Sitting around tables in a science classroom, wrestling with chemistry equations, Sugar Bowl Academy students look like your typical high school students – except for the distinctive goggle tans on their faces.
Skiing every day, snow or shine, will do that to you. The private high school, nestled in the Sugar Bowl Village at the base of Donner Summit outside of Truckee, caters to competitive skiers in grades eight through 12, aiming to give them a complete education while they do what they love to do – ski.
Classes, in all the traditional high school subjects such as physics and American literature, are arranged around a rigorous practice schedule on Sugar Bowl’s slopes – for alpine, Nordic and freeride skiers – and a grueling travel schedule to competitions nationally and abroad.
“We challenge our kids to work hard,” said Tracy Keller, head of Sugar Bowl Ski Team and Academy. “There is nothing about our program that is easy. Young skiers and their parents have to ask themselves: ‘Is a particular student passionate enough about the sport of skiing to be able to devote everything that they do to it?’”
Sugar Bowl Academy is the only school in California to focus its sports program entirely on skiing, though other schools, like North Tahoe High School, offer flexible class schedules to make competing easier for high school athletes. There are about 20 similar ski academies across the U.S. in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and on the East Coast.
SBA was founded in 1998 by Tricia Hellman Gibbs, a former U.S. Ski Team athlete whose father founded a ski academy in Vermont, the Stratton Mountain School. The school offers a full-year program, as well as a winter-term program for sixth- and seventh-graders. There are 28 staff members – 11 of them are teachers, and the remainder are coaches or administrators.
Admission is offered on a rolling basis, and it’s contingent on an on-snow training session and meetings with staff. Keller said that if prospective students don’t have the skills necessary for the academy, it’s usually apparent during the visit, and they’re steered toward other options.
‘Everyone’s super close’
SBA students hit the slopes at least five days a week in the winter and travel for training in the spring and fall. That kind of dedication to training requires both commitment and passion, students said.
Senior Annika Berg said her favorite part of attending the academy is “definitely skiing all the time. I’ve been to so many places and had so many cool experiences before I’ve even started my life.”
Senior Sam Zabell said he loves being able to travel to competitions without having to sacrifice class time and grades.
Sophomore Louis Norris said the long hours training and traveling contribute to his favorite part of SBA – the close relationships among students, teachers and coaches.
“Your math teacher can also be the person who belays you on an experiential learning trip when you’re rock climbing,” Norris said. “To us they’re not just our teachers, they’re also the people we go to for help.”
The students were sitting together at lunch on a recent day. Berg and Zabell discussed their college choices while Norris listened. It’s not unusual to see students of various ages hanging out together, Zabell said.
“Everyone’s super close,” he said. “At lunch, I feel like I could go to any of the tables and sit down. My graduating class has 12 kids in it, and I feel like they’re my brothers and sisters.”
This year, Sugar Bowl Academy has 62 year-round students – 25 of whom live in a dormitory on campus.
Berg said the academy’s communal nature makes living in the dorms, away from her family, easier. “We’re such a close-knit community that it’s kind of like living with family.”
Keller said she thinks the focus of the school brings together kids who click.
“Our kids are all here because they’re passionate about one thing,” she said. “Because they all share that, whether they’re alpine skiers, Nordic skiers or freeriders, their connections are all super close.”
A rigorous curriculum
Because of their rigorous nature, ski academies have developed reputations for teaching students more than just snow skills.
Ski Racing magazine managing partner Gary Black Jr. has worked with ski academies for years – he was on the board of the Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Vermont, and helped found the Sun Valley School in Idaho. His daughter attended a ski academy on the East Coast, and he said the life skills she learned were unparalleled.
At age 15, his daughter was able to pack up her life to go train in South America without needing the usual oversight from her parents.
“It doesn’t necessarily make them a super athlete, but it does give them a kind of discipline and significant time management skills,” Black said.
Black said this makes ski academy students particularly attractive to colleges. According to Keller, nearly 100 percent of SBA students go on to college, though some take a gap year to pursue skiing. The school lists its SAT average as about 300 points above the national average of 1500.
Few SBA athletes will make it on to the U.S. Ski Team, but many will ski competitively at the college level. One of SBA’s most notable alums is Katie Hitchcock, who skied for the U.S. team from 2003-08.
Zabell said he hopes to compete with the U.S. Biathalon Team one day. The biathalon involves Nordic skiing and rifle shooting.
Zabell, Berg and Norris said they are well aware of the self-motivation and responsibility that SBA demands. “It’s a lot of work,” Berg said. “But it’s good because it teaches a lot of commitment.”
Some sacrifices, too
SBA coaches and teachers work closely with advisers to make sure students keep up with their studies when they’re on the road.
During the winter, students are typically traveling for 20-30 days of school, and they’re allowed to compete only if they keep their grades above 70 percent in all subjects.
The academy experience doesn’t come cheap. SBA costs $25,250 per year for day students and $45,300 for boarders.
About 39 percent of students are on financial aid, and the average award is about 50 percent of tuition, Keller said. Traveling is not covered by tuition; parents pay out of pocket, although travel scholarships are available for high-level international competitions.
There are other sacrifices to the academy life beyond the financial.
“The kids will say that they don’t get to do things like go to a high school prom,” Keller said. “They don’t have a homecoming. We don’t have dances. We’re too small.”
Sending a child to a ski academy can be a hard decision for parents, said Tim Louis, whose daughter Haley is a sophomore at SBA. Louis, his wife and their two other children live in the Bay Area. He recently was at SBA to take Haley to her driver’s permit test.
“We wanted to help her pursue her dream,” said Louis, 43. “It’s like unexpectedly sending your kid off to college a few years early.”
While Ski Racing Magazine’s Black said the academics at ski academies typically don’t measure up to other private school educations, Louis said he believes SBA delivers on its educational obligations.
“Some might find a way to compete at the expense of academics,” Louis said. “But there’s really a balance here.”
Busy daily schedules
There may be balance, but there’s not a lot of idle time.
In the fall and spring, students are expected to be on campus for a conditioning workout from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., followed by breakfast and classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then there’s another workout until 6:30 p.m.
Norris gets up at 5:30 a.m. to make those morning workouts from his home in Truckee. He said his passion for skiing helps him tolerate the early mornings.
“You have to be incredibly in love with the sport you’re doing,” Norris said. “You just got to have that dedication, that love for the sport, to do the less-than-fun parts.”
During the winter, the schedule changes. Monday is a full day of classes, but then students are on snow for at least three hours a day Tuesday through Friday.
When they can’t get on the slopes, they work out on their own or with a coach. Sugar Bowl’s ski area was closed on a recent day due to high winds, so Zabell used an exercise bike in the gym. Berg joined younger students in strength training.
Sugar Bowl Academy enjoys a close relationship with the Sugar Bowl ski area and has a private racing area and snow-making equipment, so the drought in recent years has had little effect on their training.
In the fitness center, the students pushed themselves, increasing weight as they performed squats. Coach Seth Mccadam didn’t have need to do much in terms of motivation as he supervised the workout.
Mccadam, 41, is in his first year of coaching at SBA after working with the U.S. Women’s Ski Team for nine years. He repeated what others at the school have said – no young skier is going to make it at SBA without a tremendous amount of drive.
“It’s intense. It’s a lot of work for teenage athletes. They have to really want to do this,” Mccadam said as the students stretched after their workout. “These guys are in puddles (of sweat). ... That’s the kind of effort that’s required in this sport (and at) this school.”
Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006.