Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy graduates its class of 2023
WOLCOTT — For the 25 students graduating from Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy on Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch, it was their common bond — of grit, dedication, passion, procrastination and competition — that they reflected on as they celebrated commencement and all that comes next.
“At the end of the day, I am just one person. I am one student of millions; just one athlete — unfortunately a Nordic skier — but regardless I am just one singular guy,” said Vlad Shambarger. “Every single person at this ceremony has their own lives, stories to tell, and things that make them who they are. But what is important is that we are part of a whole. A part of a class, team, community, or whatever makes you feel you feel truly whole.”
“I am honored to be a part of our class, VSSA, and the Vail Valley community,” Shambarger added. “This I can truly say is my greatest accomplishment. That I am a part of the lives of so many supporting, loving, intelligent, and fun people.”
Graduating senior Abby Dembeck called the bond of the 2023 class “effortless.”
“Even though we have all grown into individuals and each of us has developed our own identities, this group of kids just seemed to work together,” Dembeck said.
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In her speech, Dembeck reflected on the composition of the graduating class, which included six girls and 19 boys.
“These boys have taught me countless lessons over the last four years, including the value of confidence. They showed me it is OK to be proud of yourself and your accomplishments, and from them, I learned to set my expectations high without the worry of failure,” Dembeck said. “And for the girls, with there being so few of us, we have been able to build individualized connections which lead to a supportive and inclusive environment.”
‘Say the words’
The value of relationships, connections and reaching out for support was a topic broached by the morning’s keynote speaker, Kevin Nichols.
Nichols graduated from Battle Mountain High School in 2016 and become a member of the Freeride World Tour in 2019 while obtaining his bachelor’s in secondary education at the University of Montana, Bozeman. Nichols recently released and starred in the film, “Dropping: A Skiers Battle With Epilepsy.”
During his address to the students, Nichols recounted his story and journey with epilepsy, which he was initially diagnosed with before his third birthday. While the disease remained dormant for many years, it returned in 2021 right as he was about to join the Freeride World Tour. At the time, Nichols had to use a wildcard deferral for the season to figure out the right treatment plan to manage his epilepsy.
“The decision was made out of my hands. I then had to make several phone calls to my sponsors and competition directors telling them about my situation. I had no idea how they would react. I was scared. Maybe they didn’t want to sponsor an epileptic skier; maybe that was too much liability. I had no idea what this would bring,” Nichols recounted.
That winter, while he was supposed to be in Europe competing, Nichols said he “sat alone in a camper, isolated from the outside world until my immune system recovered.”
“It was in that camper, I told myself, ‘I feel alone. I feel angry. I feel sad. I am not OK.’ I said the words, not only to myself but to my girlfriend and my family. Today, I am so proud of myself for saying those words. My support system dragged me out of that trench. They built me up, and eventually, I was able to get out of that low. Only because I said the words,” Nichols said. “I normalized these incredibly abnormal experiences and as a result had to go through it alone. No one should ever go through anything alone. Please, graduates, learn from my mistake. If you feel like something’s wrong, off, strange, please say the words: ‘I think something is wrong. I think I need help.'”
Nichols reflected that humans are often inclined to hide and internalize struggles and weaknesses. However, in telling his story and imparting what he learned from it he encouraged the graduates to “take a deep breath, listen to your heart, and say the words.”
Wade Hill, the school’s principal, referred to Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy as a “small school with a special mission” in his address to the Class of 2023.
“I’m not going to give the conventional: ‘As I look out here, I see future doctors and lawyers.’ To be honest, I only know a few of our graduates here today, and I don’t know what will become of them. That said, I have no doubt every graduate here will be wildly successful,” Nichols said. “All I’ll say is this, to these graduates transitioning into true adulthood, my buddy who’s a plumber skis way more than my other buddy who’s an architect and probably makes just as much money.”
The 25-person class includes two graduating seniors who are joining the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team — Hahna Norman and Hunter Salani. Others will pursue ski careers, while many will attend college to study engineering, biochemistry, psychology and other disciplines.
Whatever comes next, Nichols advised: “Never stop skiing, graduates.”
In giving the graduating students a charge for the years ahead, Freddy Mooney, a moguls coach with the school, said, “I hope none of you ever accomplish all of your goals.”
“When you go about setting your goals, if you’re achieving all of your goals, you’re not setting your goals high enough,” Mooney said. “When you’re setting your goals, don’t imagine what you can do. Imagine what you want to do. Imagine what you could do. Aim high — and I mean really high — but expect that sometimes you’ll fall short. Having goals is extremely important, but reaching them isn’t always a reality.”
Mooney warned that while these goals are important in giving direction, inspiration and purpose, they’re not everything.
“If you’re setting them as high as you should be, they can’t be the most important things in your life. At the end of the day, the people you connect with, the relationships you build, and how you go about striving for your goals are the things that really matter,” Mooney said.
For the graduating seniors, the connections, skills and lessons from Vail Ski and Snowboard will follow them as they pursue their next step, goal and dream.
“Whether that be the lessons taught in the classroom like the value of doing your work on time, or the ones that were taught outside of the classroom such as the value of building friendships despite our differences, these are lessons we can use and develop as we move on to new adventures in our lives,” Dembeck said.
“And for the half of you that are taking gap years, I will see you at training on Monday.”