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Green Mountain Valley students Kara Gailiunas, Sophia Meynard and Ali Nullmeyer head for the school bus after training at Sugarbush's Mt. Ellen

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Green Mountain Valley students Kara Gailiunas, Sophia Meynard and Ali Nullmeyer head for the school bus after training at Sugarbush's Mt. Ellen

Higher Learning 

Vermont's elite ski academies teach kids on and off the slopes

Published December 1, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.

It's early afternoon in Waitsfield, and the gray skies, barren trees and sagging pumpkins are all foreshadowing winter. Inside Geordy Richards' classroom, 14-year-old Sophia Meynard looks like any other high school student: gray hoodie, black jeans, neon blue and orange Nikes. On her desk are loose-leaf sheets of algebra homework.

The typical teenager stuff ends there, though. While most kids her age start their day in homeroom, Meynard begins with a two-hour strength-training workout in the gym, followed by classes, soccer and a Godspell rehearsal. Once Sugarbush is fully coated in snow, she'll be skiing all morning, studying all afternoon and competing every weekend.

The Boston native is one of 107 students at Green Mountain Valley School, a full-time, accredited high school for aspiring ski racers. The Vermont ski school has turned out dozens of Olympians and U.S. Ski Team members since it was founded in 1973, including alpine greats Daron Rahlves, Doug Lewis and A.J. Kitt.

Along with full-year competitors Burke Mountain Academy, Killington Mountain School and the Stratton Mountain School, GMVS has contributed to Vermont's reputation as an alpine training ground. All four schools benefit from easy access to challenging terrain and top-tier coaches, and they facilitate every opportunity for their speed-demon students to compete, even when it means catching a flight to Colorado.

Vermont's other ski schools — Okemo Mountain School, Mount Snow Academy and Mt. Mansfield Winter Academy — offer less intensive variations on the theme: Their five-month winter-term programs allow student-athletes to begin and end the school year at home. The kids complete their course work from November to March under supervision from the schools' academic staff. Killington and Stratton also offer a five-month option for high-schoolers; GMVS and Burke offer one for students in the 8th and 9th grades.

And it's not all about going downhill anymore. Nordic skiing is among the athletic options at Burke, GMVS and Stratton. Killington and Mt. Snow offer instruction in freeskiing. In 1998, the North American Hockey Academy — just up the road from Mt. Mansfield — launched a five-month winter program for female ice hockey players in grades 9 through 12.

Administrators are quick to point out that these schools aren't just about sports: They also strive to provide a solid academic foundation. GMVS is a springboard for acceptance at the country's top colleges, with student-athletes from the class of 2012 now studying at Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury and other prestigious colleges.

But you won't hear anyone downplaying athletics, either. Sport is so woven into the educational fabric that "it is not considered an extracurricular activity," says Tom Sell, Killington Mountain School's alpine director. "Rather, it is one of the fundamental blocks that build a student's experience."

Sophia Meynard

A typical school day at a winter-sport academy changes according to the season. At Killington, for example, students do more course work in both the fall and spring to make up for time spent traveling and skiing in the winter. GMVS students put on a theatrical production in the fall. Back in late October, a visitor could hear them singing show tunes between classes.

School days at GMVS start with a morning class, after which students train in the gym, or, in the winter, take a school van to the slopes. The alpine students head to Mt. Ellen, the nordic skiers to Ole's Cross Country Ski Center, Trapp Family Lodge or the Ethan Allen Biathlon center.

"I love how I can work on skiing during the school days," says Meynard. When they're done training, they return for lunch and the rest of their academic classes.

When GMVS students travel to competitions — or for stints at the school's training facilities in Austria or Chile — they take their homework, but not their teachers, with them. There are no structured lessons while they're away from school. While in Vermont, though, smaller class sizes make for more intimate and intense academics. Teachers make sure students don't fall behind, reminding them about assignments and arranging for make-up tests. SAT scores and GPAs are just as important as the score of a hockey game or the time of a race.

At the end of the day, students get a couple hours of free time, though they may need it to finish homework. Still, NAHA senior Annie Pankowski reports that "There's a lot of movie watching, snowball fights, card games and instrument playing" on her campus.

