Fast Times at CVA - Ski Mag

Fast Times at CVA

Travel East
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Fast Times 1004

At Carrabassett Valley Academy, teens train as hard as they study-on the slim chance they might someday win one for the U.S. Ski Team.

IT'S 10 P.M. ON A WEEKNIGHT IN REMOTE, RURAL MAINE, and 16-year-old Liz Thompson is packing her many bags. "It's pretty amazing to watch," says her mother, Teri. "She has her ski bag, her clothes bag, a bag with her four pairs of skis, her book bag-which will probably weigh more than her ski bag-and her food bag. Well, I take care of that last one."

These days, it seems, all Liz Thompson does is pack. And unpack, and zip into her roses-and-thorns-themed racing suit, and ski. The poised and supremely self-assured Thompson is one of the top skiers at Maine's prestigious Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA), the private, skiing-intensive high school at Sugarloaf Mountain that counts Olympians Bode Miller (class of '96) and Kirsten Clark ('94) as grads. In other words, Thompson is one of the best racers her age out there. In slalom, she's No. 1 in the East, sixth in the United States. This weekend in March, she'll race against other 15- and 16-year-olds in the newest stepping stone to the U.S. Ski Team, the JII competition at Whiteface, N.Y., a good eight-hour drive from Carrabassett Valley. Right after, she'll drive two days with her coach to Ontario for the NorAm Cup Finals. In total, she'll be MIA from school for nine days.

"It's a lot of racing, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes," Thompson says with typical, unforced nonchalance. "When I was younger, there were fewer races, so I got nervous because they were my only chances. Now that I race every week, I think, 'So I messed up. There's always next week.'"

But in these weeks, Thompson's fate as a competitive skier-and the fates of many of the 104 other ambitious student-athletes at CVA-will begin to take shape. Scattering to races from January to March, CVA's teenaged alpine racers (as well as its snowboarders and freestyle skiers) have to face not just unfamiliar slopes but slim odds. "The reality is that one person, and only one person, from every birth year will make it onto the development team for the U.S. Ski Team, which isn't even the U.S. Ski Team," says Zach Brandwein, 17 and a fellow alpine racer at CVA. For CVA students, the winter months are "the dark ages," he says. "When you live in the dorms, you freak out. It's tough. Everybody knows what everybody's going through. You might have a support network, but in the end, the person you've got to rely on is yourself."

Thompson, at least, has her mom, who lives with her in a cozy, rented basement apartment on Sugarloaf Mountain. (About one third of CVA students are day students.) But supporting Liz's talent has effectively split her family in two. Teri runs the office at Saddleback Ski Mountain and commutes 45 minutes each way to work. Liz's older brother, RJ, was a CVA student for three years until he transferred to public school in Rangely, also 45 minutes away. "He's a great skier," Liz explains, "but he just wasn't serious about it anymore." And, Teri adds, with CVA's tuition running close to Harvard's, "the pocketbook said 'OK.'" Now, RJ lives with their father, a ski instructor, in the family house in Rangely. When I ask Teri when she gets to see her husband, she laughs. "Liz, when do I get to see your father?" Teri asks. Liz shrugs, "I don't know."

Finally, all packed, Liz munches a sandwich in the hour before sleep. There are two bedrooms, but one is Liz's and the other is for her ski-tuning bench. "I sleep on the couch," Teri admits. "This is her place. I just take care of her. It's what moms do."

Tonight, Liz's support network is her mom; tomorrow, it'll be her coach. The next day, however, as with every CVA student eventually, Liz will be alone in the starting gate. But from November to March, four out of five school days, CVA students leave school, suit up and bus over to Sugarloaf to train for close to four hours: The starting ga is the whole point. "Some kids come to CVA and they're not passionate about skiing," Liz says, heading to bed. "They don't last long. They can't handle it."

