Tucked between the mountains at the far side of Minturn, the first indication that Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy is unlike any school anywhere is that it is surrounded by miles and miles of Nordic ski trails. Then there is the massive, state-of-the-art fitness center next door to where Lindsey Vonn and other Olympians work out regularly. No need to even mention the giant Yeti that guards the front door.
Founded in 2007 through a partnership with Eagle County Schools and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) is the country’s first public school for full-time skiers and snowboarders and is still one of a kind. Housed in the building that was once Minturn Middle School, VSSA is the place where roughly 175 fifth to twelfth graders study algebra, earth science, biology social studies and the standard lineup of academics, just like other kids across America. What sets them apart is that their school is also the place where they refine their halfpipe tricks in the custom-built “trampoline room.” It’s where they move the cafeteria tables aside after their pro-athletic-planned-lunch for a round of floor hockey. It’s where many of them are absent for months at a time as they travel the world training and competing, but have a litany of online resources, study halls and academic coaches to keep them on top of their curriculum when they’re not in the classroom.
“Five days a week we have dryland [training] for an hour and 45 minutes. Mondays and Fridays we tramp and twice a week we’re in the gym,” says eleventh-grader Paula Cooper, who has been attending VSSA since the sixth grade and whose family moved to the valley from Steamboat Springs expressly so she and her sisters could attend the school. “Every day we run, do agility and strength. It’s maybe the reason Ski Club and the school is so successful. We have such a rigorous off season and such a great facility.”
One of Cooper’s older sisters now attends the University of Colorado at Boulder and the other Columbia University. Both are alpine ski racers and active on the collegiate level. Cooper is a free skier who competed in her first World Cup halfpipe event in New Zealand in August. She finished ninth. She is also lined up to compete in the Youth Olympic Games in Norway this season and is hoping for more World Cup starts. Like all VSSA students, she’ll be juggling homework and attending online study halls in between competitions from wherever she is in the world. When she’s back home in the valley, she’ll be going to school and navigating the typical lineup of VSSA on-site programming, which is not by any means typical by American school standards.
“This is a special place. Not many people have a tramp facility in their school. We just get out of class and go tramp. That’s unreal,” Cooper continues. “In the off season, every day you wake up, go to school, do dryland, go home and do homework. To go to school here, you have to be really serious and committed because it’s completely different than any other school. We’re training so hard every day of the week. In the winter the intensity level goes up. You have to be on top of it for school and skiing all the time.”
The Academy is part of the Eagle County Schools but a pre-requisite to attend is being enrolled as a full-time athlete (alpine, Nordic, freestyle, freeskier or snowboarder) with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.
According to VSSA’s Head of School Geoff Grimmer, the brainchild for the Academy spawned from Mike Gass, formerly with the school district, and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail founder Aldo Radamus. When VSSA launched in 2007 it was comprised of 31 students and occupied two small classrooms in Minturn Middle School. In 2011, the Academy overtook the building. Graduates include World Cup mogul skier Heidi Kloser and U.S. Ski Team alpine racer Abby Ghent.
“The goal when it started was to not lose Eagle County kids. Kids like Abby and Heidi, if we didn’t build a ski academy in Eagle County, they were probably going to go east to places like Burke. This was Eagle County School’s attempt to keep kids in Eagle County,” Grimmer says.
Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin was one Eagle County kid that the district lost to Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. But these days, young, up-and-coming skiers and snowboarders do indeed stick around Eagle County because not many East Coast facilities have better options than VSSA.
Although the school mascot is the Yeti, students more readily identify themselves by their ski club – SSCV. In addition to the trampoline room, which is outfitted with foam pits and a variety of mats, the school has a full-fledged gymnasium regularly used for the younger students’ dryland training (team sports, running, etc). Lauren Lange, the Strength and Conditioning Chef, prepares meals based on a nutrition plan for U.S. Olympic athletes. The options on a given day might be breaded chicken, broccoli and cheese and complete salad bar.
