School is in season | SierraSun.com

School is in season

Erich Sommer

If there is one thing the Sugar Bowl Academy doesn’t have, it’s an attendance problem.

But over half of the students live at the school itself, so playing hooky isn’t really an option.

And with a class held on the slopes of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, who would want to miss a day anyway?

“They are living a dream,” Head of School Andy Biederman said of the academy’s student body.

Nestled at the base of Donner Peak just off Old Highway 40 near Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch, the academy is the only private nonprofit college preparatory boarding school in California.

The school follows in the tradition of over a dozen ski academies back east, most of which are in New England, that allow high school students to compete in the demanding world of competitive ski racing while also receiving a top-notch education.

“We are the only true ski academy on the West Coast,” Biederman said. “Daron Rahlves went to a ski academy in Vermont, because there wasn’t anything out here.”

While the academy is dependent on Sugar Bowl Ski Resort for a training ground, it is under the auspices of the non-profit Sugar Bowl Ski Team Foundation.

The foundation, separate and distinct from the resort, oversees the academy and the much larger Sugar Bowl Ski Team.

Despite its relative youth, the academy is quickly building up to its capacity of 24-boarding and 15-day students.

“We hit 33 students this year, which is pretty rapid growth considering this was just an idea a couple of years ago,” said Biederman.

The academy, currently in the midst of its third year, is designed for young skiers with average to above average academics, a competitive alpine or Nordic racing background and lofty aspirations.

But while classes are scheduled in order to accommodate the demanding race and travel schedules of the students, they don’t take a backseat to racing.

“The primary focus is academics, with a heavy emphasis on competitive ski racing,” Biederman said.

Small classes, which average seven students, allow the five full-time teachers to instruct a diverse group of middle and high school students.

“It’s a small tight-knit community,” Biederman said. “We are too small to have different cliches, plus they are all pursuing the same thing.”

Three of those community members, however, will soon be moving on, as the academy will hold its first graduation ceremony this May.

“We just got our first college acceptances this year,” Biederman noted.

Among others, the three graduating seniors, Cameron Steinback, Tor Solli-Nowlan and Michael Thomas, have been accepted to University of California, Santa Barbara, University of California, Santa Cruz, Gonzaga, and University of Portland.

While the academy places an equal emphasis on academics and racing, the students who attend do so in order to also participate in competitive racing, which brings with it a lot of traveling.

Tatiana Fields, a sophomore in her second year at the academy, said the schedule she keeps is only possible at a place like the Sugar Bowl Academy.

“You’re travelling every other week. And the high school wouldn’t allow you to miss that much time [in class],” she said.

Fields is off to a race in Minnesota this week, taking her chemistry, geometry and English work with her. And when she returns next week, she will have a full slate of midterms waiting for her.

“When you’re racing, you’re on the hill around 7 … then you race all day, then get back to your condo around 3 or 4, eat diner, wax your skis, then you have homework,” Fields said without a hint of exasperation. “But I think it pays off. Plus at the academy, you’re getting a great education to fall back on.”

With the exception of Mondays, when students are in class all day, a typical school day starts around 9 a.m. at Sugar Bowl, where students ski and train until noon.

Then they are back at the academy, in class until 4:15 p.m.

School starts in the fall with dryland training exercises, including weight training, inline skating and stretching exercises.

Then, once conditions are suitable, the students hit the slopes.

“September through April, competitive skiing is the focus outside of the classroom,” said Biederman.

That emphasis is what draws students from as far away as Arizona.

“That’s what brings the program to life. Otherwise, we would be just like any other private school,” Biederman said. “If you talk to the students, most will say it’s hard, it’s challenging, but they are doing what they love.”