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Long winter break for upcoming athletes

Debbie HummelVail, CO Colorado
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MARCH 24-25 ** Winter Sports School student Jessie Delacenserie, 14, makes a training run Thursday, March 15, 2007, at Park City Mountain Resort in Park City, Utah. Delacenserie is the current points leader in her region and age group in ski racing. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
AP | AP

BARK CITY, Utah (AP) – Back to school. It’s the time of year students dread the most. But for 14-year-old Jessie Delacenserie it’s made worse because it also means winter is over.That’s right. Winter.Delacenserie is a student in the Winter Sports School in Park City. The school is in session from April to November giving the student body – most of them elite winter athletes – time off when the snow flies to pursue their slippery goals.Notable alumni include Olympic gold medal skiers Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety and for students like Delacenserie, a Wisconsin-native who has been ski racing since age 5, there’s no choice.”It’s pretty much my life,” Delacenserie of ski racing. “I’ve been missing school since, like, second grade. In Madison they just didn’t understand how important ski racing was to me.”

That’s not a problem at the Winter Sports School, where students are often competitors in the classroom and on the slopes, and many of the teachers have backgrounds in competing or coaching.”I was a hack really. I was OK,” says Rob Clayton of his youth as a ski racer. Clayton has headed the school for six years.Clayton came to Utah from his native Vermont 15 years ago to coach and was hired by the school in 2002. Before coming to Utah, Clayton had worked at the Stratton Mountain School, a ski and snowboard academy in Vermont “in almost every capacity besides janitor,” he said.What first struck him about the Park City school was the “intelligence” of the schedule. Between training and competitions, many of them a day’s drive or more away, it makes no sense for teens actively involved in high-level winter sports to be missing weeks of class or worrying about making up course work when they’re trying to pursue their dreams, he said.Secondly, with other winter sports academies, the training program comes with the education.”You not only buy their educational profile, you also buy their coaching staff,” Clayton said. “We provide you the best education we can provide. You go find the best coach and the best program.”

The school’s program is modeled after the international baccalaureate program and is rigorous and college preparatory, Clayton said.”We don’t just take jocks that want a college diploma. We provide the education, but we try to facilitate those who have high aspirations,” he said.And it makes for an interesting population, Clayton says. “Everyone is a risk taker by nature. It’s far from your average classroom in America.”This year’s class will consist of about 50 percent alpine ski racers, the rest are freestyle skiers or snowboarders, speedskaters, ski jumpers, Nordic and cross-country skiers and bobsled, luge or skeleton sliders.The school has taken students in the past who weren’t winter sport athletes. One year there was a ballerina, recalls Eric Janes, who is the assistant head of the school and teaches math.”Her performances were a lot in the winter,” he said.Janes, a California native, said he originally came to Park City for a year to tutor members of the Park City Ski Team in math. When the school started in 1993 he was one of the first teachers and has been there ever since.He said he watched members of the ski team get 2 to 3 weeks behind in class work at Park City High School. He said the catching up was hard for the students and the teachers. Many times the teachers would accept less than what was required just to get it over with, and that’s when everybody loses, he said.He says watching a student like Ted Ligety also go on to Olympic Gold is the icing on the cake. But the school is really about preparing the students for life after competition.”We’re giving these guys a leg up and if it doesn’t go on in the direction they want, they have something to fall back on,” he said. “That’s what I really enjoy about it.”That, and the schedule.Janes is a ski instructor at Deer Valley Resort in the winter and teaches at the school the rest of the year. He jokes with the students that if it weren’t for his own skiing habit, they’d be in school in the winter.

Enrollment is capped at 60 students. Tuition is $15,075, which includes books, field trips and activities. There are no dormitories. Students from out of state or out of the country – the school is welcoming its first international students this year – live with host families in Park City.

The school itself is three doublewide trailers nestled at the base of the Utah Olympic Park. The bobsled, luge, skeleton and ski jumping tracks from the 2002 Winter Olympic Games are on the mountain above.The setting’s spectacular, but Clayton is frank about the classrooms – they’re nothing fancy. What’s important is the faculty, he said, and the student-teacher ratio which never gets above 12-to-1.Steve Holcomb, this year’s combined World Cup bobsled champion, went to the school for two years, graduating in 1997. His father, a carpenter, built several desks and other pieces of furniture for the school in exchange for his son’s tuition.Holcomb, a Park City native, started as an alpine ski racer and switched to bobsled after graduating.He said trying to go to public school and compete was overwhelming. After getting into the Winter Sports School he said it was the best of both worlds. He wasn’t missing weeks of class and getting behind in course work, but the school also has an agreement with Park City High School and Holcomb was able to play football, soccer and run track there.He says he missed having a big graduation ceremony.”My graduating class was 17 people,” he said.Delacenserie, on a break between morning and afternoon training sessions, says she doesn’t miss anything about mainstream high school.She is the current points leader in her region and age group in ski racing. Her big almond-shaped eyes narrow with determination as she runs a practice slalom course and when you ask her to list some of her best moments in racing she’ll tell you about improving her time by tenths of a second or the rush she gets from practicing something dozens of times and finally “getting it.”Students at the school have to read three books over the winter break and write reports on them. Delacenserie picked the autobiography of ski racer Herman Maier as her nonfiction selection.Her favorite subject is math and she doesn’t miss having summers off. But she says the last month before school ends for the year is a drag.”It’s November and it’s snowing outside, and you just want to be skiing.”

Winter Sports School: http://www.wintersportsschool.org


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