With alumni such as bode Miller and Kirsten Clark, the Carrabassett Valley Academy's reputation as a world-class racing preparatory school is as cemented as the blue ice that often encases the student training runs at Sugarloaf, Maine's biggest ski hill.
But if Sam Punderson has his way, that rep will soon be joined by another: CVA is quickly becoming the school of choice for hard-charging groms looking to make their mark in the big-mountain scene. That's because 34-year-old Punderson helped found the academy's ALPS (Alpine Leadership Pursuits for Skiers and Snowboarders) program in 2001, a ski and ride curriculum that takes young rippers into the steep and deep. Punderson grew up in Vermont and attended the Stratton Mountain School, where he raced on the Nordic team. "With ALPS, he says, "we wanted to develop something for skiers and snowboarders who simply aren't interested in competition.
What exactly does that mean? An enviable schedule of travel and play, for one. Students take two monthlong trips each year. The first, in November, includes anything from rock climbing in Utah to backcountry skiing in Chile. The second, in February, is to La Grave, France, where the kids (and Punderson) regularly ski with the legendary Doug Coombs.
Punderson knows he's got it good. "The greatest part about being a coach in this program is that all we do is play, he says with a chuckle that suggests he still can't quite believe his luck. "I've skied 90 days around La Grave in the past three years. It doesn't suck. Alex Buck, a senior in his second year of ALPS, who hopes to apprentice with Coombs upon graduation, agrees. "We get to ski, we get to travel, and we get to know all these different cultures. It sure doesn't feel like school.
Which is precisely the point: opening the kids' eyes through travel and studying other cultures. "I want to disabuse them of the notion that America is king, that America can do no wrong, he says. "That's a big motivation for me. Well, that, and skiing fresh powder.
vitals: 5 feet 10 inches, 180 pounds
hometown: Landgrove, Vermont
first turns: Pico, Vermont
biggest coaching challenge: "It's odd, because these kids have to motivate from within. There's no stopwatch, no gates, no way to quantify where you're at. But I suppose following Coombs around La Grave for nine hours straight is a pretty good measure of fitness and skill.