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Snowy commencement for snowsports athletes

Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy Class of 2022 includes Olympian Kai Owens, who spoke at Friday's graduation ceremony

Brianna Richards gives the welcome address for the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy Commencement Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. The event was held indoors due to the late May snow. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily)

It was a snowy commencement for the snowsports athletes of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy on Friday.

The Eagle County magnet school graduated 26 seniors at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott, where the large windows on the indoor venue allowed crowds to enjoy the heavy snowfall blanketing the mountains outside.

Keynote Speaker Thomas Walsh, a Paralympian who earned a silver medal at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, said the events that led him to the podium that day were “about as predictable as our Colorado weather – sunny and summer one day, and winter the next.”



Paralympian Thomas Walsh gives the Keynote Address for the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy graduation Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. The keynote speaker was supposed to be Miha Kurner, but Kurner tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the week. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily)

Walsh survived stage 4 bone cancer to become a top-tier adaptive ski racer and member of the U.S. Paralympic Team. He was asked to speak on Thursday after organizers learned speaker Miha Kurner had COVID as was unable to attend.

Principal Wade Hill referenced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the past two years have created trying times for the school.



Hill thanked the teachers at VSSA for their perseverance in creating “the best learning experience we could ask for our kids,” he said.

Walsh, referencing the fact that he was not the first choice for as keynote speaker, said in Beijing he learned “even second place stands at a podium.”

Walsh said his ability to take what life throws at him is due to the fact that he was an athlete at a ski academy as a junior.

“The lifestyle of an elite junior athlete is one that many can’t even imagine and even fewer can handle – the delicate balance of school work, with athletic training, with traveling for sport and competition, and even a social life, are all things that these graduates had to juggle,” Walsh said.

Kai Owens gives the From the Beginning Speech during the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy Commencement Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. Owens spoke on her time at VSSA and how it shaped her accomplishments, including going to the 2022 Winter Olympics. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily)

2022 graduate Kai Owens made the U.S. Olympic Team this year and traveled to Beijing to compete in the moguls event, where she finished 10th.

Owens spoke as well, saying because of her eight years at VSSA, she has already seen some of her dreams come true.

Owens said as she got older and her competition schedule necessitated more time away from in-person learning, she received support from VSSA staff which helped her catch up in the classroom.

Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy graduates walk through the snow into their commencement Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. The graduation was indoors due to the snow.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“In addition to the support I received by the academic coaches and teachers, I gained a lot of support from my classmates and the students at VSSA as they welcomed me back for the few days here and there that I was actually in the building,” Owens said. “One of the coolest things about VSSA is getting to be close to lots of high-level athletes; throughout the years that I’ve been here, I’ve looked up to previous Olympians and U.S. Ski Team members. It was very inspiring as a young student to walk past these athletes in the halls, giving a great sense of pride to be a part of this school.”

Owens presented a faculty award to Katie Brandl, thanking the English teacher for her creative ways of keeping classes engaged, like having kids make videos or acting out plays in class.

“I would like to personally thank you for everything you’ve done for myself and this class, we are extremely grateful for you, I’m going to miss having you as a teacher,” Owens said to Brandl.

Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy graduates sit during their commencement event Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily)

Senior Savannah Jordaan, charged with adding a humorous speech to the commencement, said students often had teachers for years in a row, and Brandl had to endure there years of Jordaan using commas “where the vibe was right,” she said.

Senior Noelle Edelmann presented a faculty award to science teacher Scott Hopkins, who is transferring to the IT department at Eagle County Schools after 13 years with VSSA.

“In 8th grade we did a science lab where we watched a gummy bear explode and it was followed by ‘see kids, this is why you don’t eat in this classroom,'” Edelmann said. “His shoes will be very hard to fill.”

VSSA is part of the Eagle County Schools system and is open to full-time athletes who pass an evaluation of the student’s athletic and academic background. The school serves grades 5-12 and is located in the former Minturn Middle School location near Maloit Park in Minturn.


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