Like most high school sports, alpine skiing attracts a wide range of competitors.
Some are single-sport specialists, locked in through dry-land training in the offseason or even snow-chasing excursions south of the equator. Others are well-rounded athletes who swap a soccer ball for skis once winter hits, only to trade for a lacrosse stick in the spring.
What makes skiing unique among high school sports in Vermont is that entire institutions specialize in it, giving students a clearly defined route to competition at a higher level. The results achieved by ski schools are undeniable; one of Burke Mountain Academy’s latest products, Mikaela Shiffrin, is a favorite to capture gold in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
The South Burlington High School alpine ski team is anything but a feeder program for the Olympic podium. But the Rebels’ roster features a number of standout skiers, two of whom are proof that markedly different routes can lead to the same level of success on the race course.
The ski schooler
Annika Nielsen first got on skis at age 2 — thanks to her father Jeff, a ski patroller at Smugglers’ Notch.
She began racing three years later at the youth club level at Smuggs, hooked on the rush of zooming through gates.
“I really liked the adrenaline you feel in the short minute or two you’re on the course,” Nielsen said. “It’s not something you get to feel with regular skiing.”
Skiing was taking Nielsen places by the time she turned 12. On a trip to Mount Hood with the Sugarbush Ski Club she roomed with a participant in the G7 program at Green Mountain Valley School, and became “really interested” in the ski school. She interviewed and was accepted, and attended GMVS for the winter term of her seventh-grade year.
“Going into it, I didn’t have any clue what I was doing,” Nielsen said. “But I learned a lot, especially on the mental side — the mindset you need to have in ski racing. After that, I started to flourish, and started skiing better and better.”
GMVS Headmaster Dave Gavett helped shape that mindset for his pupils, pointing them toward inspirational books such as “Bounce” and “The Little Book of Big Things.”
He told them to hang posters of their skiing idols over their beds, and so the first and last things Nielsen set eyes on each day were the models of competitive excellence set by Lindsey Vonn and Shiffrin.
Nielsen returned to GMVS the following winter to further hone her skills, then found herself at a crossroads a few months later: She could apply to GMVS full-time in the fall, or instead attend public high school at South Burlington. One route would be wholly defined by skiing, while the other would offer myriad other possibilities along the way.
She chose the latter.
“GMVS was amazing, but in the end I decided that I wanted to experience all aspects of high school,” Nielsen said, citing her freshman campaign on the SBHS soccer team as an example. “Here, I am able to do more things, and accomplish more goals, than at GMVS.”
Now a freshman on the SBHS squad, Nielsen is enjoying another benefit of skiing at a public high school — the camaraderie. Though she is still “molding into the group” as a first-year member of the team, she recognizes a cohesion that she thinks wouldn’t be as strong at a ski school such as GMVS.
Head coach Al Dworshak said that stems largely from a fundamental difference between the two types of programs.
“For us it’s not individual scoring, it’s skiing for a team score,” said Dworshak, who has a unique perspective on the ski school vs. public school dichotomy: His daughter Charlotte attended Mount Mansfield Winter Academy, while his son Tor skied for Burlington High. “So instead of just focusing on their own skiing, they’re rooting for the rest of the team.”
Though she misses some of the friends she made at GMVS, Nielsen said she is keeping her focus on the course ahead of her, rather than looking back.
“I still feel confident in my decision,” she said. “My life would be totally different, but I’m happy here.”
The mountain goat
He may not have begun skiing competitively until he was a freshman in high school, but Jack Barron was unknowingly preparing to race gates much earlier on.
Barron first picked up the sport at Cannon, the home mountain of Bode Miller, while visiting his grandfather in New Hampshire when he was five years old. Perhaps channeling some of Miller’s mojo, Barron quickly discovered that maximum fun was found as close to the edge as he was willing to push himself.
“I was always pretty aggressive — skiing fast, on all kinds of terrain,” Barron said.
His Vermont ski experience began at Bolton Valley, and he soon progressed to some of the state’s bigger mountains. Whether straight-lining Inverness or Spring Fling at Sugarbush or bombing down Liftline at Stowe, Barron was comfortable — invigorated, even — at high speeds.
He progressed to woods skiing by age 12, carving lines with his friends through hidden powder stashes in Sugarbush’s Slide Brook. What seemed like sidecountry adventure was actually a foundation for the competitive skiing that was to come.
“The woods skiing I’ve done has really helped me with racing,” he said. “In the trees, balance and control are important — you need to be able to look ahead, to see things and avoid them, and correct your mistakes. You do a lot of that in racing.”
Once he made the jump from freeskiing to racing as a freshman at SBHS, Barron had to focus largely on the fundamentals of technique that Dworshak said are always the biggest obstacle for beginners. But what made Barron unique was that the next step that proves a stumbling block to many ski racers — twisting the proverbial throttle to increase velocity down the course — came easier to him.
“Ski racing is mostly about aggression,” Barron said. “How much you think you can do, and whether you can do it without losing control.”
As a key member of the Rebels’ race lineup, Barron has won the full confidence of Dworshak — who summed up the senior’s skiing by saying he “just rips.”
But as far as Barron has come as a competitive skier, he has never managed to shake the shadow of that little kid hurtling fearlessly down black diamond trails. In fact, he has learned to take that adventurous spirit along for the ride, even in his new role as a top-level high school racer.
“I still go freeskiing on the weekends, and it’s really similar to racing — just with different skis on,” he said. “When I freeski, I imagine gates in front of me, and think ‘if this was a course, how would I ski it?’
“And I always do pretty well,” he added with a laugh.