IF CVA'S MAIN BUILDING LOOKS LIE A SWINGER-ERA ski lodge, that's because it was one. "This place used to be called The Capricorn," says Rick Bisson, head of public relations for CVA (and father of two current CVA students). "My family would come up and stay here when I was a kid in the '60s. I remember drinking Shirley Temples right where we're standing." The Capricorn's first floor has since been converted into classrooms, along with a computer area and a library, but the open, wooden-beam-and-hearth dining area hasn't changed. Neither have the rooms upstairs, now the boys dormitory. Carpeted in heavy brown shag, each room has a loft space for bunk beds, heaps of clothing, guitars and the occasional "Beers of the World" poster. ("We've got to take that down," Bisson says.) Each room sleeps four. Girls stay in another former lodge, the Lumberjack, annexed up the road.

But on entering CVA, the first thing you notice isn't the style of the place, the rugs or the glass case crammed with medals. It's the wall just to your right in the lobby. This is CVA's wall of fame. Six photographs stretch across the stucco, all CVA alums: Bode, Kirsten, U.S. Ski Team freestyler Brenda Petzold, Canadian Olympic snowboarder Mark Fawcett, U.S. Snowboard Team Olympians Seth Wescott and Jeff Greenwood. In 2002, CVA had six athletes competing in three different Olympic sports. Every day, relaxing between classes on the lobby couches, Liz and the other students sit beneath these photographs of CVA's heroes. On a neighboring wall are head shots of all the current students. Professionally, these worlds might be miles apart, but here it's just a matter of a few feet. At CVA, the Olympians are just kids from Kingfield, from Raymond, from Franconia Notch who ran the same slopes, slept in the same beds and snacked from the same salad-and-cereal bar a few years back. The unspoken message: Great skiers are made, not born, and they're made here.

The U.S. Ski Team, the summit of the sport for alpine racers, typically recruits college-age kids but has begun looking for standout skiers during their sophomore and junior years of high school. With that kind of scrutiny, serious weekend skiers don't stand a chance against kids who ski every day. "The competition's become more organized, more specific and more intense," says Scott Hoisington, the head boys alpine coach at CVA. "You can't just go to public high school in the East and race. It won't work in today's athletic environment." One year at CVA is $30,000-around a third of its students receive financial aid-but as the sport combs for younger talent, ski academies have become a critical, if costly, first rung on the ladder for aspiring champions. (Make that the second rung; the first would be skiing pretty much as soon as you can walk, as Liz did.) There are a handful of other outstanding academies in New England, like Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy and Stratton Mountain School, to name two. But CVA's recent track record of launching talent into the upper echelons of the sport-and schools-is among the best. And even if students fall out of competitive skiing, CVA prepares them for life off the snow. "Ninety-eight percent of our kids go to college, and we've had kids at Stanford, Brown, Dartmouth, MIT, CalPoly...." says John Ritzo, CVA's headmaster. "Some may take a year off to ski competitively before going, but eventually they all go." The other main draw is Sugarloaf itself, whose famous Narrow Gauge trail is one of just two FIS-certified downhill racing courses in the Eastern United States. (The other is at Whiteface.)

CVA itself began as an outgrowth of Sugarloaf's ski club in the late 1970s. Weekend training grew into month-long tutorial programs for teenagers. When Burke opened its first "winter session" in 1970, "some of the best Maine kids started heading to Vermont," says Ritzo. "Parents said, 'We don't want our kids to have to leave the state to ski.'" They joined up with King Cummings, the owner of Sugarloaf at the time, and founded CVA in 1982. The first classes were held in the basement of the Sugarloaf chapel. The Capricorn was purchased and converted to a school in 1983. Since then, the academy's mandate has diversified just as the sport has; the 115 current students split into thirds: one third ski alpine, one third ski freestyle, and one third snowboard. (A small, popular and strictly noncompetitive "ALPS" program, just 4 years old, travels to France for a month of big-mountain skiing.)

