By Gordy Megroz | Photographs by Chris Milliman
The kid from Vail, Colorado was a talented skier. By the time her family relocated to New Hampshire, she was winning most of the races she entered. But she and her parents knew that if she wanted a shot at Olympic gold, she’d need the best coaches and the most structured training program. So when it came time for high school, there was only one clear choice: Mikaela Shiffrin opted for a ski academy.
Shiffrin, now 19, attended Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy—and went on to claim that gold in the 2014 Olympic slalom. In fact, nearly every American alpine racer at the Sochi Games, as well as many of the Olympic Nordic skiers and freestyle snowboarders, attended ski academies. The mountain town boarding schools—there are about 20 in the U.S.—tailor their academic schedule around training programs and competitions.
In the fall, ski academy students dedicate themselves to weight lifting, sprints, and a battery of other workouts intended to improve on-hill performance. In the winter, they rise before dawn, catch the first lift, train gates till 11 a.m., and then attend classes until dinner. During race season, teachers give them work for the road or allow them to catch up on their return. “If I’d stayed in public school in Massachusetts, there’s no way I’d be on the U.S. Ski Team,” says Nick Krause, 21, who attended Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School. “Ski academies give you the opportunity to balance academics and skiing. That’s impossible at any other kind of school.”
Competitive skiers can thank Martha Coughlin for the first U.S. ski academy. In 1970, the promising young alpine racer from Massachusetts approached Warren Witherell, the head of the race club at Burke Mountain in Vermont, and asked him to help with her education so she could train year-round. Witherell answered by starting Burke Mountain Academy (BMA). Two years later, the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) was founded. [Ed’s note: The author is an SMS alumnus.] The Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS), by Sugarbush Resort in Waitsfield, Vermont, debuted a year later. More ski academies followed. Maine’s Carrabassett Valley Academy, best known for training Bode Miller, opened in 1982. Later, Killington Mountain School and Okemo Mountain School, also in Vermont, offered winter-only terms so student racers could leave their home schools during ski season to train in the mountains.
As you may have gleaned, ski academies are largely an East Coast tradition. In fact, the schools attracted some of the West’s best ski racers, including Daron Rahlves. The Truckee, California native attended GMVS and went on to win more World Cup downhill races than any American male. But everything changed in 1994, when the Winter Sports School opened in Park City, Utah. It not only gave Western athletes an option closer to home, it challenged the construct of the traditional ski academy. At the Winter Sports School—which caters to all winter athletes—112 students attend classes from April to November and take the winter off to compete. “The schedule allows you to focus on skiing in the winter,” says two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, who graduated from the Winter Sports School in 2002. “It would have taken me another year to make the Ski Team if I didn’t have that set-up.” More Western academies followed. In Lake Tahoe, Dr. Patricia Hellman, whose father started SMS, created the Sugar Bowl Academy in her alma mater’s image.
The preponderance of ski academies would seem like great news for the future of Olympic skiing and snowboarding, but just as the ski academy movement has established itself nationally, the population of prospective students is dwindling. There are half as many American teens ski racing today as there were 15 years ago. To recruit the remaining athletes, SMS and GMVS have engaged in a college football style infrastructure race. Stratton recently added an arts center, as well as a training facility complete with ramps and trampolines. GMVS, which already had a thriving arts program, added a $10 million gym. The two schools now also offer enhanced curriculums. “We’re still a ski academy,” says Carson Thurber, the assistant headmaster at SMS, “but ultimately most of these kids aren’t going to make a national ski team; they’re going to college.” Meanwhile, BMA has gone in the other direction, cutting its enrollment from about 115 students to less than 70 and marketing itself as the last true ski academy. “We prioritize skiing and academics,” says Kirk Dwyer, Burke’s headmaster. “We don’t have a theater and we don’t have a big gym.” But they have put 130 students on the U.S. Ski Team.
Naturally, all of this comes at a price. Yearly tuition at a ski academy is around $45,000, not including ski equipment and race fees. The top athletes receive some financial aid if they need it, but the vast majority of student racers come from affluent families. The other option for aspiring athletes is to live near a ski mountain with a strong racing club and train after school, often under the lights. “You have to get creative and have a school that’s willing to work with you,” says Will Brandenburg, a World Cup ski racer who grew up in Spokane, Washington. Brandenburg attended public high school, took summer classes, and worked with a private tutor so he could race. “We looked at ski academies, but my parents wanted to raise me,” he says. “It’s a more difficult route than going to a ski academy, but it’s more affordable.”
And on that note, this year Park City’s Winter Sports School became a public charter—meaning it’s free to attend.
Even the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), the governing body for competitive skiing and snowboarding in the United States, has gotten into the ski academy business. The USSA Team Academy opened in 2012—much to the ire of administrators at other academies. “For those who object to the Team Academy, their main gripe is that it is a conflict of interest,” says Tao Smith, the headmaster at Killington Mountain School. “USSA membership dollars support the infrastructure and human resources that run the USSA Team Academy. You could argue our traditional ski academies are directly funding a startup competitor school.”
In response, Jory Macomber, the Team Academy’s head of school, says that the academy no longer offers open enrollment. “Now you need to be member of a U.S. ski or snowboard team to attend,” says Macomber. “The Team Academy just prevents our athletes from falling behind in school.”
From the Winter 2015 issue.