A year ago, Yarmouth native Sophia Laukli was preparing to make her debut on Nordic skiing’s World Cup circuit.

Now she’s preparing for the Winter Olympics.

On Thursday, Laukli and seven other women were named to the U.S. Olympic Cross Country Team that will compete in the Beijing Games in February.

“I was thinking of that,” Laukli said of her rapid rise to Nordic skiing’s upper echelon. “A year ago, the Olympics were definitely not on my radar. I was just trying to find some races to do that season.”

Laukli, 21, spoke by phone Thursday from a pre-Olympics training camp in Italy. She currently ranks 31st in World Cup distance events and 46th overall. She competed in her first World Cup race on Jan. 23, 2021, in Finland, and didn’t break into the rankings until early December, when she placed 19th in a 10-kilometer freestyle race in Davos, Switzerland.

She subsequently earned four more top-50 finishes this winter at World Cup races in three different countries, culminating in a career-best fifth in a 10K freestyle mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, that included a steep climb. Turns out that fifth-place finish wasn’t a factor in her Olympic selection, she said. The top-50 distance ranking was more important.

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DAVOS MADE THE DIFFERENCE

“What actually qualified me was the race in Davos,” she said. “If I ended up not being top 50, that race (in Italy) would have been a helpful argument. It certainly didn’t hurt.”

Joining Laukli in Beijing will be Olympic veterans Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan and Caitlin Patterson, as well as fellow first-timers Julia Kern, Hailey Swirbul, Hannah Halvorsen and Novie McCabe. At 20, McCabe is the youngest member of Team USA.

The U.S. women, by virtue of placing third overall in the World Cup standings last winter, are allotted eight spots in the Beijing Games. The American men, ranked ninth, started with five spots but gained another one because not all nations filled their quota.

Scott Patterson of Alaska, Caitlin’s brother, is the only men’s holdover from the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Gus Schumacher, Luke Jager, Ben Ogden, Kevin Bolger and JC Schoonmaker are all first-time Olympians. Aside from the 28-year-old Bolger, all the newcomers were born in 2000.

“There’s a lot of young people on the team this year,” said Laukli, who actually learned of her nomination a week ago. “And with COVID especially, there’s so much on the line and so much that could go wrong, so we were kind of scared to get excited about it because at any moment it could go away.”

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“We are incredibly excited to be welcoming so many athletes to their first Olympic team,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country Director Chris Grover said in a news release. “We’ve been watching this American talent emerge at World Juniors for the past five seasons, and now these very same athletes (who) have brought home so much hardware are populating the Olympic team.”

A 2018 graduate of Yarmouth High, Laukli was selected as the Varsity Maine girls’ skier of the year as a senior. She spent two years at Middlebury College in Vermont before transferring to the University of Utah, where she is a junior. In early 2020, she placed fifth in a 15K freestyle race at the Nordic Junior World Championships in Germany and second in the 5K freestyle at the NCAA Championships, the remainder of which was canceled because of the pandemic.

Later that spring, she joined the women’s development team for the U.S. Cross Country Ski program. Last March, she accepted an invitation as an alternate to the Nordic World Championships, also in Germany, and wound up placing 23rd in a 10K freestyle, 25th in a 15K skiathlon (half classic, half freestyle) and 28th in a 30K classic race.

“I went there with no (guaranteed) starts,” said Laukli, who now makes Salt Lake City her home. “I was lucky and ended up getting three. Here, it’s definitely going to be a bit harder to get starts. It’s looking like I’ll probably only have one but obviously things can change. If I get one, I’ll be really excited.”

LIKELY TO RACE 30K FREESTYLE

The first Olympic Nordic race is the women’s skiathlon Feb. 5 and the last is the women’s 30K freestyle mass start Feb. 20. Although the U.S. can enter four skiers per event, three of those slots are likely reserved for 2018 gold medalist Diggins, two-time World Cup winner Brennan and Swirbul, a World Cup bronze medalist last winter.

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“The two (races) that I would be most excited to do would be the skiathlon and the 30K,” Laukli said. “But right now, it’s looking like I will probably get the 30K. It’s the very last day, so I’ll be there a long time.”

Laukli is one of five athletes with Maine ties to earn a berth on the U.S. squad at the Beijing Olympics.

Former University of Maine track and field teammates Frank Del Duca of Bethel and Jimmy Reed were named Monday to the U.S. bobsled team. Emily Sweeney, who was born in Portland and lived in Falmouth until her family moved to Connecticut when she was 10, was named to the U.S. Olympic luge team last week.

Cape Elizabeth native Clare Egan met the selection criteria last winter for her second straight Winter Olympics in biathlon. Like Laukli, Egan competed in Nordic skiing in high school.

Retired Yarmouth High Nordic coach Bob Morse said he felt ecstatic upon hearing of Laukli’s selection and sent a text to former Cape Elizabeth coach Deven Morrill saying now they both have something to brag about.

“It’s quite a tribute to the whole Maine Nordic program to have Clare and Sophia race in the Olympics,” Morse said. “I have a big smile on my face.”

Sophia’s mother, Amy Ireland, is similarly excited.

“It’s beyond words how happy I am for her,” Ireland said.

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