Possibilities seem endless for teen Axel Urie
It was in the hour before dawn, as the snow piled up and the wind howled and the icicles formed at the end of his gloved fingertips, that Axel Urie felt the most hopeless.
A family snowmobile outing on Grand Mesa had gone awry, and Urie, then 15, spent the night alone on the mountain.
But huddled in a snow cave he had built, Urie never let himself think he would die up there, that he wouldn’t be rescued. It didn’t matter that he had no food or water, or that a pair of snow caves he erected previously collapsed on him.
That’s what comes with being an optimist, with self-confidence, with considerable ability — all at an age when many teenagers are struggling to find themselves.
Three years later, as he prepares to graduate from Central High School, the possibilities seem endless for Urie, an actor, singer, dancer, tutor and student-government leader who focuses each day both on improving himself and those around him.
As he waits to hear back from a veritable Who’s-Who list of colleges and considers his professional pursuits, he’s finding his biggest problem is choosing from his multiple interests.
He knows this much:
“I want to change the world in some way,” he said with no hint of pomposity.
A devotion to education helped forge that lofty goal. Rather than view school as a necessary evil, Urie has embraced it at all grade levels, believing he should give back to something he received for free. Classes also represented a positive diversion for him while his parents were going through a divorce.
As he transitioned from middle school to high school, his middle school principal encouraged him to run for Student Senate.
“I immediately knew it was meant for me,” Urie said, embracing his enjoyment of public speaking and the family-like setting student government created.
His peers elected him president of the freshman class. He tried to convince others to run against him. When they didn’t, he was elected class president during his sophomore and junior years. As a senior, he serves as head boy.
His experience with Student Senate has served as a springboard to other political forays. A week after he had his wisdom teeth yanked out, he organized a group of student volunteers to prepare the Central gymnasium for President Obama’s health care town hall last August.
He wrote a pair of letters to Obama asking the president to autograph the gym wall and a couple of books and left them in the boys’ locker room, where Obama waited before appearing on stage. Obama’s signature now adorns the wall.
Urie also met Obama backstage and led the Pledge of Allegiance prior to the start of the town hall.
He just returned from a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., as part of the U.S. Senate Youth Program. As one of only two teenagers in Colorado selected for the program — applicants had to rank academically in the top 1 percent of state students to become delegates — Urie received a $5,000 college scholarship and an all-expenses-paid opportunity to meet a U.S. Supreme Court justice, members of Obama’s cabinet and congressional policy-makers.
Urie embraces his interest in politics but isn’t sure he wants to make a career of it. He isn’t enamored with what he sees as a polarization of the country. So he immerses himself in a host of other pursuits.
He’s been involved in theater all four years at Central and in choir for three years. He works as a math tutor during the summer. To challenge himself, he took a Japanese class at Mesa State College last year and wants to teach himself to play the piano.
“I really like being who I am and want to be a better person every day,” he said. “I like being able to see people at their best.”
Given Urie’s success, it’s easy to forget just how close the lanky, blond-haired kid was to never achieving a 4.25 grade-point average or sending enrollment applications to the University of Chicago, Stanford, Cornell and Columbia.
One Sunday in February 2007, Urie, his mother, stepfather and stepbrother ventured up to the mesa for an afternoon of snowmobiling. They had unloaded the snowmobiles and were playing around when Urie said he turned his back to the group for a minute. When he turned around, they were gone. Rather than stay put, he sped off to look for them.
“I ignored that little voice inside my head that said, ‘This is how people get lost,’ ” he said.
The situation worsened when he took a wrong trail, buried his sled in a mound of powder and couldn’t dig it out. He walked around for a while before deciding the best thing to do was to stay put.
Urie dug two snow caves that crumbled. He tried to fashion a lean-to against a tree using branches, but that didn’t work either. He finally succeeded in building a snow cave in a grove of trees and hunkered down for the longest night of his life, dressed in good boots and his Student Senate hooded sweatshirt but lacking food, water or anything to start a fire. Snow tumbled from the sky all night.
“Trees make some pretty weird sounds,” he said.
He heard Search and Rescue snowmobiles and sirens during the night and whistled back at them. But he couldn’t draw their attention.
The next morning, Urie began walking, initially simply to keep himself warm and busy. He then realized he could help rescue himself. He made tracks coming out of and going back into the trees on their side of the grove, effectively creating a set of arrows.
Thirty minutes after a helicopter launched — 24 hours after he went missing — volunteers spotted Urie using the arrows he stomped out.
He ultimately missed a week of school recovering from the ordeal and sustained minor nerve damage in the tips of his fingers that still bothers him during cold weather. But the experience also reaffirmed for him the way he views himself and the world around him.
“I have a natural optimism about myself,” he said. “Everyone says ‘expect the best, plan for the worst.’ But I naturally see the best we can do at things.”