Deciding how to handle the “college conflict”, as aptly phrased by Alayna Sonnesyn, is a daunting and somewhat mysterious prospect, particularly for athletes and families who are unfamiliar with the process. How does a junior athlete know that they are cut out for a collegiate program? NCAA or USCSA? What about a gap year? In this series, FasterSkier spoke with collegiate and junior coaches and athletes who have chosen different pathways to create a resource for the athlete or parent amidst this conundrum. Also check out Part 1 with Craftsbury Junior Program Head Coach Anna Schulz and Part 2 with Dartmouth College head coach Cami Thompson Graves.
An important piece of the college decision puzzle, post-graduate (PG) programs offer a skier an extra year of development that can serve as a bridge between junior club programs and collegiate or national team level skiing. Though a relatively small in number, programs can be found nationwide at well established ski clubs like Steamboat Winter Sports Club in Colorado and the Bridger Ski Foundation in Montana, and at ski academies such as Stratton Mountain School in Vermont and the Sugar Bowl Academy in California.
The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) directed by Rick Kapala has offered an official PG program since 2005. The program, which serves five to ten skiers annually, is led by University of Vermont graduate Paul Smith. Now in his second year with the SVSEF, Smith also works with some of the younger juniors and assists senior skiers as a service and wax technician. FasterSkier spoke with Smith and Kapala for their insight into why an athlete might choose a gap year and what can be expected during the PG experience.
Though athletes elect to take a PG gap year less frequently than joining a collegiate program or leaving ski racing, both Kapala and Smith expressed that the number of skiers selecting this option is trending upward. The reason an athlete might opt into a PG year varies, but typically, the PG athlete enters the year on the cusp of achieving a goal that is just out of reach.
“[PG’s are] looking to put in a year or more of focused training to make a step forward into their skiing capacities so that they may have college opportunities that were not readily available coming straight out of high school,” explained Kapala in an email.
These opportunities include earning a spot on an NCAA team, improving scholarship potential, and increasing the likelihood of making the competition team at a particular school.
“Or, they may be looking to achieve top international results as a U20 and want more space to program a bigger training and travel schedule,” wrote Kapala.
He added that outside of skiing, the athlete may be looking to experience independence and develop life skills without the pressures of keeping up with an academic workload. Regardless of long term goal, Smith expressed that anyone who chooses to take a gap year can expect improvement in their skiing.
“From a development perspective, just taking a year to just focus on that and not get thrown into the whole gamut of classes can really help a lot,” said Smith in a call.
“You can always expect to show some improvement, especially if you’ve had a junior have some success while they were doing a bunch of other things and they can now focus on [skiing] for a year. From what I’ve seen, the ones that are committed to the process benefit tremendously.”
Unlike collegiate programs that typically send information to junior athletes to initiate conversations, Smith explained that athletes typically contact him first regarding interest in the SVSEF PG program.
The program originated to serve athletes graduating from the SVSEF junior program, but has since begun to serve athletes coming from a range of other states. Though Smith is not one of the primary junior coaches, he explains that he stays involved with this age group to help connect with prospective athletes.
“I try to keep a presence at regional or national camps,” explained Smith. “So I’ve tried to make a connection with a lot of different athletes from different clubs and different regions.”
Rather than communicating through email, Smith prioritizes phone calls and meeting with athletes at races to establish connections with those considering his program.
“I have definitely noticed, for myself and some of our other coaches in Sun Valley, having a presence in the [junior ski] community has helped a lot. We almost always know the kid if they have a genuine interest in taking a gap year with us.”
Apart from making juniors aware of the PG option, Smith explained that he does very little recruiting. He acknowledged that the choice is not a good fit for all athletes, particularly those with strong academic aspirations.
“The athlete themselves usually know whether they’d be a good fit. They’ll usually have some idea — going to school, they’re either excited about it or they’re not. For the athlete that isn’t or if taking classes for a year isn’t a priority, that’s where I would say it works the best.”
The PG program in Sun Valley is heavily weighted toward male skiers, 70-80% on average. This trend holds throughout other programs as well. Smith hypothesized that one reason for this might be that on average, boys finish puberty later than girls. Some male juniors whose biological development might be slower than their peers may not have sufficient time during high school to build the strength and muscle mass needed to excel in ski racing. An extra year to catch up in this arena can help athletes take a big step forward in performance.
“There are instances, generalizing a little bit, where a lot of boys who are 16 to 18, their biological age might not match up to their peers, so they feel like, ‘Well I really like skiing and I want to go for it.’ Taking that year for development makes a lot of sense.”
The program at Sun Valley does not establish performance requirements for admission as it seeks to be flexible enough to cater to the needs of an athlete at any level.
“It has been the case in the past few years that we’ve had all of the above,” said Smith. “Skiers that are looking to make the jump to the national team, skiers that just wanted to get into an NCAA program, and then skiers that had kind of figured out that [pursuing skiing] actually wasn’t what they wanted to do. I think all of those athletes are important. Not only does it make a stronger group, it makes a better team functionally.”
He continued, “As a club we do a pretty good job of thinking of things from the development perspective, the idea that, yeah, we’re coaching athletes that go on to win and maybe go onto race World Cups, but we’re also coaching future parents and future coaches. I think having it open and not narrowing the framework of the program itself is important.”
Despite not requiring a top twenty finish at Junior Nationals or another performance marker, Smith explains that the athlete should be entering the PG program with a clear goal and a belief backed by evidence from their development that the next step is attainable. Smith explained that these are the broad conversations he has with athlete who express interest in the program.
“I have a lot of conversations in the spring with prospective athletes and parents about what they saw in their own skiing that puts them at that level. When you look at your results and other aspects of training, what is it that makes you think that the jump will be significant?”
