CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Keegan Kilbride once played football and lacrosse at Portland High School. But after his freshman year on Cumberland Avenue, he decided he wanted to attend Carrabassett Valley Academy, where, he said, “I can ski every day.’’
Now a senior, he has a difficult time getting his friends in Portland to understand that he actually does more than ski.
Sophomore Abi Zagnoli added that her friends often ask, “Do you guys even go to school, or do you just ski?’’
Who can blame them?
Since it opened in 1982, Carrabassett Valley Academy has gained a reputation for producing some of the best skiers and snowboarders in the nation, 11 of whom have gone on to compete in the Olympics, pulling in three gold medals, three silvers and a bronze. When the Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7, as many as 12 CVA alumni could be on the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana. Two more will be coaching on their national teams.
Alpine skier Bode Miller, a 1996 graduate, has won a gold, three silver and a bronze at the Olympics. Snowboarder Seth Wescott, a 1994 graduate, has two Olympic golds. Freestyle skier Emily Cook, a 1997 graduate, is a six-time U.S. champion in aerials and has been selected to three Olympic teams. Alpine skier Kirsten Clark, a 1995 grad from Raymond, participated in three Olympics.
The folks who run Carrabassett Valley Academy would like you to know there is also an academic side to their school, one that often sends its students to some of the top colleges in the nation, such as Dartmouth or Middlebury or Colby or Bates.
But they also know what the allure of an Olympic run means to students.
“We are obviously very proud of the Olympians that we’ve produced,’’ said Kate Punderson, the third-year head of school and a 1989 graduate of CVA. “What those Olympians do is inspire the current students. They know that Alex Tuttle and Seth Wescott put their snowboard pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of them. They went through the same experiences. So they know it’s possible.’’
It’s possible because of the school and its relationship with Sugarloaf – the mountain of rock, snow and ice that looms high over CVA.
The school “meant everything to me,’’ said Tuttle, the Stratton native who is now trying to earn his first Olympic berth in snowboardcross. “It provides you with an opportunity that you wouldn’t be able to find in a public school system. The amount of on-snow time and personalized training you receive here is unbelievable.’’
But beyond the coaching and time on the hill, CVA challenges its students in other ways. Every day there is competition in whatever discipline they’re pursuing because everyone else in that group has the same goal – to someday make the U.S. team, or the World Cup, or the Olympics.
“When you have that many quality athletes together, they sort of drive each other,’’ said Hank McKee, the senior editor of Ski Racing News who follows the ski academies. “And that’s what makes it work.’’
Students are challenged by their schedule, which often has them away from the school for up to six weeks at a time. Last fall, for example, a group went to Europe to ski on the glaciers there for three weeks. Others will go to Colorado for 10 days to train. While away, they are expected to keep up with their studies, even take exams, as if they were still in class. They are taught time management and social communication skills at a far earlier age than many of their peers.
Wescott went to CVA for his senior year and said his time there challenged him not just on the slopes, but in the classroom, which he needed.
“I came from a place where you had nearly 30 students in class (at Mt. Blue High in Farmington) to a class as small as 10,’’ he said. “I was a shy kid at that stage of my life. I could go into a public school class and go in the back and kind of hide. I wasn’t necessarily challenged.’’
The students are challenged by the coaching staff. Chip Cochrane, who gained a significant reputation as Bode Miller’s coach, said he learned you cannot coach each student the same way.
“There really is no one mold that works for everyone in ski racing,’’ he said.
They are also challenged by the mountain. Sugarloaf has an almost mythic reputation as a hard mountain to tame, and athletes at CVA feel they can have an edge over skiers or boarders from other schools.
“In terms of giving you an edge over people, it comes down to Sugarloaf being one of the coldest, gnarliest places on the planet,’’ said Sam Morse, who graduated from CVA last year and is spending a post-grad year there honing his alpine skills. “You leave here just knowing that you’re tougher than anyone else. We run here in all kinds of weather and when you leave here nothing fazes you.’’
“You never know what you’re going to get,’’ said Tuttle. “You could have powder days as good as the West Coast or you could have boiler-plate ice for weeks at a time. It pushes you a little farther and you got to really want it on terrain like this. It makes you so well-rounded that sometimes when you get somewhere else and someone might say, ‘Whoa,’ you think it’s a perfect day in Maine.’ ’’
AN ALMOST SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP
As the school at Sugarloaf’s base has offered more disciplines, such as snowboarding or freestyle skiing, the mountain has responded by establishing training facilities for each of those disciplines.
