Interview Sophia Laukli: Success in two different sport worlds

Sophia Laukli ist sowohl auf Ski als auch in Trailschuhen äußerst erfolgreich

US-American Sophia Laukli came onto the trail scene as a career changer and has been running from victory to victory ever since. Born in the state of Maine, the cross-country skier impressed in the 2023 season with victories in two of the most prestigious trail races in the world: the Marathon du Mont Blanc and Sierre-Zinal. She sensationally won the overall ranking of the Golden Trail World Series. As a cross-country skier, she attracted attention a few months later when she won the final stage of the 2023/24 Tour de Ski in Val di Fiemme on the Alpe Cermis.

Together with our sister portal, we asked Sophia for a „double interview“:

Interview Sophia Laukli Sophia, you’re currently skiing and running from success to success. Even though you’ve probably had to answer this question 1000 times: What is your main sport? After this great trail running season, do you still see yourself primarily as a cross-country skier?

I still consider myself a cross country skier first, but I am seeing myself more and more committed to running, so it’s just about balancing the two together. With that being said, all of my training and yearly planning is still built around skiing. However, last year’s running season has definitely motivated me more in running and want to take the next step. As of now, it’s not really choosing one over the other, but it’s great to see that I can mainly prioritize skiing, and have that work really well for running success as well. You are living proof that two different sports can be practised at the highest level. To what extent do you benefit from winter training in summer and vice versa?

From a training and performance standpoint, I would say that my ski training benefits my running more so than vice versa. Skiing allows me to train many more hours with all of the roller skiing and cross training, helping build a really strong endurance base and better avoid running injuries and things like that. I think the running races themselves still have some benefit for skiing as well. The 3-4 hour races and long sustained efforts in the summer certainly add to the overall fitness as well, making events like the Tour de Ski and the longer races (20km plus) more manageable. However, I think one of the main advantages and reasons I choose to pursue both is the mental and motivationing side of things. Having two separate seasons throughout the year makes it easier to stay excited and motivated for each, when I’m able to distract or put more focus in one or the other when I see fit. In general, it just creates a more sustainable environment around a career in sport for me to have two different seasons to pursue. What about your partners, coaches and sponsors? Do they like the fact that you are present in both summer and winter, or would they like you to be more focussed? Do you have different partners depending on the season?

There definitely comes a time where the running and skiing world conflict a bit, mainly with coaching or at race events. I would say it has mostly been very supportive though. My main support system in each understand that it’s important for me to do both, and therefore makes me perform better in both when I can stick to this approach. In terms of sponsors, it’s really great to work with a brand like Salomon who now sponsors me in both running and skiing. This makes the dual-sport athlete approach more of an opportunity to collaborate and build on the multi sport aspect of my career, rather than something that always forces compromise and balance. Which training sessions are perfect for trail runners in winter and can strengthen them for the summer?

I think any form of cross training in the off season provides the most benefit for trail runners. Whether it be skiing (in any form), biking, or really any other endurance-based sport, these all still build the fitness and endurance for running, while taking off the persistent stress and taxing on the body that running all year can do. I think most runners understand this and already practice doing sports and training outside of running, in particular in the winter. Again, I think it has both physical/performance benefits, but also helps mentally to take some time off running 365 days a year. Is there actually an off-season for you, or does the training merge seamlessly? And if so, how do you avoid overtraining?

I don’t exactly have an off-season, so I’m still trying to navigate ways to avoid overtraining and burnout. Both when skiing wraps up in the spring and running in the fall, it’s just a few days before I need to transition to the next season. This can be tough but I still give myself some time to reset and have at least a short “vacation” in between each. For where I am now, I enjoy packing everything in and moving onto the next right away, but I know down the line I will need to be a bit more thoughtful in how I balance it all, especially in terms of overtraining. I do work a lot with my current coach to make sure I’m smarter about training and really easing into each season gradually. What does the „transition phase“ between winter and summer look like for you? Could you outline a typical training week in spring for us here?

I don’t know that I necessarily have a typical spring training week designed yet, as that is something I will be figuring out as I finish up the ski season this year. I know I can’t go all in with running right away, especially since I take such a long break with consistent running in the ski season. I will try to start running a bit more during the last few weeks of ski racing to avoid such a shock to the system. I’ll still implement skiing and roller skiing into the spring training as well to help avoid injury and have a smoother transition. Was there a key moment in your life when you realised that you wanted to become a professional athlete?

It was relatively late that I found myself in the position to actually pursue sport as a career. Through childhood and high school I always enjoyed competing and participating in sport, but I never dreamed or thought I would become a professional athlete. It wasn’t until my sophomore or junior year of college when I realized it was becoming a realistic option to go full-time as an athlete. At the time I was really focused on my studies and skiing on a college team was the perfect combination to have both. As I started to race more internationally though and eventually earn a spot at the Beijing Olympics, my mentality shifted once I saw the opportunities and potential I could have if I committed fully to sport. I would almost say that the “key moment” wasn’t until I was racing at the Olympics, so deciding on a career in sport essentially coincided with being on the professional stage for the first time. I feel pretty lucky that it really just fell into my lap this way, but I’m also grateful that I came to this realization later on so that now I can see a much longer future for myself in sport. Please give us a brief insight into your 2024 season plans. Which trail events and series would you like to compete in?

