In the fall of 1983, I did what many of my friends would liken to winning the lottery: I convinced my parents to let me go to a ski academy. It was something no rational family would consider back then. We were a ski family, but not a ski racing family, which seemed a questionable breed of extremists. But my parents took a chance sent me off, and I still look back on it as the best thing that ever happened to me.
I was in 8th grade, and had grown up in the small town of Auburn, Maine where there was a remarkable preponderance of successful young ski racers. (This little town would eventually produce 12 Olympic skiers over the years.) A bunch of kids in my neighborhood were in ski families, and went away each winter to something called a “ski academy” where they’d train on a mountain every day, go to school in the afternoons, and race every weekend. These friends of mine were state champions, New England champions, and even went to something I’d never heard of called the “Junior Olympics.” They all had this amazing air of confidence about them, and seemed to take on anything in life without hesitation. And I desperately wanted to be one of them. So while I’d been ski racing for a year already, my results were dismal, and my friends told me, “If you want to really get better, you have to go to a ski academy. We’re skiing every day all winter long. You’re just skiing every other weekend. You’ll never catch up.”
So I brought up the possibility to my parents. They at first seemed to laugh. Surely you don’t think you can be as good as your friends, their looks seemed to imply. My mother was quick to say something diplomatic like, “Well, we’ll have to see.” My dad offered a more practical challenge: “How are you going to get into a good college from a ski academy?” (This was before he knew that schools like Dartmouth, Middlebury and UVM welcomed ski racers with open arms.) I brought up that my best friend Rob Parisien (who would eventually ski at the ’92 Olympics and later become a surgeon) was still able to find time to win the state science fair while also becoming the best 12 yr-old skier in New England. “Well, I’ll think about it,” he replied, returning to paying his bills.
A few weeks later, I’d arranged for Rob’s dad to have a talk with my dad about this then little-known school called Carrabassett Valley Academy (this is long before Olympic champ Bode Miller would graduate from it and make it known around the world) and tell him it wasn’t so bad. Soon after that, my parents were willing to give it a go. “Ok, one winter,” he said. “And then we’ll see how your grades are doing.” He felt certain that he had his out, and would have no trouble exercising it should I fail to meet the mark. When he and my mother dropped me off that November for my 5-month winter session, he shook hands with the headmaster Jeff Byrne and urged, “Make sure he does his homework.” Jeff nodded diplomatically. Just then, a deliveryman crated in a huge load of perhaps 30 un-mounted, brand new Dynastar skis. “Goodness,” my dad said. “Who are those for?”
“The sponsored kids,” Jeff winked, knowing my dad was impressed with this fresh bounty.
“Sponsored?” my dad asked attentively.
“Yeah, most of the top racers get sponsored, and the companies give them free gear for the season.”
Knowing very well the cost of a season’s worth of ski gear, my dad’s eyes perked up, and he quipped to me, “Well, if you get sponsored, you can come back again next year.” He slapped me on the back and headed toward the car.
That winter, I put on 25 pounds of muscle, went from getting 70th place in most races to top 3 in the state, made the Junior Olympics, won Maine’s “most improved skier” award, and sure enough: got sponsored. By Dynastar.
Since I’d also maintained an A average all winter, my dad begrudgingly let me come back for 9th grade, too. The whole year this time.
I would eventually move from CVA to the Green Mountain Valley School (both because there was more competition in Vermont, and because GMVS’s longer history appealed to my college-conscious parents) and graduated in 1988 (as the valedictorian, my dad would be proud to claim). I never did become the Olympics-bound hotshot slalom-specialist I once envisioned, but I did maintain a top 20 national ranking, get into Colby College, and eventually captain the division I ski team there, scoring in the top 15 at the Division I championships on my best days. Did it matter that I never really achieved my big goal of making the US Ski Team and securing an international racing career?
And I would counsel any parent thinking of sending their kids to a ski academy to not worry about that in the slightest. There are plenty of other, more important reasons to do it.
True, three of my 18 classmates did make the US Ski Team, the most successful of which was Jeremy Nobis, who qualified for two Olympics, then turned his focus to extreme skiing and became one of the biggest stars in the world, completing over 30 films and appearing on countless magazine covers.