“Our relationship with Sugarloaf is very important,’’ said Eric Chamberlin, the school’s director of academics and a 1986 graduate. “It’s one of our top priorities. If we don’t have all of this, we can’t compete with the other schools.’’
He is talking about other ski academies such as Burke Mountain Academy and Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont and Sun Valley Ski Academy in Idaho. There are maybe 20 such schools across the United States and CVA is recognized as one of the best.
CVA wants it to stay that way, which means maintaining a good relationship with its mountain. That’s why the students are involved in the Sugarloaf general community, helping with the food drives at the holidays, with the marathon, and with mountain work in the fall when brush or timber needs to be removed.
That’s why administrators stress the importance of maintaining good etiquette every time their students – all of whom have a season pass to the mountain – go to the mountain on their own time. Last week, members of Sugarloaf’s Ski Patrol came by the school to remind the students of what is expected of them on the slopes.
“We do everything we can to make sure we’re giving back,’’ said Chamberlin.
The mountain, in return, maintains the trails and training facilities and allows the use of its trails for training.
“That kind of commitment from the ski area is not something that comes easily,’’ said McKee.
It happens because the two have an almost symbiotic relationship. John Diller, the general manager at Sugarloaf (who sent two children to the school), said his resort has a high percentage of season ticket holders and those families often own places to live near, or on, the mountain. Their children often participate in the weekend ski programs and if those children show enough interest, they often attend CVA.
“We will support it any way we can,’’ said Diller.
There is another upside to having CVA at Sugarloaf’s base. When a graduate goes on and does well, everyone knows where the school is based.
“We look at the students, when they’re off training or competing somewhere, to be our ambassadors,’’ said Diller.
Jeffrey Byrne, a former assistant headmaster at CVA, said the relationship with Sugarloaf has always been good.
“I would say they greeted us with open arms to start, and the relationship with the mountain is absolutely key to your program,’’ he said. “Sugarloaf is an absolutely fabulous ski mountain and if you have a good relationship, you can have an excellent program.”
WHERE TEACHERS TEACH, COACHES COACH
Carrabassett Valley Academy has expanded in recent years, no longer confined to the small lodge where the school was located right on Route 27. The Capricorn, as it’s called, still is used for athletic storage, dining and administrative offices. But a new dorm opened in 2007 (its rooms are about 25 percent larger than most college dorm rooms) and a new academic wing opened last fall. The school now features the latest in science and art labs, as well as technology.
“Our facilities finally match our programs,’’ said Punderson. “We’ve always had exceptional teachers and exceptional academic programs. Now we have the facilities to match.’’
Unlike other so-called ski academies, CVA separates its coaching staff from its teaching staff. In other words, said Chamberlin: “The teaching staff teaches and the coaching staff coaches. Other schools are similar to us, but they blend those two.’’
Students are given iPads to allow them to keep up with their classes when they are on the road, which is often.
This year CVA has 87 students and about 50 live in the dorms. Their daily schedule is full: four hours of athletics and four hours of classroom time. The day ends with a study hall from 7:30 to 9 p.m. with lights out at 10:30 p.m.
“I think the students thrive on that,’’ said Punderson, an alpine skier who attended and competed at Middlebury College. “And I think it elevates all parts of their life.’’
Through all the training and traveling and studying, the students are also expected to learn how to be human.
They are all involved in community events, whether it’s helping with the Sugarloaf food drive, or volunteering for the Special Olympics two-day event at Sugarloaf each year.
This is all part of the students’ education, as dictated by the school’s mission statement, which stresses college preparatory academics, world-class athletic training and giving back to the community.
The three focuses “are all equally important,’’ said Punderson. “Responsible community living really encompasses our character building. Part of that character-building education is giving back to others and teaching the students about gratitude and how important it is to be part of a community and giving back to the community.’’
Olympian Clark, who now lives in Squaw Valley, Calif., said the sense of community was often overwhelming at CVA.
George Clark, her father, said the school provided more than just a place to ski for his daughter.
“It was a great place to be, not just because she went pretty far with skiing, but also because she learned the fundamentals of how to live a good life: when to work, how to set goals, how to make them happen,” he said.
Punderson said her calls with alumni are seldom about athletic achievement, but about the little things that made attending CVA special, such as the Special Olympics or canned food drive.
“Those are the things the alumni remember,’’ she said. “Which goes to show you what an incredible life-changing experience it is for them.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: