Cami Thompson-graves: Dartmouth Women's Ski Coach
Dartmouth's Calm, Compassionate and Inspiring Women's Ski Coach
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.