‘I like the chaos’: how Sophia Laukli became a world-class athlete in two sports | Sport

For most pro athletes, racing for 11 months each year in two different sports would be daunting, if not downright exhausting. For Sophia Laulki, it offers balance.

During the winter, Laukli races for the US ski team in the FIS Cross Country World Cup. During the summer she competes in the Golden Trail World Series against the best short distance trail runners on the planet. In between, she allows herself the decadent luxury of an entire week off.

“Coaches and teammates don’t always understand it, but the truth is I need both to be good at either one,” says Laukli. “I would burn out if I did the same sport all year long.”

It’s jarring to hear someone say they are doing more to avoid burning out, a state of affair that isn’t lost on Laukli. “Before I started running competitively, I almost gave up on skiing because it was too much of the same thing,” she says. “Doing both means I’m happier, but I do sacrifice things on the margins, like the overlap in spring and fall.”

Her strategy, even if it is imperfect, has worked well. Laukli, who is only 23, had banner seasons in both sports, proving she can simultaneously compete at the highest level in trail running and nordic skiing.

Last summer, Laukli won a trio of famous races – the Mont Blanc Marathon, Sierre-Zinal, and Pikes Peak Ascent – before sealing the Golden Trail Championship in October. Three months later Laukli won the final stage of the Tour de Ski, making her the youngest American ever to win a World Cup race. Surprisingly, being a professional athlete was never her plan, let alone a two-sport star.

Laukli grew up in Maine where her parents, Amy and Bjorn, both All-Americans in college, taught her to ski when she was two years old. However, skiing remained recreational for most of her childhood, while she focused on other sports, like soccer. “Skiing would have never been as important without my parents, but having your parents as your middle school coaches is complicated at times, too,” admits Laukli.

Instead of focusing on skiing, Laukli dabbled. “My parents gave me a lot of freedom. They never said ‘no’ so I tried a million things. I cut off my hair, ran around the woods, rode a unicycle, made mud potions, and played with imaginary fairies. I never wanted to do what everyone was doing, because that wasn’t fun. That’s where my unique approach began.”

Laukli nearly stopped skiing as she entered high school, but her older sister convinced her to stick with it. Bob Morse, a coach of 48 years, helped her fall in love with the sport. “He created an atmosphere that was all about the team; it was more than racing for yourself,” says Laukli.

Laukli was the top skier in her state as a senior, but she still didn’t see a future on snow. “I remember watching the 2018 Olympics and not once thinking about racing in 2022,” says Laukli, who would go on to represent the US in Beijing and place 15th in the 30km freestyle.

Her perspective changed at Middlebury College, as she was pushed to a new level. “I started improving quickly, surrounded by people who were better than me,” says Laukli, who, as a freshman, qualified for FIS Junior World Championships and placed second in the 5km freestyle at NCAAs. The following year she transferred to the University of Utah and made her first start in the World Cup, a further testament to her competitive nature, which she says she inherited from her mother.

“We had an unspoken competition between us all the time, especially when we were at a similar level in college,” says Laukli, with a smile. “I see the ways she’s competitive and that’s exactly how I am. When friends meet her they often say: ‘Now I see where you get it.’”

Laukli’s parents have always been deeply invested in her career, traveling to as many of her skiing and running races as possible. “When I was young it felt like pressure, but I now realize that they just wanted to be on the journey with me,” says Laukli. “Not every skier has parents as supportive as I do. They are my biggest fanboy and fangirl, which I try to never take for granted, even if it embarrasses me sometimes.”

In January, as Laukli won the last stage of the Tour de Ski, the first person she saw was her dad, which seemed impossible. “Nobody is allowed into the finish area, not even my coach. But my dad somehow got in and I was blown away,” says Laukli. “I was more surprised to see him than I was to win the race.”

That day made Laukli the youngest American ever to win a World Cup race, but she still feels behind peers who started skiing seriously and training year-round at a much younger age. “It’s good and bad. Mostly I’m grateful I came in so late, because a lot of people burn out before they reach their potential. I’m still catching up on technique, but that’s motivational to me. I have so much room to improve, which can play to my advantage.”

As a college senior, Laukli was selected for the US Olympic team as an alternate, without guaranteed starts. After three weeks of waiting, on the last day of the Games, she was given an opportunity to race and skied well until the last lap, accidentally missing a turn near the finish and dropping a few places. “The whole experience was bittersweet. I saw the spectacle, but walked away knowing I have to come back and do better.”

Despite reaching the upper echelon of skiing, Laukli had long hated running. During high school summers she would find ways to avoid it. “I would run when cars passed, then I’d walk,” she says. “I would go into the woods and sit on a stump for an hour and pretend to stretch if someone passed.”

It wasn’t until college that Laukli learned to enjoy trail running, getting to explore the mountains outside Sun Valley and Bozeman during summer camps for nordic skiing, which consisted of a variety of cross training, including trail running. A year later, while in Alaska, she signed up on a whim for Bird Ridge, a popular race outside Anchorage, and won. She then won a second race in Utah, also without training. Salomon saw a few clips of Laukli racing and reached out, offering to sponsor her with shoes and a travel stipend. Still, she entered 2022 as an unknown, but that changed quickly.

Laukli started the season by winning the Broken Arrow Skyrace, one of the most prestigious races in the country. Fast forward two years, and she is regarded as one of the dominant forces in the sport and has learned a lot in the process, even when she’s won.

“I was cocky going into Pikes Peak. I normally start with the pack and avoid being aggressive, but that day I just sent it and opened up a gap,” says Laukli. “Eventually Judith [Wyder] caught me and I just had to hope she didn’t have another gear.” Laukli tucked in behind her main competition and held on until they got close to the finish, before breaking away for the win.

“Even though I won, it was humbling. It reminded me of my first ski races in middle school when I was getting passed by people who were training harder and smarter than me.”

This trail running season, Laukli is hoping to make a statement, which she says starts with balance. “Too much confidence is harmful to my performance,” says Laukli. “I like being nervous at the start line because it helps me race smart. If I’m not nervous, I’m too confident.”

Balance also means taking small breaks when she needs them. “When I was younger, I wouldn’t go anywhere, even for a day, where I couldn’t roller ski and train,” she says. “Now I give myself more leniency and don’t need 365 days of perfect training, which makes me less stressed in the long term.”

In the big picture, Laukli is taking things one year at a time. “Maybe this isn’t sustainable forever, but racing is what motivates me the most right now. My schedule wouldn’t work for everybody, but I like the chaos of it,” says Laukli. “My big goal is to be remembered as a two-sport athlete with a unique approach.”

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