On Jan. 7, 2023, former Middlebury Nordic athlete Sophia Laukli became the youngest American to win an individual cross-country World Cup race and the first to win the “Final Climb” of the Tour de Ski race in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Laukli suited up as a Panther for the 2019–2020 season before transferring to the University of Utah to graduate as a member of the class of 2023 there. While at Middlebury, Laukli dominated the Eastern region, earning the top spot in both freestyle and classic events, playing a critical role in Middlebury’s winning 3x5 relay team in the Williams Carnival, and taking four straight victories over three Carnival competitions.
She was named the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) Rookie of the Year in 2020 and received her first of five career All-American recognitions that same year. While at Utah, she was a critical part of two NCAA Championship-winning teams and bagged the 2022 individual title in women's 15K freestyle.
Since her World Cup debut as a member of the U.S. Ski Team in 2021, Laukli has transitioned smoothly from her impressive NCAA career and made an excellent impression on the World Cup circuit. Most recently, she made waves by completing the seven-stage Tour de Ski: a multi-stage competition akin to the Tour de France that takes place as part of the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) Cross-Country World Cup. The race is among the most prestigious in the sport and includes a variety of individual sprints, pursuit races and mass starts, with the overall winner determined by the total points earned throughout the tour.
If the other stages of the Tour de Ski are hard, then the stage at Val di Fiemme is downright Herculean. A grueling 3.6 km climb preceded by seven kilometers of flat terrain and pitching up to grades of 28%, the “Final Climb,” as it has come to be known, is the crown jewel of the race. The stage may be daunting for some, but as an honest test of cardiovascular endurance, the stage was perfect for Sophia Laukli. This was her third career start at Val Di Fiemme, undoubtedly aiding her confidence at the start of the race and her hunger to win a track that seamlessly played to her strength in uphill sections.
“I was equally nervous and pretty stressed on the start line,” Laukli said. “But I think it was mostly because I was just excited to see what I could do–in the back of my mind, I knew that on a really good day, I had a chance to win the stage.”
As the gap widened between Laukli and her competition in the final leg of the race, she pushed across the finish line with an unrelenting effort to find the top of the podium. Within 500 meters of the finish line, her endurance allowed her to leave Norwegian leader Heidi Weng in the dust and use the remainder of her energy to carry her toward victory.
Winning the final stage by 17.1 seconds with a time of 38:16.5, Laukli landed 14th overall in the Tour de Ski, which places her in 22nd place overall among women in the World Cup standings and third among American skiers, behind Jessie Diggins (No. 1) and Rosie Brennan (No. 3).
Laukli described the feeling of her victory, citing the first several minutes before the weight of her achievement had sunk in. “It is such a unique race and any first World Cup win takes a while to sink in, but I do know it will be one of my most memorable races,” she said.
From an outstanding performance in a truly gritty event, Laukli has certainly solidified herself as a contender for top finishes in all skate and classic distance races. Going forward, she is hoping to channel this momentum gained from her first World Cup victory into a successful rest of her World Cup season, which will continue through March.
Next, the World Cup schedule will bring Laukli closer to home for competitions in Canmore, Canada and Minneapolis beginning on Feb. 9.