For athletes who are interested in taking a gap year, Smith provided information on what to consider in weighing options and on what to expect.
“Probably on most family’s minds, the cost is going to be the foremost thing.”
The PG program at SVSEF comes with a price tag of $5,450 which does not include housing or food, which can be significant in small mountain towns like Ketchum. Apart from being expensive, housing can also be challenging to find, particularly since not all housing authorities are keen on renting to a 19-year-old living on their own for the first time. This challenge can be avoided by local athletes, but should be a significant consideration for out-of-towners.
“We’ve made it work through the years just piecing together host families, generous families in the ski communities that have helped out. The best thing that has worked is connecting athletes in the program together and their families to go in on housing in the rental market.”
Additionally, Smith explained that it would be challenging for an athlete to get by without a car, though public transportation and carpool options are possible. Smith added that it is possible to receive financial aid and scholarships for trips such as World Juniors.
At SVSEF, most athletes choose to take a part-time job, which can help subsidize the costs. Smith explained that this also provides a life-balance to offset the singular focus of full time ski training.
“We always recommend that they have something else going on other than skiing. It could be a part-time job, some have taken online classes, and some have gotten pretty good internships. I think we have a good community for that kind of work.”
He continued that mountain towns offer ample opportunities to work in the tourism or service industry.
Smith suggested that the cost and challenge of finding housing might be the biggest drawback to choosing Sun Valley for a gap year. He countered this with the pros of making this decision.
“Our coaching staff is definitely top level and all of our post grads have the opportunity to work with any of our coaches. Location, being out west, being at altitude but not being too high.”
He added access to quality rollerski terrain, reliable snow, the ability to perform physiological testing, and having a strong junior and senior team to mix with as additional strengths of his program.
“I’ll admit that we can’t really have the atmosphere that a ski academy offers. I think at the Sugar Bowl Academy, Stratton Mountain, Green Mountain Valley School, their post grad programs offer that in-house, community, full team feel that admittedly we can’t offer, though I think we come close.”
Smith explained that these all-inclusive programs are significantly more expensive. Stratton Mountain School rings in at $56,750 for a full term boarding post-graduates (these athletes are also taking classes at SMS) and ski-only PG tuition at the Green Mountain Valley School is $21,500.
“For families that can get a lot of financial aid to those programs, I think you can definitely do well there. But I understand that we are better priced compared to them and I think that is where we get a lot of interest.”
Other factors Smith believes are important to consider include whether it is possible to mix in with a strong group of junior and senior skiers and if the program has a coach focused specifically on the PG group.
“Having a coach that is dedicated to the post grad group is definitely helpful. I think too many times, even though they’re older juniors, just throwing them into senior training or scaled back senior training isn’t the best thing for their development. So having their own coach is definitely a plus.”
In terms of lifestyle and training load, PG athletes at SVSEF participate in 5-7 coached sessions per week, including strength training.
“We train most mornings, but the key is being flexible with the program where if an athlete was at a level where they were training twice a day everyday, you can do that.”
After training, most athletes head to their job, but Smith regularly inputs other touch-points into his athletes daily routine to build the team dynamic and support the athletes’ development of independent life skills.
“We’ll have team meals once or twice a month, which is also part of a nutrition program, basically learning how to cook on their own for the first time. Also, having some camps and trips input in there too, which I feel is important. Since they’re not in school, they can do those trips, but we want to make sure it’s cost effective too. If you’re an athlete from the east coast, it’s already a camp being away from home. You don’t need too many, but it helps keep the training lively and exciting.”
For athletes whose eyes are set on NCAA racing, it is valuable to have an understanding of the eligibility rules.
For Division I programs, the eligibility clock starts when a student-athlete enrolls full-time in classes or turns 21, whichever comes first. Once the clock starts, there are five years to complete four seasons of the sport, which allows for a redshirt year or year-in-residence following a transfer between schools. At Division II and III schools, student-athletes have three years following graduation to enroll full-time. Once enrolled, four seasons of competition can be completed over 10 semesters. Semesters are not counted if enrolled either part time or not enrolled without competition.
Some PG programs discourage athletes from taking classes if they plan to enroll the following year at an NCAA program as they may be classified as a transfer student, thereby needing to complete an “academic year in residence” before being eligible to compete.
Athletes may earn prize money from finishes in SuperTour or other races while still remaining compliant with NCAA amateurism rules. The rule states: “An individual may accept prize money based on his or her place finish or performance in an athletics event. Such prize money may not exceed actual and necessary expenses and may be provided only by the sponsor of the event. The calculation of actual and necessary expenses shall not include the expenses or fees of anyone other than the individual.”
[See this document for more information on NCAA eligibility rules.]
As a takeaway, Smith encourages families to consider the benefits an athlete might gain from a PG year and to see a gap year as a potential option in the college process.
“Taking a year should always be considered as an option, especially for a kid who really wants to go for something. It may not even be skiing, it might be art, or music, or something else. When they’re younger, we always recommend that they’re doing a lot of different things so that they are more well-rounded. By the time they’re 18, picking skiing should be okay and they should be given the option to do that for a year if they want. I think making sure that is an option is an important thing, whether that’s coming from a parent, a college coach, or their coach when they were a junior.”
Kapala concluded by explaining the role the PG program plays in the overall cross country program at SVSEF and pointing to athletes who have greatly benefited from their gap year.
“We consider our SVSEF PG team a really important part of our programming,” concluded Kapala. “It has helped some of our talented juniors take the next step in their skiing and it also has built relationships with skiers who have years later returned to become members of our SVSEF Senior Gold Team. For example, Kevin Bolger and Sam Woods, now members of our Gold Team, were both PGs. We got to know them and when the opportunity came to add them to our Gold Team roster, it was really helpful to know them as people and skiers.”
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646