The first tuition-free winter-sports school in the country has one goal: produce our next Olympic heroes.
Training at the Olympic level used to mean homeschooling, half-assing it through public instruction, or shipping off to one of roughly 30 private schools—like the famed Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine—most of which are devoted to either skiing or snowboarding. (Skiers and snowboarders could also attend Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, a public school that opened in 2007.) The only school other than WSS to offer the full range of winter sports under one roof is the private National Sports Academy, in Lake Placid, New York.
Photo: Madison Morgan, Nordic skiing, class of 2016
Training at the Olympic level used to mean homeschooling, half-assing it through public instruction, or shipping off to one of roughly 30 private schools—like the famed Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine—most of which are devoted to either skiing or snowboarding. The only school other than WSS to offer the full range of winter sports under one roof is the private National Sports Academy, in Lake Placid, New York.
Pictured: Jessica Reinhart, alpine skiing, class of 2014
Driven by motivated parents and the professionalization of youth athletics, demand for that kind of sports-focused instruction is on the rise. “Kids are definitely feeling like they have to specialize earlier,” says Travis Aldrich, a director at Vail Mountain School, which has ski and snow-board programs and has seen enrollment rise each of the past three years.
Of course, not every promising athlete can afford to attend a private school like Vail. The National Sports Academy costs $36,000 annually for boarders, and tuition at WSS ran $17,400 until last June, when its state-approved charter took effect.
Pictured: Andrew Miller, alpine skiing, class of 2016
Of course, there are drawbacks to narrowly focused schools like WSS. Students must give up their summers, electives like music classes, and experiences like homecoming. “It’s specifically dedicated to the core curriculum,” says Kerry Morgan, Madison’s mother.
That doesn’t dissuade students. “When Madison heard it was becoming a charter, she went to the parent meeting on her own,” says Kerry. “I just signed the form.”
Once enrolled, athletes attend full-time from April to November and train before and after classes. Having the winter off lets them compete in events like the XC Junior Nationals and the World Cup without fear of falling behind.
Pictured: Chandler Hunt, snowboarding, class of 2016
“Last year, I had to worry about making up homework and tests,” says Morgan, who began attending WSS only after it had received its charter. “The public school had a rule that you could only miss ten days,” says Olympic gold medalist Joss Christensen, WSS class of 2009. “That’s impossible if you want to be a contest athlete.”
Pictured: Darlan Stevens, freestyle skiing, class of 2014
The other thing that makes WSS unique is how the training programs are run. Unlike private schools, it employs no athletic staff. Instead, students work with trainers and coaches—many of whom stayed in Park City after it hosted the 2002 Olympics—from national organizations or local clubs and pay for their services out of pocket.
Pictured: Sydney Ricketts, freestyle skiing, class of 2014
At WSS, Morgan is surrounded by a growing number of like-minded athletes; this year, enrollment at the school jumped from 40 to 112. And it’s still not accepting all the high-level athletes who want to get in. “The school is more affordable,” Kaufman says. “Now we just don’t have room.”
Pictured: Timi Earl, skeleton, class of 2014
If Utah's Winter Sports School were a country, how would it have fared in the Sochi Olympics medal count?
Russia: 33 total, 13 gold
USA: 28 total, 9 gold
Winter Sports School: 6 total, 2 gold
Great Britain: 4 total, 1 gold
Photo (from left): Timi Earl, skeleton, class of 2014; Chandler Hunt, snowboarding, class of 2016; Jessica Reinhart, alpine skiing, class of 2014