At the height of the winter season, there is no "after-school" skiing at CVA. Rather, there is "pre-ski" and "after-ski" school. Classes run from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Then, students head to the mountain until the afternoon. Lunch on the hill is peanut butter-and-fluff sandwiches and "Go-gurt," yogurt that comes in a tube. Classes resume at 3 and last until 5 p.m. Dinner follows, along with mandatory study hall for those who can't maintain a B average. Mondays are all-academic days; Fridays are mostly skiing days. When students travel, teachers send packets of class material and tests for the coaches to proctor. Math teacher Dave Koenig even filmed calculus tutorials and burned them on CD-ROM for the kids to take with them. "Some students are terrific and some horrible," Koenig says. "Trigonometry's hard because a coach might ask, 'Have you done your homework?' but they have no clue what it's supposed to look like. It could just be junk written down." To make up for lost class-time, classes run six days a week during the fall and spring off-seasons. Meanwhile, students weight train, mountain bike and play soccer and baseball to maintain peak condition.

It's a high-pressure environment, but "the earlier they learn that, the better they will perform," says Coach Hoisington. "Still, we do need to let them have a break and be kids." The school tips 75 percent boys to 25 percent girls, a figure that reflects the sport-and puts girls in the pole position socially. While dating does happen, the school is so small and isolated ("We're two hours from everywhere") that anything intimate takes some savvy. "Girls can stay in the boys' dorm until 9:30 p.m., but only on the bottom floor, and they have to keep the door open," says Chelsea Trenholm, a CVA first-year whose brother graduated in 2003. "And guys can't go into girls' rooms. Ever. At Lumberjack, even though we have a little chill area with a TV, the guys don't want to go there because it's a long walk." The pickings are slim, says junior Jamie Bisson. "These guys are like our brothers. We know them a little more than we want to." Still, there are a few couples, says Liz (whose own boyfriend is also a CVA student). "But everybody knows about everything. You can't do anything secretive. I guess you just hold hands and spend more time together than usual."

Other activities are not so wholesome. This week, two freeriders who had wandered into the lobby drunk are coming off a seven-day suspension and into 30 hours of "community service": vacuuming the building's endless rugs and dusting the pipes by hand. They work, humiliated, with vacuums strapped to their backs. "You guys look like ghostbusters," first-year Trenholm calls out, relaxing in the lobby. "It gets boring up here," she explains. "People want to do stuff."

MIDTERM REPORT CARDS ARE OUT, AND THE ALPINE team academic advisor, Shelley Koenig, collects her athletes in CVA's basement rec room. It's "after-ski," so the exhausted students spill over the ping-pong table and comfy but ratty couches. Music videos play on the muted television.

"Setting big goals leads to...?" asks Koenig. "Anybody?"

"Big goals?" says one of the kids, half-entranced by the TV.

"No. It leads to success," Koenig says. She reviews some CVA matters: If you've got a car, don't drive ids started heading to Vermont," says Ritzo. "Parents said, 'We don't want our kids to have to leave the state to ski.'" They joined up with King Cummings, the owner of Sugarloaf at the time, and founded CVA in 1982. The first classes were held in the basement of the Sugarloaf chapel. The Capricorn was purchased and converted to a school in 1983. Since then, the academy's mandate has diversified just as the sport has; the 115 current students split into thirds: one third ski alpine, one third ski freestyle, and one third snowboard. (A small, popular and strictly noncompetitive "ALPS" program, just 4 years old, travels to France for a month of big-mountain skiing.)

