Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy helps students master school as well as competition |

Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy helps students master school as well as competition

Vail Ski and Snowboard Acadamy athlete Aaron Blunck spins through the air while jumping on a trampoline for practice in future skiing competitions Wednesday in Minturn.
Justin McCarty | |

MINTURN — Everyone knows freeskiers aren’t the best at getting up early.

Those are the words of Aaron Blunck, a freeskier and high school senior at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, who is a bit of an anomaly among his ilk.

Blunck is good at getting up early, and does so every day without issue. The 17-year-old pops out of bed, enjoys a healthy breakfast and coffee, and hits the road for school in the same way an adult heads to the job.

This year, Blunck is doing pretty well in school. Now a senior, it wasn’t always so easy for him, but he’s learned a lot from watching other successful student athletes.

The program at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, America’s pioneer public school for winter sports, has also helped tremendously, Blunck said. As the young athlete tries to balance the pressures of school with a very real shot at the 2014 Olympics (if the team was selected today, he’d be in, but there’s still several qualifiers ahead), he says he couldn’t have done both without the help of the academy.

Here’s what a typical day looks like for the 17-year-old star of the ski halfpipe.

Blackboard and the Think Tank

With a hectic travel schedule and a demand for constant training, student athletes of Blunck’s stature aren’t able to spend as much time in the brick-and-mortar classroom.

Thanks to the help of online tools such as Blackboard education software, Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy is keeping students up to date, or even ahead of the curriculum in some cases.

With Blackboard, teachers build their lessons and then link kids with resources, materials, prompt questions, warm-ups, homework, quizzes and videos. Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy teachers build their lessons two weeks out, so students using Blackboard can learn the material before it hits the actual classroom.

“The old model was, you leave, come back and say, ‘What did I miss?’” said Geoff Grimmer, Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy principal. “And if you’re gone three or four weeks, ‘What did I miss?’ is a long discussion.”

Grimmer said Blunck’s early-to-rise, self-starter mentality is why he’s finding success at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy.

“The only way this project works is for kids to care about their own education, and to be driven intrinsically to want to learn,” Grimmer said.

Several days per week, Blunck’s first few school-day periods are dedicated to his online classes on Blackboard. When he’s not on the road, he uses another one of the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s primary tools to work on those online classes: the Think Tank.

Staffed with a team of “academic coaches,” as the tutors are called at the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, the Think Tank is a study hall-type environment that observes a library-like silence and allows students to work on their online courses.

“The Think Tank facilitates student ownership of their own learning,” Grimmer said.

Lessons from a friend

In Blunck’s case, that student ownership is a chance for him to make sure he’s not spending his evenings bogged down with homework.

It’s a technique he learned from another halfpipe skier and close friend, Alex Ferreira, who graduated from Aspen High School in May with a 3.7 grade point average.

Last year, Ferreira and Blunck both made it to X Games, a pinnacle in their sport, while trying to balance their high school studies.

“Last year (Ferreira) had a ton of study halls, and all he did was work in study hall, so he’d never have homework,” Blunck said. “It kinda taught me how to do it that way. He said to me, ‘Just get it all done during school, as much as you don’t want to be doing it, it makes it a lot easier.’ So I started doing that, and kinda got in that routine last year. And it’s so much easier. I just come in to (the Think Tank), do all the stuff, then when I come home I don’t have to do anything and I can just rest and focus on skiing. It’s helped so much because it’s so much less stressful now.”

Ferreira credits his father for his good grades.

“My dad was always really strict about school, and I ended up using it to my advantage and just tried to get everything done between classes so I could focus on skiing,” Ferreira said. “It ended up working out for both of us because we just got along better and everything, and I guess it kinda rubbed off on Aaron as well.”

Ferreira now attends Westminster College in Salt Lake City; he’s taking five classes this semester and also competing at all the big ski halfpipe events.

Blunck and Ferreira’s coach, Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Freeski Program Director Elana Chase, says for Blunck, being able to watch Ferreira successfully balance school and sport gave Blunck an example to emulate.

“Alex just showed Aaron that it can be done,” she said. “It’s like watching someone go off the jump in front of you, you see them do it so it gives you confidence to do it, too.”

And since making the transition from his home in Crested Butte to his current status as a Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy student, others have noticed Blunck’s new focus on school, as well.

“I think what helped Aaron was he was surrounded by a lot of people who wanted to figure out a way to make it work for him, instead of these two conflicting worlds,” said Kerry Donovan, director of academics at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. “I think once he trusted us — that he was going to be able to do school and pursue his dreams — then it clicked for him.”

As the academy is a partnership between Eagle County Schools and Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, Donovan says if the school component is not being fulfilled, then a student athlete loses the support of the ski club.

“If a student gets placed on academic probation, then they’re off the snow,” she said. “So they get back on track pretty fast, or they don’t continue with sports. The student either decides to pursue a different path, or they put in the extra work to get back on snow pretty fast. There’s usually not much gray area.”

‘Good people’

But it’s not all snow sports and online classes. At the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, student athletes go to the regular classroom for the essentials: English, math, science and social studies. In Blunck’s case, he’ll spend a few hours in the Think Tank before heading to class each day. This semester, he’s been spending a lot of time in the classroom for English and government classes, usually toward the end of the school day.

In between, he gets a good meal at the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy cafeteria, where head chef Lauren Lange spends her days.

Lange says she loves the job because students like Blunck, who are interested in nutrition, appreciate the care she puts into the meals.

“I try to use better quality ingredients because so much of what they’re trying to do outside depends on what they’re eating here,” she said. “I love these kids, and I want to see them succeed. In 30 years as a chef, the three years I’ve been working for ski club have been the most rewarding of my career.”

And the students aren’t the only ones appreciative of the healthy menu.

Chase says seeing what some of her athletes put into their bodies has been frustrating over the years.

“I’ll be at the grocery store with some of these kids, and they’ll go to the register with their food and drink, and I’ll just look at them and say, ‘So you’re getting some sugar to wash down that sugar?’” she said with a laugh.

After school, Blunck will partner up with Chase and they’ll jog, do weight training and practice tricks on trampolines. Last year, the school built a new “tramp room,” equipped with Olympic-style trampolines and a foam pit, where high-flying athletes like Blunck can practice new tricks in a safe environment.

“We used to drive several vans on icy roads at strange times of the day up to Woodward at Copper; we were losing a lot of time and energy, and it wasn’t as safe,” Grimmer said. “So the trampoline facility created a chance for us to be more efficient as a ski academy, and I think it’s a wonderful physical representation of the partnership between the school district and the ski club, because it’s one of the only trampoline facilities inside of a public school in the U.S.”

Following their workouts, Blunck will often opt to practice more, since he’s usually not encumbered by school work, thanks to the lessons learned from Ferreira.

“Sometimes it’s just out of boredom,” Blunck said. “I’ve been in the Think Tank all day so I don’t have much homework to do at night, so I’ll see what Elana (Chase) is doing and she’ll say, ‘Let’s go,’ and we’ll go to the tramp room for some extra time, just to get a few tricks dialed in.”

Real-world education

Chase says at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, students are graduating with a real-world education that is hard to achieve through the standard high school experience.

“Aaron doesn’t have Mom waking him up and making him breakfast in the morning and looking over his shoulder at night making sure he’s getting his homework done,” she said. “When he goes out into the real world, that’s an adjustment he’s already had to make … I think here we’re making really good people, as well as good athletes.”

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