Vail ski program lets students pursue goals
VAIL — Sixteen-year-old Colin Hayes dares to dream big.
He’d like to go to an Ivy League school. Maybe Dartmouth, where he’d also like to compete on the ski team.
“The U.S. Ski Team, if I’m lucky enough,” Hayes said last week as he paused to talk before taking another slalom training run at Vail Mountain.
If Hayes succeeds, it won’t just be a matter of luck. Hayes has taken matters into his own hands by enrolling in the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. Part of the Eagle County School District, it’s the only public winter-sports academy in the United States, and it seeks to help youths balance the goals of excelling in Alpine skiing, snowboard and Nordic sports and getting a good education.
It features a rigorous daily schedule that includes sports training all morning and classroom instruction all afternoon, along with programs aimed at accommodating the educational needs of traveling athletes.
The importance of what the academy provides is exemplified by what Hayes was missing when he was going to high school on the Front Range. Squeezing in an hour or two of training time a day was always a challenge, as was trying to keep up good grades with all the time away while competing.
“My math teacher, she wouldn’t give my an ‘A’ no matter how good I did in her class, just because I missed so much stuff,” Hayes said.
It’s a conundrum that can challenge many a winter-sports athlete trying to succeed in school as well.
“The better you do, the more school you miss,” said Rich Vossler, a coach with the nonprofit Ski & Snowboard Club Vail.
It was with that challenge in mind that the club’s executive director, Aldo Radamus, a former U.S. Ski Team coach, started working with the school district on the idea of a winter-sports academy.
Said Vossler, “We’re trying to create a system … where both academic and athletic potential can reach its highest level. Our goal is to put educated kids on the U.S. Ski Team.”
Motivation and results
As for academics, students — some bearing ski goggle tans, and some with casts and braces that show the physical toll their sports can take — remain in classes until late afternoon to meet state requirements. They exceeded requirements in every area tested in Colorado Student Assessment Program exams, said Geoffrey Grimmer, the academy’s head of school. Student ACT scores averaged 23 this year, putting the academy among the top schools in the state, he said. The school’s graduation rate of 89 percent is above the Eagle district’s average. Advanced Placement classes and ones providing dual college and high school credit are among the offerings.
Grimmer said he thinks the academy’s test results reflect highly motivated students who are good at setting academic goals, not just athletic ones.
“It bleeds into everything they do. They attack their opportunities academically,” he said.
They also are motivated by the threat of being forced to spend mornings in study hall instead of on the snow if they’re struggling with a failing grade in any class.
The academy tries to help students balance sports and school through means such as: lightening the course load with more electives during the peak winter-competition season; providing tutors, funded by the ski club, who travel with athletes; and making use of online offerings such as Blackboard, so students can receive instruction, assignments and otherwise keep up on their work on the laptop computers they are required to have. The academy also has outfitted each teacher with an iPad to better facilitate teaching.
Said Nigel Cooper, director of program development for the ski and snowboard club, “Really, the nice outcome here is there’s no compromise in education, and there’s no compromise in athletics. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
The price is right
Better yet, the public nature of the academy makes it affordable to some students who otherwise might be precluded from participating. Being a public school, it provides academic education free to students. Cooper said the more traditional private ski academy might cost $25,000 or more a year.
The ski club still charges for its portion of schooling, such as for its coaching. That portion can cost more than $7,000 a year, but Cooper said the club tries to support local kids by offering a subsidy of up to 40 percent of fees for Eagle County residents. In addition, the club offers as much as $150,000 in scholarships each year.
“One of our goals is to effectively reduce or eliminate the financial barrier for any winter sport for any kid,” he said.
Said Grimmer, “I think we’ve shown that we can support the best athletes, not the richest athletes. As a public ski academy, I know that my doors are open to kids who would not be able to afford a private-school academy no matter how skilled they are.”
Some of the students come from out of state, but about 85 to 90 percent are from Colorado, he said. As long as their families pay taxes in the state, their kids can attend the academy for free, meaning that a youth living in Grand Junction and showing an aptitude in a winter sport might be able to take advantage of what the academy offers.
“We want to support these athletes around the state,” Grimmer said.
Some families move to the area so their children can attend, but Grimmer said the school also hopes to offer a dormitory within a few years as an option for students.
The school is housed in a serene mountain setting just outside of Minturn, a short bus ride for students from the morning training site. The building also is home to Minturn Middle School, but the district is moving that school, and the ski club is trying to buy the facility housing the academy.
However that process plays out, Grimmer foresees the academy possibly growing to 180 to 200 students in five or six years, and expanding to fifth grade. It’s now for sixth through 12th grades. The academy is in its fourth year, and its second as a separate school after formerly being offered within Battle Mountain High School.
Grimmer said candidate students train for a day with a club coach who assesses their abilities and passions, and then the school ranks them on factors such as their academic strengths. He said the academy may have about 130 applications by April for 40 or 50 openings the next school year.
Successful candidates will be able to take advantage of what the United States Ski and Snowboard Association last year recognized as the Alpine club of the year and overall club of the year. The ski and snowboard club staff ranges from 75 to 90 in number and trains 510 youth and adult athletes. A recent $3 million investment in snowmaking now enables it to begin mountain training Nov. 1, rather than being forced to wait sometimes until mid-December for proper conditions.
Time to train
For academy students, being able to get quality training time on the mountain is key in pursuing their goals.
Skier Alex Sierant, 14, said being able to spend all morning practicing is helping him learn more aerial tricks he can throw into competitions.
“I’m doing a lot better,” he said, before launching into another acrobatic jump off a ramp.
“We get to train more here, a lot more,” said 12-year-old Paula Cooper, after taking a practice slalom run and asking coach Ian Lochhead if he had seen her whole performance.
“Can you please tell me you saw the top?” she demanded.
“Why?” Lochhead asked.
“Because it was awesome,” she said.
Paula is one of several examples of students with siblings at the academy — in her case, Julia, 16, and Kate, 15. The family just moved from Steamboat Springs to be able to take advantage of the academy.
“It’s been working very well for us so far. There’s no way we’d even consider a private academy with three kids,” said their mom, Anya Cooper, noting what she said was a potential $60,000 cost of going the private route.
A ski school that accommodates academics also is important for her daughters, she said.
“They are very aware that you cannot just count on being an Olympic gold medalist. You have to have a backup plan, which involves doing well in school,” Anya Cooper said.
She added it isn’t fair to ask teachers in a regular school setting to deal with the kind of time away required by athletes like her daughters.
Grimmer said it used to be that 30 to 40 kids a year in Eagle County were missing 20 to 50 days a year because of snow sports, causing frustration for teachers who had to help the students catch up.
Now the academy is providing a solution that works well for a premier winter resort community, and for families like the Davises, who have local skiing roots. Mom Carey Davis has a grandmother, Cathy Douglas, 90, who competed in ski races until three years ago. Dad Tad Davis is a counselor at the academy, which sons Quin and Todger attend.
“It’s a great way for kids to grow up in this type of community,” Tad Davis said of the academy.
It’s also a great way to chase big aspirations.
Says Vail native and 14-year-old skier Erika McCormick, “It’s been my dream since I was like 7 to make the U.S. Ski Team. I’ve always wanted to very badly, and the academy is going to make that possible, I think.”