Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s Class of 2019 are already overachievers |

Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s Class of 2019 are already overachievers

Reece Bell, the first to walk for VSSA peers out before walking for commencement Friday at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott. Eleven students graduated.
Chris Dillmann |

The sky is not the limit.

“You can go to space,” Dr. Jerry Linenger told Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy’s Class of 2019.

Capt. Linenger should know. He’s an astronaut, jet pilot, flight surgeon, Naval officer and spent months in the Mir Space Station. He was among his people Friday morning, the overachievers from the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s Class of 2019 that includes Olympians, military academy students, aeronautical engineers, international athletes, a cancer survivor, a national champion gymnast and other lofty achievements. Friday morning they turned their tassels and strode confidently toward something even higher.

“Some succeed because they are destined to, but most succeed because they are determined to,” graduate Campbell Sullivan told her classmates.

VSSA’s Class of 2019 even posted Colorado’s seventh-highest SAT scores.

What commencement means in space

“In astronaut terms commencement means getting to the launch pad. I was ready to commence, and so are you,” Linenger said in his keynote address. “Have a passion for something that’s worth living your life for.”

He recalled being 13 years old in his native Detroit, looking at the moon and telling his dad he wanted to be an astronaut. His dad could have told him to set his sites on something more attainable, but didn’t.

“My father said, ‘This is America and you can be anything you set your mind to,’” Linenger said.

And he did. Linenger attended U.S. Naval Academy because they turn out more astronauts than anyone else. Accepted to the astronaut corps, he went up in a shuttle, then to the Mir Space Station with two Russians who didn’t speak English.

“You’re sitting on 7 million pounds of thrust and you’ll be flying 17,500 mph, 3G crush, release, weightless and “Yahoo! You’re in space.

“That’s what you want when you have here today. You want to have a Yahoo! in you,” Linenger said.

Space travel was not all thrills. The space station was 13 years old at the time. Its planned lifespan was three to five years. Stuff breaks, and one day something did and a fire broke out. Flames, smoke, sparks and molten metal might leave holes in the space station wall, leading to rapid decompression followed by suffocation.

Linenger was on the dark side of the Earth tumbling out of control, isolated, cut off from mankind with two guys who didn’t speak English.

“Not good,” he said aloud to himself.

He screamed goodbye to his wife, son and unborn child, and looked around.

“What a strange place to die,” he recalled thinking.

He didn’t die. They found respirators, fire extinguishers and put the fire out before the fire put them out. The smoke cleared after a couple of hours and the astronauts knew they’d survive. He went to sleep that night as he always did, upside down attached to the wall with Velcro.

“When you go to bed at night, leave it behind and get ready for the next challenge,” Linenger said, adding two bits of wisdom:

• You can’t worry about yesterday’s fire.

• If you have people you care about, let them know.

“I hope you count your blessings every day,” Linenger said.

Remembering Bindu and each other

Amid the congratulations and accolades, they took time to appreciate each other and teacher Bindu Sky Pomeroy, who died last year. He loved the mountains, the snow and his students, and not in that order. On a powder day he’d walk in late for school covered with snow, wearing his snowboard boots and a grin.

“He was renowned for seeing the best in people, especially his students,” Monty Braden said. “He would act like the best of someone was their only side.”

VSSA is not for everyone. Many former classmates transferred to other schools. Caroline Jones is the only member of the Class of 2019 to start in fifth grade who made it to commencement

Sabrina Sutter pointed out that students train six hours a day, six months a year and that doesn’t include summer training. They’re a competitive crew. Young students will memorize the eye chart so they can get the best score on their eye exam.

“It’s not that we want others to fail. We want ourselves and those around us to succeed,” Sutter said. “You strive to be great at what you do, but still be good and kind.”

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