the podium in World Cup rac­ing, re­mem­bered her years be­ing coached by Thomp­son-graves: “Cami has a quiet strength and even­keeled per­son­al­ity. She re­spected the in­di­vid­u­al­ity and per­son­al­i­ties of the women on our team and al­lowed us lat­i­tude to de­velop our own lead­er­ship skills. How­ever, she was also ready to lis­ten and ad­vise any time we needed it. She was never pos­ses­sive about our tal­ents – if an ath­lete earned an op­por­tu­nity to com­pete in Europe, she would en­cour­age them to go, even if it meant miss­ing an im­por­tant col­le­giate race. Be­ing on that team un­der Cami was an em­pow­er­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. My team­mates from col­lege are a strong group of women, and they have gone on to do in­spir­ing things, both in the realm of ski­ing and be­yond.”

Cald­well, a USST cross-coun­try mem­ber and holder of the best U.S. women's re­sult at an Olympics with her sixth-place fin­ish in the sprint at Sochi, wrote: “My ex­pe­ri­ence on the Dart­mouth Ski Team is one I will al­ways re­mem­ber, and much of that is due to Cami. Cami cre­ated a com­fort­able at­mos­phere and pro­vided the struc­ture we needed, while also teach­ing us to lead the team our­selves. She wasn't the kind of coach who mapped out ev­ery lit­tle thing you needed to do to be­come a suc­cess­ful skier. In­stead, she let us learn from our mis­takes and, more im­por­tantly, learn from other older, more ex­pe­ri­enced lead­ers on the team. Cami cared about the suc­cess of the Dart­mouth women's team, but she was also a huge sup­porter of in­di­vid­ual goals. If we qual­i­fied for a U.S. Ski Team trip and wanted to go, she en­cour­aged us to chase our dreams. Cami is a big ad­vo­cate of U.S. ski­ing in gen­eral and al­ways wanted be­ing a mem­ber of the Dart­mouth team to help us achieve our ski­ing goals, and never let it take away from them. The Dart­mouth Ski Team was dif­fer­ent each year be­cause of the in­com­ing per­son­al­i­ties of the fresh­man class and the loss of the re­cent grad­u­ates. Cami ap­proached each sea­son with that in mind and guided the team to be the strong­est it could pos­si­bly be for that group of peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar. I took com­fort in know­ing that Cami was al­ways sit­ting up­stairs in her of­fice, open to talk to us when­ever we needed it. I'm very grate­ful for my time at Dart­mouth with Cami, and I look for­ward to watch­ing her con­tri­bu­tions to both Dart­mouth ski­ing and U.S. ski­ing in the fu­ture!”

Thomp­son-graves' in­volve­ment with cross-coun­try ski­ing ex­tends be­yond the col­lege scene. She is a mem­ber of the New Eng­land Nordic Ski As­so­ci­a­tion Board of Di­rec­tors and serves as its vice-pres­i­dent. She sits on the US Ski As­so­ci­a­tion Board and was re­cently ap­pointed chair of the cross-coun­try com­mit­tee. Her new­est ap­point­ment will take her over­seas at times as a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Ski Fed­er­a­tion's Ladies Cross-coun­try Com­mit­tee.

At the heart of all these cross-coun­try-world com­mit­ments is a deep pas­sion for the sport. Ac­cord­ing to Thomp­son-graves: “I see my­self more as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor than as a leader. I want to keep the ball mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion. I love the idea of try­ing to pro­mote peo­ple be­ing in­volved in some­thing that I love. I love it when we go out ski­ing on a Tues­day af­ter­noon here, and the park­ing lot is filled and the trails are crawl­ing with lit­tle kids out ski­ing.”

Days spent coach­ing cross-coun­try can be long and tir­ing: up be­fore dawn to gather skiers and gear, prep equip­ment and test wax; at­tend to all the de­tails of get­ting a dozen skiers ready to race; stand out on the course giv­ing splits, search­ing re­sults, en­cour­ag­ing warm-downs, then pack up; and, fi­nally, make the long drive home in what can be sev­eral hours in a snow­storm! There's also the frus­tra­tion of hav­ing to deal with the many lo­gis­tics that can cut into coach­ing prep time and en­ergy. Also, as an NCAA sport, cross-coun­try is gov­erned by the same rules cre­ated for other sports such as foot­ball and base­ball. These rules don't al­ways make sense for ski­ing, but must be fol­lowed any­way.

Nev­er­the­less, af­ter more than two decades in the same po­si­tion, the pas­sion for coach­ing con­tin­ues to burn brightly. Thomp­son-graves

lights up when talk­ing about the re­wards of her pro­fes­sion: “I love work­ing with smart, mo­ti­vated ath­letes. Help­ing them to find the bal­ance be­tween be­ing a good ath­lete and manag­ing ev­ery­thing else that is go­ing on in their lives is chal­leng­ing. There are times when one sees an ath­lete strug­gling – it may be with an ill­ness, injury or with a tough class load – and you want to help them find a way through this and help them con­tinue believ­ing in them­selves and their abil­i­ties. The pace is chal­leng­ing here at Dart­mouth – it's not al­ways a pretty process – and many of them strug­gle a bit with the load. But it is the great­est thing when some­one makes or sur­passes their goal! The great­est re­wards of the job are the peo­ple. I have been lucky to work with so many great ath­letes and great peo­ple.”

The dry­land work­out con­cludes with a bar­beque at the far end of the Dart­mouth ath­letic fields. Skiers – Alpine and Nordic, men and women, fresh­men through se­niors – sit on the grass, eat­ing and so­cial­iz­ing in big in­ter­lock­ing cir­cles. The coaches give a short wel­come and ask team mem­bers to in­tro­duce them­selves. The col­le­gians are friendly, light-hearted and com­fort­able with each other. It looks like a re­ally fun team to be on.

The prepa­ra­tions for the win­ter sea­son have started. Another day done, Thomp­son-graves leaves the cam­pus known as the Big Green, named for the Green Moun­tains of her na­tive state. Thomp­son-graves, her hus­band, Peter, and her 16-year-old daugh­ter, So­phie, live across the river in East Thet­ford, Vt. Pets Coco the dog and Dobby the cat await her ar­rival. Some time spent sit­ting on the porch of their log cabin, tak­ing in the gar­dens that she and her hus­band tend through­out the sum­mer, re­ju­ve­nates this high-en­ergy wo­man. Top coaches, af­ter all, also need re­cov­ery time to per­form at their best!

(above) Thomp­son-graves' trade­mark is her gen­uine com­pas­sion for her ath­letes and know­ing how to lis­ten be­fore giv­ing calm, sup­port­ive and re­as­sur­ing ad­vice.

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