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Winter athletes glide into a school on their schedule

March 25, 2007|Debbie Hummel | Associated Press Writer

PARK CITY, UTAH — Back to school. It's the time of year students dread. But for 14-year-old Jessie Delacenserie, it's worse because it also means winter is over.

That's right. Winter.

Delacenserie is a student at the Winter Sports School in Park City. The school is in session from April to November, giving the students -- most of them elite winter athletes -- time off when the snow falls.

Notable alumni include Olympic gold medal skiers Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety. For students like Delacenserie, a Wisconsin native who has been ski racing since age 5, there's no choice.

"It's pretty much my life," Delacenserie said of ski racing. "I've been missing school since, like, second grade. In Madison, they just didn't understand how important ski racing was to me."

That's not a problem at the Winter Sports School, where students are often competitors in the classroom and on the slopes. Many of the teachers have backgrounds in competing or coaching.

"I was a hack, really. I was OK," says Rob Clayton of his youth as a ski racer. Clayton has headed the school for six years.

Clayton came to Utah from his native Vermont 15 years ago to coach and was hired by the school in 2002. Before coming to Utah, Clayton had worked at the Stratton Mountain School, a ski and snowboard academy in Vermont, "in almost every capacity besides janitor," he said.

What first struck him about the Winter Sports School was the "intelligence" of the schedule. Between training and competitions, many of them a day's drive or more away, it makes no sense for teens actively involved in high-level winter sports to be missing weeks of class or worrying about making up course work when they're trying to pursue their dreams, he said.

Second, with other winter sports academies, the training program comes with the education.

"You not only buy their educational profile, you also buy their coaching staff," Clayton said. "We provide you the best education we can provide. You go find the best coach and the best program."

The program is modeled after the international baccalaureate program and is rigorous and college preparatory, Clayton said.

"We don't just take jocks that want a college diploma. We provide the education, but we try to facilitate those who have high aspirations," he said.

This year's class will consist of about 50% alpine ski racers. The rest are freestyle skiers or snowboarders, speedskaters, ski jumpers, Nordic and cross-country skiers, and bobsled, luge or skeleton sliders.

The school has taken students in the past who weren't winter sport athletes. One year there was a ballerina, recalls Eric Janes, who is the assistant head of the school and teaches math.

"Her performances were a lot in the winter," he said.

Janes, a California native, said he came to Park City for a year to tutor members of the Park City Ski Team in math. When the school started in 1993, he was one of the first teachers and has been there ever since.

He said he watched members of the ski team get 2 to 3 weeks behind in class work at Park City High School. He said the catching up was hard for students and teachers. Many times the teachers would accept less than what was required just to get it over with, and that's when everybody loses, he said.

He says watching a student like Ted Ligety also go on to win the Olympic gold is icing on the cake. But the school is really about preparing the students for life after competition.

"We're giving these guys a leg up and if it doesn't go on in the direction they want, they have something to fall back on," he said. "That's what I really enjoy about it."

That, and the schedule.

Janes is a ski instructor at Deer Valley Resort in the winter and teaches at the rest of the year. He jokes with the students that if it weren't for his own skiing habit, they'd be in school in the winter.

Enrollment is capped at 60 students. Tuition is $15,075, which includes books, field trips and activities. There are no dormitories. Students from out of state or out of the country live with host families in Park City.

Delacenserie's favorite subject is math, and she doesn't miss having summers off. But she says the last month before school ends for the year is a drag.

"It's November and it's snowing outside, and you just want to be skiing."

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