 I will focus again on the Golden Trail World Series this year. The shorter distance circuit is still the most suitable for me when I’m pursuing skiing at the same time, so this series makes the most sense. I also just had a lot of fun with it last season and racing events like Marathon du Mont Blanc and Sierre-Zinal for the first time, so I wan’t to come back and do some of the same races, but also compete in some new ones as well. It’s certainly hard to fully plan out the season when the focus right now is skiing, but I’d like to compete in the GTWS races in Asia and hope to race at Zegama as well. I’ve found that I need some flexibility in my approach to the running season, so racing plans are always changing, but I’m excited to get back into it after the winter. Congratulations to your first victory in the cross country skiing Worldcup! So it seems like this Final Climb at the end of the Tour de Ski fits you quite well. Is running up that alpine slope similar to trailrunning?

There are definitely some similarities between trail running and the final climb in the Tour de Ski. I wouldn’t say the races themselves are that alike, but in regard to how most ski races and courses go, Alpe Cermis has the most crossover to a running race. Since it is a pure uphill course, it is simply a test of endurance and fitness, and that is a lot of what dictates trail races as well. There are obviously technical aspects and skill in both, but when it comes to “tests of endurance” which is likely my biggest strength, races like the final climb, and running races in general, will always suit me well. Overall you took 14th place in Tour de Ski. Are you satisfied with your overall performance?

 Especially compared to last year I am quite happy with my overall Tour result. Since the overall standing is based on multiple disciplines and includes sprinting, I am not so focused on where I end up in the overall, since I know I’m at a bit of a disadvantage for being quite specialized still. I’m obviously more of a distance skier and have yet to figure out sprinting, so instead of the overall I put more emphasis on the individual races in the Tour and getting top results there. I know that eventually I would like to set higher goals for the overall standing, since that is really what the Tour is about, but that will take some time to improve more as an all-around skier. Your teammate Jessie Diggins won the Tour so there was pretty much to celebrate. Is this success still something special, as the US Ski Team grows more and more into a cross country skiing nation with all the victories during the last years?

 I would definitely say Jessie’s victory was still hugely celebrated and felt special. We have acknowledged as a team that podiums and top 10s or 20s might feel “less celebrated” because it is more the norm now. However, that in itself is incredibly special and motivating to acknowledge because it just proves how far the US as a nation has come in cross country skiing. It’s almost more accomplishing to see that we are less phased by these standout results, and that is more so what we emphasize in each celebration–how far we have come. In February the Worldcup will come to the USA and there will be races in Minneapolis. Are you looking forward to this “home race”?

 While it will actually be my first time racing in Minneapolis, it’s really exciting to still have the feeling of a “home race” on World Cup. These races along with those in Canmore were definitely the highlight and focus for the season, so now that they are actually right around the corner, I can’t wait. I’m hoping to have some really good races there, but I’m more so just excited to have this opportunity to race in the US with home fans, and have results come second. This always makes racing a bit more fun, when there’s less performance pressure and it’s more about embracing the experience. Despite racing or training at home, where is your most loved place to ski?

I feel I have always bounced around with where I train and race, but my favorite place to ski is probably still Norway, in particular Sjusjøen. Maybe one of the least original answers, but there’s probably a reason for that. Norway is obviously home to skiing, so it makes a bit of sense that I can remember some of my best skis being there. You are 23 years old, so the future still lies in front of you! What are your main goals in cross country skiing for the coming years?

My approach to both skiing and running is taking it year by year. Like I mentioned, I never thought I would be skiing where I am today, so I will just have to see where skiing takes me. I do know I am committed to skiing through the 2026 Olympics, but beyond that I’ll see what comes. I appreciate this mentality and it makes me more excited to see what possibilities arise. It has been motivating to see improvements each season though, in turn making me much more ambitious with result goals and continuing to move up. A few years a go, I would never have considered a championship medal to be a goal, so seeing that now as a potential goal in the future is quite surreal, but exciting. At the end of this interview we from need to know of course, why cross country skiing is the best sport in the world? ?

Something I love about cross country skiing is how universal of a sport it is. It combines recreation and elite competition, as well as both a team and individual sporting environment. I wouldn’t say cross country skiing is the only sport with this attribute, but it is one of the things I appreciate most about it. I grew up skiing mainly for recreation, so it is cool for me to think about how I have utilized both sides of the sport and taken it from something I seeked out just for fun, and transitioned to the full competitive version. Now, I feel I can still combine the too which makes it that much more sustainable.