Looking over Little Cottonwood Canyon from the Wasatch Powderbird headquarters, professional skier Pep Fujas has to hustle home. After a day of heli-skiing with his ski sponsor K2, the 35-year-old needs to study for a test that will count towards his college degree in operations management.
One of the most influential freeskiers of his generation, Fujas became a professional athlete in his late teens and never made it to college in the process. “I was making pretty good money,” he says. “I figured I could always transition from one thing to another in the ski industry.” Now, with two kids at home, he is working on completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah. Afterwards, he will go straight into an MBA program.
“It’s funny to think of school as a distraction from skiing and not vice versa,” says Fujas, recognizing his priorities were quite different at the beginning of his career. But, over time, he realized he craved greater mental engagement than what professional skiing could provide.
“Being a part of the ski industry, you don’t have a lot of outlets for critical thinking. I felt like I was lacking in the academic department,” he says. So, a few years ago, with his second child on the way, Fujas committed to attending university with the ambition of landing a job that would allow him to take on real-world problems. He’s part of a small but growing number of pro athletes starting to look beyond their athletic careers and focusing on issues apart from those they face on the ski hill.
Julia Ford started racing for the U.S. Ski Team in high school, and, like Fujas, put college on the back-burner. Six seasons later, however, she knew she needed a unique type of mental engagement, not too different than the critical thinking Fujas craved throughout his ski career.
“I had been injured and was just off the [U.S. Ski Team],” the 28-year-old says. “I could see the end of my career in sight, but I wanted to keep competing under the stipulation that I could also do something that would be mentally stimulating, rather than just knowing how to make a faster turn.”
At the U.S. National Championship in 2016, Ford bumped into her friend and former U.S. Ski Team member Cody Marshall, who recruited her to join a new professional skills education program he co-founded, called GroundSwell Athletics. “Everything that he explained to me fit the criteria for the year that I had coming up,” says Ford. “I was like ‘I wanna do that!’”
Years prior, forced into early retirement from World Cup racing after suffering a traumatic brain injury, Marshall took a job as a private ski coach for Bob Bennett, the founder of GroundSwell Resources. At the same time, Bennett was in the process of creating an investment platform for private companies with a holistic approach to organizational development, including a curriculum for clients to learn his methods. Aware of Marshall’s situation, Bennett recruited him to go through the curriculum as a way to help Marshall “grow off the hill.”
Marshall and Bennett understand that there are not many options for recently retired pro skiers, especially those who skipped completing an undergraduate degree. The pair created GroundSwell Athletics and started offering the program to other ski racers. GroundSwell athletes simultaneously pursue racing while completing Bennett’s business-building program, which combines elements of an executive MBA and a fellowship. Upon completion, ski racers will have various career options when they are ready to stop competing.
Ford says GroundSwell’s program was critical to her success post-professional racing, and she has utilized a number of the lessons in her new position as the Director of Alpine Skiing at Cardigan Mountain School. “When you’re retiring from skiing, it’s really daunting to think about what you’re going to do next,” she says. “With a long career, you can develop a presence in the ski community, but what GroundSwell did for me was make me feel more qualified for that presence and those opportunities.”
As for Fujas, he’s considering working for his outerwear sponsor Patagonia or his family’s company when his pro-skiing career winds down, two roles he’ll be significantly more qualified for with a college degree. Meanwhile, Fujas seems to be thriving in the college environment. “People are trying to tackle real-world problems,” he says. “It’s a fun environment to be in.”
Originally published in the November 2018 print edition of SKI Magazine.