At the height of the winter season, there is no "after-school" skiing at CVA. Rather, there is "pre-ski" and "after-ski" school. Classes run from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Then, students head to the mountain until the afternoon. Lunch on the hill is peanut butter-and-fluff sandwiches and "Go-gurt," yogurt that comes in a tube. Classes resume at 3 and last until 5 p.m. Dinner follows, along with mandatory study hall for those who can't maintain a B average. Mondays are all-academic days; Fridays are mostly skiing days. When students travel, teachers send packets of class material and tests for the coaches to proctor. Math teacher Dave Koenig even filmed calculus tutorials and burned them on CD-ROM for the kids to take with them. "Some students are terrific and some horrible," Koenig says. "Trigonometry's hard because a coach might ask, 'Have you done your homework?' but they have no clue what it's supposed to look like. It could just be junk written down." To make up for lost class-time, classes run six days a week during the fall and spring off-seasons. Meanwhile, students weight train, mountain bike and play soccer and baseball to maintain peak condition.

It's a high-pressure environment, but "the earlier they learn that, the better they will perform," says Coach Hoisington. "Still, we do need to let them have a break and be kids." The school tips 75 percent boys to 25 percent girls, a figure that reflects the sport-and puts girls in the pole position socially. While dating does happen, the school is so small and isolated ("We're two hours from everywhere") that anything intimate takes some savvy. "Girls can stay in the boys' dorm until 9:30 p.m., but only on the bottom floor, and they have to keep the door open," says Chelsea Trenholm, a CVA first-year whose brother graduated in 2003. "And guys can't go into girls' rooms. Ever. At Lumberjack, even though we have a little chill area with a TV, the guys don't want to go there because it's a long walk." The pickings are slim, says junior Jamie Bisson. "These guys are like our brothers. We know them a little more than we want to." Still, there are a few couples, says Liz (whose own boyfriend is also a CVA student). "But everybody knows about everything. You can't do anything secretive. I guess you just hold hands and spend more time together than usual."

Other activities are not so wholesome. This week, two freeriders who had wandered into the lobby drunk are coming off a seven-day suspension and into 30 hours of "community service": vacuuming the building's endless rugs and dusting the pipes by hand. They work, humiliated, with vacuums strapped to their backs. "You guys look like ghostbusters," first-year Trenholm calls out, relaxing in the lobby. "It gets boring up here," she explains. "People want to do stuff."

MIDTERM REPORT CARDS ARE OUT, AND THE ALPINE team academic advisor, Shelley Koenig, collects her athletes in CVA's basement rec room. It's "after-ski," so the exhausted students spill over the ping-pong table and comfy but ratty couches. Music videos play on the muted television.

"Setting big goals leads to...?" asks Koenig. "Anybody?"

"Big goals?" says one of the kids, half-entranced by the TV.

"No. It leads to success," Koenig says. She reviews some CVA matters: If you've got a car, don't drive yourself up to the mountain; take the school bus like everybody else. An ESP and hypnosis show is coming to school next month, so start getting excited. The spring "slush games"-sports in the school's muddy field-are back on.

"Proper rest and good habits equals what?" asks Koenig.

"Success!" says Liz.

This answer isn't just a platitude at CVA; success is the result of a test that you take almost every week at races, one that keeps getting harder and harder and whose results are utterly public. Three times year, students take the U.S. Ski Team fitness test- a check of their ski-related skills. The results, a ranking of every CVA student, are posted outside the rec room. One kid, for example, could do 115 vertical jumps in 90 seconds. ("I asked him how he did that," says Rick Bisson. "He told me, 'It's all about pacing.'") Just passing isn't good enough. When three of his top skiers came back with subpar performances at their last race, coach Hoisington wrote a note on the team bulletin board for everyone to read: "Attitude controls motivation. Motivation controls performance. Performance controls success."

The irony is that all the mottos and mantras may not mean much when your key piece of equipment-the teenaged body-is incredibly difficult to tune. "The biggest challenge for them is to not get frustrated by the ups and downs of their years," says Hoisington. "If you race against one kid and you beat him every race and then one time you don't, you don't know what's happening." Injuries-dubbed "mucho owwie"-are routine. For a school project, Trenholm created a chart showing that eight students suffered concussions, seven tore their ACLs, and "skier's thumb" is common. But the danger is less the initial injury than a youthful eagerness to get back on the slopes prematurely, compounding the damage. Sidelined for a month and a half with a busted knee, Trenholm then broke her elbow grinding a rail when she returned. She'd be out for the rest of the season.