Two Green Mountain Valley School classmates do their chemistry homework

The combination of intense athletics and academics creates a high-pressure environment. But a winter-sport academy can feel like a relief to kids accustomed to missing classes for ski or hockey tournaments and having to explain the absences to teachers and friends. Amanda Steffey of Lyme, N.H. struggled with that before deciding to attend Stratton, where her twin brother George is also a student. "It was hard to balance school and then skiing in my free time," she says. "Stratton has showed me that my energy for ski racing and getting a great education could all be balanced."

Balance is a word that comes up a lot at these schools; students who study at winter-sport academies have to juggle multiple responsibilities. To be successful, they have to be self-motivated.

Pankowski points out that when she's at school, she's the one responsible for making sure her work gets done. "When you're physically tired from a long weekend, it's hard to push yourself," she admits. "It's also challenging because we are really forced to become independent. Mom and Dad aren't here to do your laundry and make sure you do your homework."

click to enlarge Killington Mountain Mogul Team in November at Killington

Back home, parents have their own challenges. Though financial aid is widely available at Vermont's winter-sport academies, tuition can be more than $40,000 per year for boarding students; local day students pay a little less, but not much.

There's separation anxiety, too. "Packing your 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds and sending them off for five months isn't easy," says Annie's father, Rich Pankowski.

Still, he says, "Reaching for a dream and catching it after self-sacrifice and hard work is a tremendous life lesson ... The independence and self-reliance that come with going away to school have a very big upside in rounding out an education."

Carolyn Steffey, mother of twins Amanda and George, says the rewards of a specialized school like Stratton can be intangible. "They are both extremely disciplined kids," she says. "They've learned how to manage the homework, even when they are traveling; they have learned how to do their own laundry, pack their own ski bags, take care of their equipment — I really feel they are years above their age level in terms of maturity."

It's not a medal, but for teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, that may be as good as gold.

Vermont's Winter-Sports Academies

Burke Mountain Academy

East Burke
Founded 1970
burkemtnacademy.org

Notable alums:

  • Corinne Prevot, '09: founder of SKIDA, a made-in-Vermont line of skiwear
  • Liz Stephen, '05: current U.S. Nordic Ski Team member, competed in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games
Green Mountain Valley School

Waitsfield
Founded 1973
gmvs.org

Notable alums:

  • A.J. Ginnis, '11: current member of the U.S. Ski Team
  • Daron Rahlves, '91: earned 12 World Cup medals, including a gold in 2001; four-time Olympian
  • A.J. Kitt, '86: member of U.S. Ski Team for a decade; four-time Olympian, bronze medalist at 1993 World Championships
  • Doug Lewis, '82: former U.S. Ski Team member and two-time Olympian
Killington Mountain School

Killington
Founded 1974
killingtonmountainschool.org

Notable alums:

  • Greg Petrics, '01: five-time Junior Olympic gold medalist and webmaster for famousinternetskiers.com
  • Michael Morse, '99: competed in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games
Mt. Mansfield Winter Academy

Stowe
Founded 1993
mmwa.org

Notable alums:

  • Ryan Cochran-Siegle '10: son of 1972 Olympic slalom gold medalist Barbara Ann Cochran and U.S. Ski Team athlete
  • Laura Martini '08: member of the USCSA national team for three onsecutive years
Mount Snow Academy

West Dover
Founded 1978
mountsnowacademy.org

Notable alum:

  • Kelly Clark '01: snowboarder who won the gold in women's halfpipe at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games
North American Hockey Academy

Stowe
Founded 1998
winter-hawks.org

Notable alums:

  • Paige Savage, '12: won gold with Team USA at the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-18 Championship
  • Brittany Ammerman, '10: captain of the 2010 USA Hockey Under-18 National Team, which won silver at the World Championships
Okemo Mountain School

Ludlow
Founded 1991
okemomountainschool.org

Notable alum:

  • Hannah Teter, '06: gold medalist in the halfpipe at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games; silver medalist in 2010; inspired Ben & Jerry's flavor "Maple Blondie"
Stratton Mountain School

Stratton
Founded 1972
gosms.org

Notable Alums:

  • Ross Powers '97: won bronze snowboarding the men's halfpipe at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games, and gold in 2002
  • Abbi Fisher, '75: first school alum to go the Olympics, 1976

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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About The Author

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Bio:
Sarah Tuff Dunn was a frequent contributor to Seven Days and its monthly parenting publication, Kids VT. She is the co-author of 101 Best Outdoor Towns.

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