But in the end, most of us when on to more traditional lives, albeit very happy and successful ones. From my small class of 18, we boast: an airline pilot, a financial analyst, an entertainment lawyer, a photographer, a real estate developer, an international conference translator, a production company CEO and a Silicon Valley biz consultant. Me? I’ve got two careers here in New York City—as a writer and singer/ songwriter. And we were damn well prepared for all of them. Although many laugh at the possibility that a youth spent skiing could be anything other than cushy and luxurious, what they don’t think of is the sheer amount of discipline, resilience and toughness it takes to get through the endless 6:30am morning runs, the off-season dry-land training and weight-lifting, the getting up on icy slopes day after day, hurling your spandex-clad body down a battered and rutted course that threatens to blow our your knee at every turn, the constant injuries, nor simply the ever-present single-digit temperatures, nor the pressure of daily competition, nor the general expectation that you’re still expected to fit in a normal high school student’s education while you’re physically exhausted and getting ready to spend all weekend in a van traveling to races 200 miles away. I have one ski academy friend who went on to the Marines later in life, and he says being at a ski academy was tougher.
At these shools, you learn several things: the first of which is to suck it up. Complaining isn’t tolerated. And there’s plenty to complain about, whether it’s the wind chill of 20-below that gives you frostbite a few times a month, or the pulled muscle/ bruised hip/ sprained ankle/ or broken finger that your coach tells you you can still make it down the course with, or the fact that the fog rolled in on the mountain right before your 2nd run, and you had no chance of seeing as clearly as the other guys before you. You are constantly blindsided by unexpected challenges as a ski racer, and you’re expected to deal with them.
But you also pick up countless other traits that help you succeed: we hustle. When you’ve only got 30 minutes to get out of your ski gear, put away your skis, shower, hit lunch and cross campus to you first afternoon class, you don’t dally.
We’re resourceful. We learn how to be our own coach during the off-season. We find a way to jerry-rig our ski boot when a buckle pops off 2 minutes before a race. We learn to do homework and study for an exam while in the back seat of a crowded van coming home from a ski race at 10pm Sunday night.
We don’t wait for others to help us. We just figure out a way to get it done. You just crashed in the middle of the course, you’re bleeding from your face and have a loose tooth and there are no coaches around? You grab a fistful of snow, hold it to your bleeding cheek and ski your ass down to the emergency clinic for some stitches (this happened to me three times—and to another friend five).
We can get more done in less time. The very essence of ski racing is navigating a course of obstacles in as short an amount of time as possible. This ethic continues off the race course, too. The competitive mindset takes over your life. You find a way to get in a 1 hour run before your first class in college while your roommates are still sleeping. You finish the final physics exam quicker than the rest of the class simply because you can’t help it. You take on three extra curricular sports when your friends are just gonna go play video games in the dorm. You use your spring break to go summit El Capitan while others are just gonna “chill at my parents.” And later in your career, your time-management skills enable you to prepare the presentation in half the time it takes your colleague. For me, I still manage to fit in a second career as a musician at nights after I finish my career as a writer during the day. What other people look at and see as exhausting, we think of as exhilarating. We know that you don’t get inspired by lying around.
We’re not content with mediocrity. We’re taught from a young age that you can be better than who you are right now. So we constantly try to go from getting B’s to A’s, from getting 30th to getting top-10, and then from top 10 to winning. We’re not just trying to become regional director; we want to be president of the whole company. Or just start our own altogether. And we see a way that something can be done better, or faster, or more cheaply, even if no one is calling for it, we’ll find a way to make it happen. When your life is measured in 100ths of a second, you sweat the details.
We dare to take the road less traveled. We get married in the French Alps. We do study-abroad programs in Tanzania. We take jobs as an engineer on an oil rig off the Alaskan coast. We guide helicopter ski trips in Canada. To this day, a few of my friends and I gather in France every other year to follow the Tour de France on bike and ride the same mountains as the greats. Even those of us who carve out quieter lives as parents still do it in towns like Boulder or Burlington, and find time to go skydiving on our birthdays. And we’re all in pretty good shape. Most of us are the same weight at 40 that we were at 18. The habits you pick up at 14 tend to stay with you for life.
We don’t scare easily. When you grow up doing 80mph down double-black diamond trails, the threat of presenting to your boss in your first job out of college doesn’t exactly give you the willies.
And lastly, we’re well rounded. Sure there’s an obsession over ski racing. But since you can’t ski year round, you’d better pick up soccer or lacrosse or running or bike racing to stay in shape. And my school encouraged the arts with a yearly theatrical production. I played guitar for a school band, took on a dance part in a musical, and contributed essays to the school paper. These latter activities formed the basis of my two careers today.
So while going to a ski academy might not have given me a career in skiing, it gave me everything else I love about my life. From inspiring self-reliance, to a driven work ethic, to an endless zeal for life and more, you can pick up a lot more than just better ski technique by spending a few years at some crazy ski academy off in the boonies.