By comparison, Thompson's worst injuries have been bruises up her arms and shins and a bad bloody nose, all from smacking the racing gates. During Thompson's daily training on Sugarloaf's groomed snow, her coach, Martin Gray, watches her take a handful of runs. "She's not real rigid when she gets into trouble," he says. "Liz has this wonderful ability to be soft on her skis and just let them take her down the hill."

Thompson's come-what-may attitude extends to her own plans for the future. When you add up CVA's tuition (even with her scholarships), the costs of racing (for her upcoming trip, Thomspon's tab for hotel and food will come to $1,145) and her month-long summer training in New Zealand with Coach Gray, "college isn't looking good," says her mom, Teri. "We spend more on ski equipment than on the family car." Her brother, RJ, will enter Southern Maine Vocational school to work toward becoming an electrician. Right now, Liz is hoping to ski in college, somewhere in New England. But, as she says, "I don't think the U.S. Ski Team is something I see in my future." This is the reality: one in every birth year. "There are just so many steps to get there, and it's easier to concentrate on what's in front of you than on three or four years out."

Which raises the question: With chances so slim, why do student-athletes come to CVA in the first place? Isn't it just an expensive route to disappointment? As Hoisington puts it, learning how to compete on the slopes is really learning how to compete in life, and the discipline and focus students develop at CVA only leads to better grades, colleges, careers and self-respect. Each may start off hoping to be the next Bode, but most will settle for being themselves. Ultimately, it may just be a Maine thing, Teri says. Mountains have been these kids' backyards. Snow is where they feel comfortable and gifted. "When you live in Maine, you grow up with skiing and you love it," she says. "As a parent, you've just got to support thatt enthusiasm."

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, DURING the JII slalom at Whiteface, Thompson catches her arm on a racing gate and earns a DNF-"Did Not Finish," a racer's worst-case scenario. In the giant slalom two days later, she falls and also classifies DNF. "It happens," says Coach Gray philosophically. "When you get to a race like that, there is nothing to be gained from skiing downhill conservatively. You've got to try and push yourself. And on that day, Liz pushed herself. I was very pleased."

At the NorAms-her first time skiing at that level-she does well. She had said she was just going for the experience anyway, so "there was less pressure." But then, a week later, at an FIS race near Quebec City, she has her best result of the year in giant slalom, racing against Canadian Ski Team members. Ups and downs and ups. "It's hard," Thompson says, "some people keep improving and some people stop-even if the dedication is there. Even if you love it a lot. It's just what happens. But I really hope I keep going."

rself up to the mountain; take the school bus like everybody else. An ESP and hypnosis show is coming to school next month, so start getting excited. The spring "slush games"-sports in the school's muddy field-are back on.

"Proper rest and good habits equals what?" asks Koenig.

"Success!" says Liz.

This answer isn't just a platitude at CVA; success is the result of a test that you take almost every week at races, one that keeps getting harder and harder and whose results are utterly public. Three times year, students take the U.S. Ski Team fitness test- a check of their ski-related skills. The results, a ranking of every CVA student, are posted outside the rec room. One kid, for example, could do 115 vertical jumps in 90 seconds. ("I asked him how he did that," says Rick Bisson. "He told me, 'It's all about pacing.'") Just passing isn't good enough. When three of his top skiers came back with subpar performances at their last race, coach Hoisington wrote a note on the team bulletin board for everyone to read: "Attitude controls motivation. Motivation controls performance. Performance controls success."

