Eat, Sleep, Race, Repeat: Western Ski Academies
When ski academies began sprouting up during the 1970s, they shared the same basic philosophy: bring young racers to the mountains to ski and study in the best possible environment and offer the most flexible schedule to accommodate winter training.
Today, that framework remains, but in a vast selection of options from coast to coast. To help families navigate what life’s really like at a ski academy, SkiRacing.com takes an exclusive look at the available choices — starting with a Western round-up of Steamboat Mountain School, Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, RIDGE Mountain Academy, Rowmark Ski Academy, Sun Valley Ski Academy, Sugar Bowl Academy, and the Alpine Race Academy at Loveland Ski Club.
Steamboat Mountain School in Colorado (video above) has a rustic campus that caters to competitive and non-competitive skiers alike. It emphasizes a small classroom experience in which teachers participate in all aspects of student life, including a global immersion program and outdoor adventures.
Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy (VSSA) is a public academy born out of a partnership between Ski & Snowboard Club Vail and the Eagle County School District. While other teams have established relationships with local school districts (notably in Truckee, Calif., and Hanover, N.H.) VSSA heralds itself as the first of its specific kind in the U.S.
Full-time students take advantage of both Ski & Snowboard Club Vail’s athletic resources and the Eagle County School District’s academics and technology. As VSSA explains, the school can easily adapt academics to the travel needs of student-athletes with an eye on curriculum standards and college admissions.
There’s definitely a cost savings to the concept over the price of attending a private school. But unlike traditional ski academies, which typically offer a boarding option for athletes from afar, families interested in VSSA either need to already reside in Colorado, relocate to the area, or make arrangements with a host family, a great alternative to residence hall life for high-school aged athletes. Doing so will offer athletes access to the athletic programs of the 2014-2015 USSA Alpine Club of the Year and 2014 USSA Freeski, Freestyle, and Snowboard Club of the Year.
Another partnership — this one between the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (USSA’s Club of the Year in 2013) and the Community School in Ketchum, Idaho — gave rise to Sun Valley Ski Academy, founded with the mission to give eighth grade through PG day and boarding student-athletes a solid foundation for future collegiate study with the chance to pursue intensive training and competition schedules. Guided by the motto that “not all classrooms have walls” and part of a close-knit community, students might participate in the renowned Outdoor Program, act in the annual musical, or serve on the student senate.
Sun Valley Ski Academy offers a more traditional co-curricular experience for high school students than many ski academies. In addition to alpine, cross-country, and freestyle skiing as well as snowboarding in the winter, student-athletes may also participate in soccer, cross-country running, tennis, track, and other sports in the shoulder seasons. The school prides itself on its academic philosophy and the mission to help shape confident, accomplished, and resourceful young adults.
Looking for multiple AP classes? Rowmark, a division of Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City, has 16 of them, lending to its reputation as one of the top college preparatory schools in the Intermountain West. Here, a student body of about 30 ski racers integrates with the traditional high school of 300; the small enrollment, say administrators, embodies Rowland Hall and Rowmark Ski Academy’s philosophy of “quality over quantity.” Small classes also mean a close working relationship between teachers and students that helps mitigate the stress of traveling to training camps and competitions.
Rowmark skiers train in nearby Park City with members of their team, but they also spend half of their day in classes with a different population — notably, non ski-racers. Several alumni point out that this is one of the unique aspects of the Rowmark experience and one that helped prepare them for the collegiate academic experience when fellow classmates weren’t always on the same athletic schedule. Additionally, there are no dormitories at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s, so Rowmark student-athletes from outside the Salt Lake area often arrange to live with host families.
The West is well known for its powder, of course, and it’s sweet at Sugar Bowl Academy (SBA) in Norden, Calif., where students can ski deep snow on Tuesday and train slalom on a rock hard surface under bluebird skies by Thursday. The accredited college preparatory curriculum is complemented by state-of-the-art on-snow training facilities at Sugar Bowl Resort as well as the new slopeside campus completed in 2014.
Student-athletes can simply hop on the Poma lift after class to access the nearby Van Ruiten Race Arena and its topnotch on-hill snowmaking and watering systems. Lined by eight water cannons that allow SBSTA coaches to create a hard and durable surface, the race arena has ideal conditions for training and competing.
RIDGE Mountain Academy, in Whitefish, Mont., is a semester-based program that emphasizes cross training for athletes ages 16-20. The school’s approach centers on not only on-mountain time, but off-mountain as well, allowing young adults to develop the strength, endurance, and conditioning necessary for racing success. From one-on-one student athlete fitness evaluations and gym workouts to custom yoga classes and clean eating education, RIDGE incorporates a holistic, healthy-lifestyle approach to the daily student experience.
From a gap year student seeking adventure and self-exploration, a high schooler looking to balance academics and skiing, a college student looking to better understand the mountain sports industry, or an elite athlete looking for one-on-one coaching, RIDGE can help a wide population of outdoor enthusiasts prepare for what comes next in life.
A new option in Colorado for U16 and younger athletes who are looking to maximize access to training and tally up time on snow without having to travel to far-off locales is the Alpine Race Academy which operates out of Loveland Ski Club in Georgetown. Denver-area students can ride the team shuttle from the metropolitan area up to training on three afternoons mid-week following an early release from classes. Although the Academy does not offer its own academic curriculum, the program currently works in close conjunction with three public school districts as well as online learning institutions and will likely expand in coming seasons.
This cost-effective solution grants U10-U16s the ability to ski and race with their coaches in season but also capitalizes on April, May, June, October, and November training camps at Loveland. Athletes can log over 140 days on snow per year, all at Loveland utilizing five different training venues. In addition, team members participate in a year-round strength and conditioning program under the watchful eye of a Certified Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist. U19 athletes can continue with the Academy and compete in USSA races whereas those wishing to participate in FIS move on to other academies and programs; but the formative time they spent at Loveland plays a critical role in their future success.
How do the East’s famous academies stack up? See Part Two of this exclusive feature here.