The UK’s up-and-coming racers face a challenge: marrying an education with a sport that requires so much time on snow. But there’s a way to do it, says Graham Bell
Winter sports athletes from lowland nations face many obstacles: poor proximity to the mountains, lack of competition, lack of funding… but perhaps the biggest challenge is that of marrying an education with a sport that requires so much time on snow. The US Ski Association recommends under-sixes ski 20 days a year, under-10s 50 days, building to under-16s skiing a minimum of 120 days in a year. By the time they register for an International Ski Federation license many young racers will start putting in over 150 days on snow a year.
Even allowing for school holidays spent skiing, summer glacier training, and weekends either in Scotland or short trips to the Alps, the most our British kids could hope for is 75 days on snow.
One of the first British ski racers to look for education outside the UK in order to further his ski racing career was my brother Martin, who passed a rigorous entrance exam to the Austrian Schigymnasium Stams in the Tirol at 14, in 1979.
Austria’s dedicated winter sports schools specialise in training for snow sports, be it Alpine, Freestyle or Nordic. Gymnasiums like Stams have a high educational level similar to grammar schools, but there are also more inclusive ski schools, like the one Hermann Maier attended in Schladming, Austria.
Mikaela Shiffrins a graduate of the Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont | COURTESY OF HEAD
I have no doubt that attending Stams played a massive role in helping Martin become Britain’s most successful male Alpine skier; and many other British racers followed in his footsteps, notably Emma Carrick-Anderson and Johnny Moulder-Brown, who both attended Schladming and made their mark on the World Cup tour.
Total immersion in a foreign culture and language while living away from home is incredibly tough, and the trend died out in the 1990s with Ross Green who competed for Team GB in Salt Lake in 2002.
In 1996 ex-British Team racer Malcolm Erskine set up the British Ski Academy (BSA), which operates a tutor system providing education from primary age to A-level, while allowing skiers to train either for a few weeks or the entire season.
This season, from a new home in the Aosta Valley, the BSA will employ six tutors with ex-Canadian national coach Kip Harrington heading the coaching staff, delivering over 1000 ski weeks to young ski racers.
The choice of British-run academies grew in 2007 when brothers Marc and Paul Telling set up Ambition Racing, now based in Leogang in the Tirol. The choice widened still when, in 2010, Paul split from his brother to set up Team Evolution, which trains out of Radstadt in Salzburg.
The success of the US ski team this century can be largely attributed to their ski racing schools, which learned from the Austrian system and produced top quality training. The 1970s saw a number open on the east coast, including Waterville Valley in New Hampshire and Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, which can claim Mikaela Shiffrin as its greatest alumna.
In the 1990s schools also opened in Park City and Vail, producing Ted Ligety and Lindsey Vonn. The American system may be expensive, but it has proved it can work. British Olympic skiers Finlay Mickel and Andrew Freshwater both trained Stateside, as did current British Team skier Charlie Raposo (read all about him on p34). American universities have started to offer flexible courses and scholarships for active national team ski racers too. World Cup skiers Leif Kristian Haugen and Jonathan Nordbotten from Norway, and David Chodounsky from the US, graduated from the Universities of Denver, Vermont and Dartmouth College after spending four years on a scholarship.
There are other options: three-time Olympic snowboarder Zoe Gillings was self-schooled by her parents while learning to ride in France.
Perhaps the most enjoyable life choice is to move to the mountains and send your kid to the local school, but beware, your offspring may grow up to compete for their adopted nation. Alpine World Cup skier Daniel Yule has Scottish parents and competes for Switzerland, as does World Ski Cross champion Fanny Smith, who has an English mum. Though I’m assured that a certain Reece Bell, 15, from Vail, Colorado will race for Team GB come Beijing 2022!