The irony is that all the mottos and mantras may not mean much when your key piece of equipment-the teenaged body-is incredibly difficult to tune. "The biggest challenge for them is to not get frustrated by the ups and downs of their years," says Hoisington. "If you race against one kid and you beat him every race and then one time you don't, you don't know what's happening." Injuries-dubbed "mucho owwie"-are routine. For a school project, Trenholm created a chart showing that eight students suffered concussions, seven tore their ACLs, and "skier's thumb" is common. But the danger is less the initial injury than a youthful eagerness to get back on the slopes prematurely, compounding the damage. Sidelined for a month and a half with a busted knee, Trenholm then broke her elbow grinding a rail when she returned. She'd be out for the rest of the season.

By comparison, Thompson's worst injuries have been bruises up her arms and shins and a bad bloody nose, all from smacking the racing gates. During Thompson's daily training on Sugarloaf's groomed snow, her coach, Martin Gray, watches her take a handful of runs. "She's not real rigid when she gets into trouble," he says. "Liz has this wonderful ability to be soft on her skis and just let them take her down the hill."

Thompson's come-what-may attitude extends to her own plans for the future. When you add up CVA's tuition (even with her scholarships), the costs of racing (for her upcoming trip, Thomspon's tab for hotel and food will come to $1,145) and her month-long summer training in New Zealand with Coach Gray, "college isn't looking good," says her mom, Teri. "We spend more on ski equipment than on the family car." Her brother, RJ, will enter Southern Maine Vocational school to work toward becoming an electrician. Right now, Liz is hoping to ski in college, somewhere in New England. But, as she says, "I don't think the U.S. Ski Team is something I see in my future." This is the reality: one in every birth year. "There are just so many steps to get there, and it's easier to concentrate on what's in front of you than on three or four years out."

Which raises the question: With chances so slim, why do student-athletes come to CVA in the first place? Isn't it just an expensive route to disappointment? As Hoisington puts it, learning how to compete on the slopes is really learning how to compete in life, and the discipline and focus students develop at CVA only leads to better grades, colleges, careers and self-respect. Each may start off hoping to be the next Bode, but most will settle for being themselves. Ultimately, it may just be a Maine thing, Teri says. Mountains have been these kids' backyards. Snow is where they feel comfortable and gifted. "When you live in Maine, you grow up with skiing and you love it," she says. "As a parent, you've just got to support that enthusiasm."

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, DURING the JII slalom at Whiteface, Thompson catches her arm on a racing gate and earns a DNF-"Did Not Finish," a racer's worst-case scenario. In the giant slalom two days later, she falls and also classifies DNF. "It happens," says Coach Gray philosophically. "When you get to a race like that, there is nothing to be gained from skiing downhill conservatively. You've got to try and push yourself. And on that day, Liz pushed herself. I was very pleased."

At the NorAms-her first time skiing at that level-she does well. She had said she was just going for the experience anyway, so "there was less pressure." But then, a week later, at an FIS race near Quebec City, she has her best result of the year in giant slalom, racing against Canadian Ski Team members. Ups and downs and ups. "It's hard," Thompson says, "some people keep improving and some people stop-even if the dedication is there. Even if you love it a lot. It's just what happens. But I really hope I keep going."

ort that enthusiasm."

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, DURING the JII slalom at Whiteface, Thompson catches her arm on a racing gate and earns a DNF-"Did Not Finish," a racer's worst-case scenario. In the giant slalom two days later, she falls and also classifies DNF. "It happens," says Coach Gray philosophically. "When you get to a race like that, there is nothing to be gained from skiing downhill conservatively. You've got to try and push yourself. And on that day, Liz pushed herself. I was very pleased."

At the NorAms-her first time skiing at that level-she does well. She had said she was just going for the experience anyway, so "there was less pressure." But then, a week later, at an FIS race near Quebec City, she has her best result of the year in giant slalom, racing against Canadian Ski Team members. Ups and downs and ups. "It's hard," Thompson says, "some people keep improving and some people stop-even if the dedication is there. Even if you love it a lot. It's just what happens. But I really hope I keep going."

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