Like many young elite-level skiers and snowboarders, Jess Breda has been doing a balancing act all through high school.
The rising freeskiing star from Massachusetts had been trying to keep up with her studies while homeschooling and, at the same time, trying to train, travel and maintain a competition schedule across the United States.
Sometimes the juggling act seemed impossible.
“It was just really hard to balance it all on your own,” she said.
This year, however, Breda, a 17-year-old senior, is skiing a new course — and taking a load of new courses — at the new TEAM (Total Educational and Athletic Model) Academy of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. She’s one of 22 high school-age athletes enrolled in the first-year program located at two campuses — at the USSA’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, and at the Elite Aerial Development Program at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Essentially, the TEAM Academy is a high school for performing artists, sort of like The Juilliard School, only these teens do their work on the snowy white canvases of Utah, upstate New York and slopes across the United States while also studying geometry, history and English.
TEAM Academy student-athletes now take a customized curriculum, using a combination of classroom instruction, on-site teachers and online instruction, with time built into their schedules for daily training with their coaches, camps, travel and competition.
For national-team athletes who had been trying to maintain their training and competition schedules while going to a public or private school, there’s no more conflict about missing classes; for homeschooled students, there’s more support.
Breda said being back in a classroom environment with other athletes is an improvement over what she’d been doing back home in Massachusetts.
“Just being able to come to school (is better),” she said. “Even though you may all be working on different things, just doing it all together makes it a lot easier when you have other people motivating you.
“Most of us come from a homeschooling base, so we’re used to sort of doing this by ourselves. But now we have someone sort of on our back and pushing us to do better, and not only academics but athletically. It’s pretty cool.”
Luke Bodensteiner, the USSA’s executive vice president of athletics and a two-time Olympian in cross-country skiing, is the man responsible for getting the TEAM Academy started.
He worked with academic advisers to put together what’s called a “blended” or “hybrid” model of instruction that includes a large online component (that allows athletes to continue their work while traveling), a headmaster responsible for instruction at both venues, physical classrooms and on-site teachers and a traditional school-year schedule that began this year in late August.
The USSA had been discussing the possibility of such a venture for a few years, Bodensteiner said, but a couple of factors prompted its launch.
For one, the adoption in 2011 of five new Olympic sports under the USSA’s umbrella — ski halfpipe and slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle, women’s ski jumping and snowboard parallel special slalom — brought many younger athletes onto the organization’s national teams.
For another, the elite team development programs were reaching “deeper into the pipeline, to younger and younger” athletes, Bodensteiner said.
What Bodensteiner and others knew was that it was hard for those teens to balance school and sport.
“What we saw was, we continued to throw more and more training at them, more travel at them and put up a fairly significant burden on them when it comes to completing high school in a good way,” Bodensteiner said.
“So we saw a lot of these kids struggling to get through either a traditional setting or in some cases private schools.”
The same was true of students getting homeschooled, he said. There was a huge burden on parents and kids to complete academic work while also devoting so much time to their sport.
“When we looked at those cases, we decided none of those are really acceptable,” he said. “If we’re going to put an athlete into these programs and put so much demand on their time for training and competition, et cetera, we’ve got to provide them a solution that helps them get through school in an effective way without compromising their sport.”
That solution is the TEAM Academy.
Though it started small, with the 22 students this year, Bodensteiner said he wouldn’t be surprised to see enrollment double by next year. This year, students are housed with nearby families, and families pay tuition. Providing student housing and paying for the TEAM Academy — taking the burden off families — are two items on the USSA’s long-term wish list, Bodensteiner said.
Students such as Breda say they’ve been happy with the program, and Bodensteiner said the USSA is excited by the results they’ve seen academically and in training.
“By building the school around the athletic program, we don’t compromise the athletic program at all, which is a real benefit,” he said. “And on the flip side, we’ve really adopted the idea that good academics actually enhances athletic performance, and the Academy’s just the beginning of that.”
Bodensteiner said there’s been a side benefit, too, in putting together young men and women from a variety of sports: It is building team chemistry.
“We’re a dozen different sports but we’re really one big team,” he said. “So the interaction that we find both here (at the Center for Excellence in Park City) in training and in the school, where you’ve got skiers mixing with the snowboarders, has really built a special team spirit. And that pays off. I tell you, when Ted Ligety wins the opening race (of the World Cup season recently), everybody feels like it’s their victory. It really puts a lot of energy into the team and makes the team believe in itself.”