“I spent a lot of time with the USOC (U.S. Olympic Committee) and, one thing we noticed right away in providing the right nutritional program, was providing variety, but healthy variety,” says SSCV director of human performance John Cole, who heads up Minturn Fitness Center, the aforementioned wonder gym next door to the Ski Academy. “When we brought Lauren in, we made sure all the food came from organic grocers, as locally grown as possible. And because of caloric demands, nutrition is a huge part of the recovery for these kids. We look at caloric expenditure on the hill and give back what they’re expending with a variety of different meals. We also customize meals based on allergic and dietary needs.”
The Minturn Fitness Center, which is open to the public, is the training facility for older students at VSSA. It’s not unusual to find Olympic skiers or NHL players training there alongside the ski academy students. The center has a dedicated physical therapy area and a slew of bikes and weight equipment, ranging from basic to high tech and non shock-loading, including what Cole refers to as “the Lindsey Vonn machine,” a treadmill-like device that simulates different types of terrain and can be used by alpine skiers and snowboarders alike.
In September, while students convened in algebra class or discovered biomes in environmental science study hall, coaches meet in a classroom of their own for a pre-season planning period and pro technicians are hard at work in the school’s full-time service room.
The room, which was once housed the middle school’s Industrial Arts area, now resembles a Rossignol or Atomic ski factory, serving as the official tune shop for the 700-plus athletes in Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.
“Alpine and Nordic ski racers are by far the most exacting, so as far as equipment preparation, it’s a full-time requirement,” says SSCV pro shop manager Brian Eggleton. “In the season, our guys are here tuning before the kids go to school and long after they go home.”
And, as one might expect, the VSSA school clock ticks to a different schedule than that of most schools.
Once the snow flies in early November, the place is virtually empty Tuesday through Friday mornings because the kids are out skiing and snowboarding. Nordic skiers are on the trails surrounding the school, which have, by the way, played host to the High School State Nordic Championships and will likely host elite Nordic races of all variety – not only high school – in the near future. Alpine skiers are training alongside skiers from around the country and world at Vail’s early season training terrain at Golden Peak, snowboarders and free skiers are traveling to Summit County for park and halfpipe training.
“What’s wonderful about this place is that everyone is a full-time athlete, so the scheduling and everything that is happening is able to support the needs of a full-time athlete,” says SSCV director of admissions, Sharon Schmidt, whose office is located in the school. “Although it’s a two-semester academic setting, it’s broken into trimesters from an athletic perspective. So the fall and spring are much more heavily weighted in terms of the pace of the academics. The load is lightened in the winter trimester.”
If students are in town during the winter, they’re at school all day Monday and shuttled back for lunch after on-snow training Tuesday through Friday. They go to class all afternoon until just before 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays are spent training or racing.
Schmidt gets calls from parents all over the country and world who want their children to attend VSSA. Of course, not all kids can qualify. Besides being a full-time snowsports athlete at SSCV each child must prove to be extremely dedicated, motivated and focused.
“When I’m going through the admissions process, I’m looking at their athletic ability, at their academics, at their maturity. These kids have to be mature beyond their years to be able to handle balancing all of these things,” Schmidt says.
The balance between athletics and academics often becomes a big choice for students once they graduate from VSSA. Many are faced with the dilemma of choosing either a college career or a professional sports career. Besides Heidi Kloser, who chose sports and is a successful moguls skier on the U.S. Team (returning from a knee injury that sidelined her for the Sochi Olympics), freeskier Aaron Blunck is another recent VSSA graduate off to a successful athletic career, having finished seventh in the Sochi Olympic halfpipe contest and with a World Cup halfpipe win to his credit. Then there is Liz Strong who managed to juggle both her athletic and academic success beyond high school. After graduating from VSSA she went on to ski for Harvard and graduated last year with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She is now attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue her Ph.D.
“The common thread for our kids is that they’re passionate about what they’re doing,” Grimmer says. “In the end, the athletics is just a model [by which] they follow their passion and achieve remarkable things. They then go back and use that model and graph it into a particular part of their life, personally or academically … it doesn’t matter really. The common thread is passion.”