The Schooling of Olympians | Classic Article

Six skiers and snowboarders competing in the 2002 Olympics have something in common: a particular education in the mountains of western Maine.

By Ben Hewitt

Feb 11 2004

At 6:45 on a crystalline Tuesday morning in early April, with the sun just starting to prod the thermometer mercury out of the teens, students at Maine’s Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA) filter groggily into the dining room to pile plates with home fries and bacon, oatmeal and peanut butter toast. Watching them move in the sleepy slow motion of early morning, many still bearing the bleary eyes and bed-tousled hair of their slumber, it’s hard to believe that these kids represent the future of competitive skiing and snowboarding in America. They look too normal.

And they are … except for one thing: The 90 high-school-aged kids who fill this modest, low-slung building are blessed with extraordinary athletic talent, the sort of talent that, coupled with optimism and an unflinching work ethic, can lead a skier or snowboarder to Olympic medals.

But never mind such lofty aspirations: These kids need every one of those qualities just to get through this day, which is pretty much like the day that came before it and the day that will come tomorrow. After breakfast, students will head to the first of two morning academic classes; at 9:45 the buses make the one-mile drive to the steep slopes of Sugarloaf (in the absence of snow, students train in the weight room and by running and mountain-biking the forest trails that lace the mountain). Most students stay on the mountain until early afternoon, weaving through slalom gates and mogul fields, or spinning like oversize boomerangs out of the halfpipe and off Volkswagen-sized jumps. Then it’s back down the hill for the school meeting at three, classes until dinner at 5:30, followed by a two-hour study hall. After that, their time is theirs, though many will walk the quarter mile to the school’s Antigravity Center, where the freestyle skiers and boarders practice dizzying flips and twists on the trampoline, while the racers strap themselves into weight machines to wage their own battle against gravity. Weekends find them traveling from this small, remote town of Kingfield to races around New England and across the country.

“You sleep whenever you can,” says senior Josh Mandell, a top-ranked east coast snowboarder who wears a baseball cap backward over a dark tassel of hair and a T-shirt from the 2000 U.S. Open, where he crashed out of contention in the preliminaries. “Usually it’s more like passing out, ’cause you’re just so tired.” Mandell admits that, in the face of his fatigue, it’s hard to maintain faith in his abilities. “Sometimes I’m able to tell myself, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make it,’ and sometimes I freak out, thinking I can’t do it. It’s like, I’m close to making it, and I’m close to not making it.”

Zach Brandwein, a slender, earnest, 15-year-old alpine racer, understands the obstacles. “Would I like to ski in the Olympics? Yeah, of course. But reality might get in the way. I mean, I could blow out my knee tomorrow, and …” He leaves the sentence unfinished. “But I’m always giving 110 percent, so I don’t miss any chances.”

The possibility of an injury pervades the lives of these young athletes. A few days earlier Renee Thibodeau fell in a race, severing the anterior cruciate ligament of her right knee. But Thibodeau, 16, seems preternaturally cheery when discussing her injury. “One of the guys in the clinic told me that women heading for the World Cup circuit have a 100 percent chance of tearing an ACL,” she says almost gaily, as she shifts in her chair to relieve the pressure on her swollen knee. “It’s just one of those things that happen.” Is her good humor due to simple relief—the dreaded ACL tear, a ski racer’s archenemy, is something she can handle, after all—or because of the hidden promise in that statement? Someday, Thibodeau will ski on the World Cup circuit, like other notable CVA alumni: Bode Miller, a 1996 graduate, went on to become a U.S. Ski Team and Olympic athlete and a consistent top-ten threat on the World Cup. Snowboarder Seth Wescott’s top-five finishes in World Cup halfpipe events landed him a spot on the U.S. Snowboard Team. All told, six alumni are expected to compete in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. At CVA students are taught to keep their optimism pure and untainted by pesky trivialities such as blown knees, broken vertebrae, or the simple fact that fewer than one percent of them will go on to ski or snowboard professionally.

Headmaster John Ritzo is well aware of the long odds his students face but knows that in the long run, the 99 percent who don’t make the cut will be just fine. “In the 15 years that I’ve been here, I’ve never had a kid come in and say, ‘I didn’t reach my goals, I want my money back.’ It just doesn’t happen.” Which is fortunate for Ritzo: A year at CVA costs $24,000.

What about Renee Thibodeau, who has dreamed of the Olympics since she was eight and who literally bears the scars of her sacrifices: Will she be crushed if she’s not the one-in-a-hundred CVA students to make good on her desire? “Probably not,” she says, then pauses and flashes her well-used grin. “As long as my kids do.”