Higher Learning

If the road to the Olympics runs through Sugarloaf/USA, as the banner across the mountain's entryway proclaims, then the kids at Carrabassett Valley Academy are in the fast lane. They're the golden children of skiing, and their classroom is the highest ski resort in Maine.

Hidden in the shadow of “the 'loaf,” the little-noticed private high school in an aging former ski lodge is, in fact, a rigorous training ground for future Olympians — a third of them from Massachusetts — who fork over $28,000 a year for the chance to join the ranks of alumni like world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Bode Miller.

The steep tuition at Carrabassett and New England's other ski academies covers not only classes, but room, board, and ski training. Suggest they're on a permanent vacation, though, and these kids bristle. “People from public school say, 'All you do is ski,'” says sophomore Tom Daley. “It's a hard school. The education is more difficult than people think.”

So is all the scrutiny. On top of the typical teen bugbears of English essays and college applications, these young stars have sponsors to satisfy, photographers to dodge, and competitions to win, culminating in this month's high-stakes Junior Olympics. The bottom line: They're here to ski or snowboard. And chemistry and French are bookends to a core curriculum of speed, air, and style.

Classes at the ski academies are studies in après-ski-wear: ragged jeans, slippers, even pajamas, with designer shades and watches. But the curriculum is hardly as relaxed as the dress code. “We may have a lot of privileges compared to public schools,” says Alex Fritton, a Carrabassett sophomore, “but we have a lot of work.” At times it's overwhelming, says Grace Crandall, who is from Longmeadow and goes to Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield, Vermont. “The schoolwork is just as hard as the athletics,” she says. The competitive intensity of the slopes can also filter into the classroom — sometimes for the worse, as in the case of a Carrabassett skier who grew so obsessed with calculus, his teachers barred him from taking his textbook to a race. To ease the burden, students are allowed to drop a class or two, making up the work in the summer, which they spend skiing in such exotic spots as New Zealand and Oregon's Mt. Hood.

Small classes also mean few formalities. Peak Hansen tells the students in his Carrabassett English class to call him by his first name. “You say 'Mr. Hansen,' and I look for my dad,” he says. At 8 a.m., it's a challenge to engage minds that have wandered to distant mountainscapes, envisioning the perfect iron cross. The big German shepherd dozing in the middle of the room provides further distraction. To lure the class back to discussing The Things They Carried, Hansen says: “Raise your hand if your thesis said this book sucked.”

Do these kids really learn the physics behind the Gs they pull? Can they read the newspapers that quote them? “There's a fundamental belief that athletes are dumb jocks,” says Alice Rogers, director of academics at Green Mountain Valley School. “Nothing can be further from the truth. It wouldn't make sense to push them on the slope, then kick back in the classroom.”

There are people who dispute this. Green Mountain's campus rivals those of New England's most exclusive prep schools — in particular, the athletic facilities, which include aerobics, training, and weightlifting rooms, a rock-climbing wall, and a SwimEx pool. But the academic facilities are less impressive; the library consists of a few bookshelves in a space the size of a large classroom. Course offerings, too, are limited. “I don't think there are enough options,” says Michael Morris, a former student. “There are no AP courses.”

Then again, college admissions haven't suffered for it. Green Mountain grads get into Brown, Dartmouth, and Middlebury. “We even got a kid into Harvard,” says Dan Eckstein, an English teacher who credits his students' success to their unorthodox schooling — in hotel rooms and vans, even on chairlifts, where they read crib sheets. Among other things, these Olympic hopefuls learn how to manage their plane tickets, passports, and credit cards. Sometimes, that's the toughest lesson of all. “I ran out of money at a competition,” Melissa Poirier, a Carrabassett senior, remembers. “I called my parents in a panic, and they said, 'You'll have to take care of it. You're three hours away.'” Says Bode Miller, four-time World Cup winner who went to Carrabassett: “There were a lot more responsibilities than at public school.”

This coaching and schooling doesn't come cheap, and only a select few can afford it. “Skiing is mostly done by the rich,” says Bob St. Pierre, a freestyle coach and English teacher at Mt. Mansfield Winter Academy, a private school in Stowe, Vermont. But for all their affluence and athletic tunnel vision, these kids are remarkably down to earth, says Sharon Sperry, the nurse at Carrabassett. “Some are extremely wealthy, but they judge people on their ability and integrity. They could be going around in slippers or $300 Cole Haans — it doesn't matter.”

Despite the passion and the privilege, the steady diet of competition and cramming takes its toll. “In the winter,” says Alice Rogers of Green Mountain, “the pressure starts to boil over. At some point, it's physically impossible to do it all.” Jack Reed, a talented sophomore skier at Mt. Mansfield, knows all about this. While waiting for a bus to a competition, the young slalomer fidgets nervously, listing the sources of anxiety: “Your coaches. Your parents. People you know. Your sponsors. I ski for Dynastar. I have to do well or else they won't give me skis. It's the most stressful thing in the world.”

The media exposure, too, can be intimidating, says Ron DiGravio, a ski coach and admissions officer at Carrabassett, whose sons, Dave and Ron, are students there. “It's really hard when you're 14 and you have an ESPN camera in your face.” Dave has been photographed for Freeze and Powder magazines and nearly qualified for the 2000 X Games. He's sponsored by Smith. And Volkl. And Technica. And SoBe.

His schoolmate, snowboarder Alicia Gilmour, who graduated last spring, wants nothing to do with the hype. “This school is a place for aspiring athletes, and that's not me,” she says. “I've been waiting for graduation since grade 9.”

Seventeen-year-old Melissa Poirier needs extra help. The freestyle skier glides off a jump, tries to twist, and pooches it. “I can't land,” she growls, a heap on the snow. One by one, she and a dozen Carrabassett classmates vault off the jump. Coach Nate McKenzie barks orders with the serenity of a piano teacher: “Keep your head in 'til 180 degrees and then you can do whatever you want.” The confidence it takes to hurtle off jumps and plummet down hills at 85 miles an hour is the product of blood, sweat, broken bones, and a spark that distinguishes kids like Poirier, driving them to dust off the snow and ski faster, jump higher, land cleaner.

It does not, however, compel them to clean up. Wet gear hangs in their windows; books and dirty clothes clutter the floors. The mess is forgivable — the kids are up at 6:30 and have barely enough time to shovel in a bowl of cereal before shuffling off to class, the slopes, more class, and then study hall.

Elsewhere on the mountain, a Lycra-clad James Pelletier rides a chairlift up to Narrow Gauge, a well-known racing trail. The Carrabassett Valley native has been on the mountain since 8 a.m., carving turns and tearing past gates faster than some people drive. The lift swings in the wind, and Pelletier's eyes sparkle inside his helmet as he shares his ultimate goal: to be a member of the U.S. Ski Team. He knows his chances are slim. “I'll probably just be on a college ski team,” he says, sighing. After spending nearly half his time traveling to events and the other half training for six hours a day, it seems small consolation. “Do you think you'll ever get tired of skiing?” he's asked as the chair nears the top.

“Nope,” he says with a grin. “You can always go faster.”