Laukli unlocks energy to win gold at Tour de Ski
A champion on the winter snow and summer trails
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
The women cross-country skiers in the Jan. 7 10km Mass Start at the Tour de Ski were beginning to fall away as they climbed the steep alpine course at Val di Fiemme, Italy, the apex 28% grade, 425m high. Not only is it the stretch run of the race but the culmination of seven sprint and distance races over nine days at three different venues.
The 23-year-old Norwegian American Sophia Laukli had been holding back. Norway’s Heidi Weng, two-time Tour de Ski champ and participant since 2010, had experience on Alpe Cermis. She grabbed the lead. Laukli slipped at a curve, recovered, and shortly after was right behind Weng.
“I don’t think too tactically about many races, except for this one,” said Laukli, a few days later from Oslo. “It’s a unique race where you have that beginning stretch that is a very narrow trail and impossible to pass.
“I just wanted to be sitting behind whoever was leading. It was either going to be Heidi or the Frenchwoman Delphine Claudel. At first, the pack was just staying together, and I hoped it would break apart soon, which luckily it did. When Heidi attacked, I followed and hoped I wasn’t going too fast.”
As the course flattened toward the finish line, Laukli burst ahead. Not showing any fatigue, she powered the rest of the way and crossed the finish line in 38:16.5, +17.1 ahead of Weng, a +37.7 advantage over Claudel.
“It’s really steep the whole way until around 600 meters left,” said Laukli. “I didn’t want to go too early and then blow up. As it flattened out, I could see the finish. I waited, stayed behind, the whole steep part. People were struggling at the end.”
Remarkably, Laukli wasn’t. “When I crossed the finish line, I was shocked that I wasn’t that tired,” she said. “A lot of that had to do with being able to follow someone up the whole way …. I also realized that maybe I was a little bit too conservative, which I don’t regret, but it’s normally the one race of the year where I need to think about it.”
It was Laukli’s first victory of her career. Her only other podium was third in the same event at Val di Fiemme last year.
“It’s safe to say that’s probably my favorite event of the year,” said Laukli. “I guess it’s my third time (competing in it). In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘this is the race to have the biggest goals. I was nervous but I was excited to be able to win.”
Jessie Diggins walked over to her teammate. It looked like she said. “You won.”
“To be honest, I blanked out immediately after the race,” said Laukli. “I’m not 100% sure what she said but I kind of remember hearing ‘you just won a World Cup.’ The win raises her stature on the American team, but that might have occurred when she ran the third leg of a relay earlier this season with Diggins, Rosie Brennan, and Julia Kern, the best of the American women.
“Obviously, I like skiing with all of them a lot, but it was my first time being on a relay,” said Laukli. “I’d never been put on the first team. It was daunting but was very cool. Finally, I was considered, not among them, but being put on the same playing field as them. They are super fun to be a part of, and it’s so unique a race. There’s just a completely different pressure especially when the team is doing so well, and you don’t want to lose more places. I hadn’t had that before.
“The majority of the U.S team now is really young but having Jessie and Rosie is definitely, really helpful, inspiring for everyone on the team, to be able to have these very seasoned athletes to look up to.”
Another factor may have contributed to Laukli’s stamina in the 10km race. In the off season, she competes on the professional trail running circuit. Despite starting the sport in 2021, she is the defending champion of the Golden Trail World Series—the most competitive global series for sub-ultra distance trail running.
“I’m still trying to navigate if the running has had an impact,” she said. “I think I can confidently say it hasn’t had a downside, just based on improved results the whole year. For something like the Tour de Ski, those three- to four-hour runs in the summer, probably helped me sustain through the seven races, maybe compared to other skiers.
“I can see that skiing helps the running. I’m able to train so much more because I’m doing roller skating, strength, and all this other cross training. I do think that it helps my running. But for the other way around, it helps with the mental piece of things.”
Laukli grew up in Boston, Mass., and Yarmouth, Maine. Her father, Bjørn, is a native Norwegian. Her mother is American but is a skier. Like most Norwegian parents, they had the Laukli children on skis at an early age. From when the children were 1 or 2 years old, Bjørn only communicated with them in Norwegian. Laukli lives in Norway now to train and where there is lots of family.
“I don’t remember learning Norwegian, I just knew it growing up,” said Laukli, who also is fluent in French. “When I was much younger, we lived in Norway for a couple years. That is when I got fluent, and then lost it again when I moved back to the United States. I’ve been able to get much better now that I’m living here. I remember skiing since forever. It wasn’t until the end of high school, that I really put much into it. It was very recreational and fun for me. The transition from high school to college is when I really put a lot more dedication into it.”
She started at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., then transferred to University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Laukli was NCAA champion in the 15km Skate and second in 5km Classic in 2022 and placed 15th in 30km Skate at the Beijing Olympics for Team USA.
That summer was her first appearance on the Golden Trail World Series presented by Salomon. She placed second in the season overall rankings and first in the 26km GTWS Stranda Fjord (Norway) competition and 26km GTNS (National Series) Broken Arrow Sky Race (California). In 2023, Laukli received her degrees in economics and nutrition from the University of Utah and was the GTWS Overall Champion.
“Running is very new to me,” said Laukli. “Growing up, running was not my go-to. We ran so much in ski training. There was a random race in Alaska where I was training. That’s how it started. I didn’t know what mountain running was. It was a very quick thing for me to start and then got really good within a year. World champion in my second year is crazy to think about, I feel lucky to have come across it randomly and had that much success already.”
With dual citizenship, Laukli had the choice to compete for the United States or Norway, but having grown up in the United States, sees herself as “full American.” Now, she shares in the U.S. team’s excitement for the Minneapolis World Cup.
“For every single one of us, that’s been our big focus, and now it’s finally getting close,” she said. “That’s all anyone is talking about. It will especially mean a lot to Jessie and Rosie, after it was canceled (in 2020), to be able to do it. It’s funny for me because I’ve never been to Minneapolis so it’s not really a home course, but it’ll feel that way. It’s going to be a really unique World Cup environment, which I just keep being told about. More and more people are coming to see it.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.