Vermont’s sports academies educate champions
At 13, Ellery Hollingsworth dreamed of becoming a professional snowboarder. But she wasn’t going to get there living in mountainless Darien, Conn., and commuting to Stratton to ride on the weekends. So she begged her parents to let her go to school in Vermont. But not just any school. Hollingsworth wanted to attend Stratton Mountain School, a snow-sports academy devoted to training elite skiers and snowboarders.
Hollingsworth’s parents caved, and, within a year of her arrival at SMS, she was nailing McTwists and frontside rodeos and competing for the U.S. Snowboarding team. During her freshman year at the boarding school, Hollingsworth, now 19, nabbed a third-place finish in the slope-style competition at the New Zealand Open, as well as a fifth-place result in the superpipe. Not exactly standard fare for your average high school kid.
Today, Hollingsworth is one of the youngest riders on the pro circuit, with sponsorships from Burton, Nike 6.0, Oakley and Gatorade. She credits much of her success to her snow-sports academy experience.
“Without having gone to SMS, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she says. “At SMS, I got a team and a bunch of kids to ride with.”
When it comes to specialty sports schools, Vermont stands out. With three full-term ski academies, plus four winter-term programs and a winter-term hockey school, the state is a leader in this type of specialized instruction. Though sports academies have a long history in Europe, they’re a relatively new concept in the United States. Vermont boasts the first dedicated sports school in the country — Burke Mountain Academy in the Northeast Kingdom — and has been a leader in promoting this educational model since the 1970s.
Snow-sports academies developed in Vermont largely out of necessity. Young ski racers couldn’t find the time to train within the confines of a traditional school day. Because ski racing happens outside during daylight hours and often involves travel to and from the mountain, conventional schools had a difficult time accommodating it. The education had to be specialized and flexible, says Meredith Morin, director of communications at SMS.
The relatively high number of snow-sports academies in Vermont is most likely due to the tradition of New England boarding schools combined with the state’s rich history of ski racing, says Jere Brophy, the dean of academic faculty and college counselor at Waitsfield’s Green Mountain Valley School. In the region, only Maine has a comparable full-term program: Carrabassett Valley Academy near Sugarloaf, whose graduates include Olympic gold medalists Bode Miller and Seth Wescott. Similar programs also exist in California, Colorado and Utah.
Besides Vermont’s full-term ski and snowboard schools — Burke Mountain Academy, Green Mountain Valley School and Stratton Mountain School — four other programs cater to the needs of elite youth skiers and riders. Killington Mountain School, Mt. Mansfield Winter Academy, Mount Snow Academy and Okemo Mountain School offer students the chance to continue classes at their home schools during the off-season while training at the nearest academy during the winter. Another winter-term program in Middlebury will soon join that group.
This specialized education doesn’t come cheap. The full-term ski schools ring in just north of $40,000 a year. That doesn’t include training trips, ski and snowboard equipment, books, and other supplies, which cost roughly $15,000 on top of tuition. Financial aid is available; depending on the school, 30 to 40 percent of the students receive some type of assistance.
Despite the breathtaking price tag and an anemic economy, snow-sports academies in Vermont report recent increased interest in their programs. Because none of the full-term schools take more than 120 students, most have to turn away applicants.
The day-to-day lives of skiers and snowboarders at Vermont’s snow-sports academies are much like those of collegiate student athletes. Most of the academy students spend their mornings on the mountain and their afternoons in the classroom. They often fit in another training session after class, then study in the evening.
At various times during the year, students go on training trips to Austria, Chile, New Zealand and other places with snow. Typically, they have schoolwork to do while they’re abroad and can check in with teachers from the road. At BMA, the academic calendar is divided into four-week blocks to accommodate those trips, and to allow students to get concentrated instruction when they’re back at school. Fewer contact days with more intense teaching is the key to student academic achievement, says BMA headmaster Kirk Dwyer.
This type of education requires self-direction and motivation and isn’t for everyone, so schools are picky about whom they admit. Students have to be willing to manage time effectively, prioritize and work independently. To wit, says Dwyer, BMA is highly selective — its students earned As and Bs at their previous schools — and there are more kids looking to attend the school than it can accommodate.
“We’re looking for kids who are pretty accomplished, with a demonstrated passion,” Dwyer says.
To matriculate at a snow-sports academy, it’s not enough to enjoy skiing or snowboarding. Students have to live it and breathe it every day.
“They need to come with experience, with a predilection toward snow sports and a proven track record,” says Morin of SMS. “They need to be singularly focused at getting better.”
That was Liz Stephen’s experience when she attended BMA. In eighth grade, Stephen, of East Montpelier, asked her parents if she could go to Burke. They agreed, and Stephen spent two years training for Alpine racing. Like Hollingsworth, Stephen, 23, credits her success partly to a learning environment where she was surrounded by like-minded peers with similar goals.
In 10th grade, with the blessing of the school’s staff, Stephen switched to Nordic racing. She traveled all over the world competing — France, Switzerland, Scandinavia. While schoolwork was important — she gained admission to Middlebury College, but deferred — Stephen knew skiing was the ultimate goal.
“On the road, there was certainly schoolwork, but I was committed to being the best athlete I could be,” says Stephen, a 2005 graduate of the school.
Her laser-like focus paid off. In 2006, only three years after taking up Nordic racing, Stephen was named to the U.S. Ski Team. In 2010, she represented the U.S. at the Olympics in Vancouver.
Certainly, not every ski-school graduate will make a national team or compete in the Olympics. Many choose not to pursue sports beyond high school. Managing expectations is a big part of coaches’ jobs, SMS’ Morin says. Administrators maintain that students understand the odds of successfully pursuing their sport professionally, but that doesn’t diminish their drive.
While snow-sports academies pride themselves on alumni achievement, administrators are quick to point out that their students are well rounded and well adjusted. All of the schools offer sports besides skiing and snowboarding, including soccer and lacrosse. Both Hollingsworth and Stephen participated in other sports in high school.
Some ski-academy grads have become elite athletes in disciplines that have nothing to do with snow. Amy Dombroski, who also graduated from BMA in 2005, won under-23 national championships in road cycling, mountain biking and cyclocross all in the same year. Brett Heyl, a 2000 graduate of GMVS, competed in the kayak slalom at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Snow-sports academies also encourage students to take up nonsporting pursuits such as art and theater. GMVS boasts a robust drama program and has had a number of graduates go on to pursue careers in theater, Brophy says.
In addition to sporting and other extracurricular accomplishments, snow-sports academies use college placement as a yardstick for success. At BMA, more than 75 percent of last year’s graduating class was admitted to highly selective East Coast colleges and universities, headmaster Dwyer says. SMS sent students to Bates, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Skidmore and other top-tier institutions. GMVS’ class of 2010 headed off to schools like Bowdoin, Brown, Colby and Williams.
When ski-school grads enter college, they’ve already learned how to live on their own and balance academics with sports. The fact that they understand how to work in pursuit of a goal puts them ahead of their peers, says Brophy.
“Whether in sports or other endeavors, the life skills they get here at GMVS are what we feel are the most valuable part of their education,” he says. “When they leave here, they’re going to be successful whatever they’re going to be doing.”