According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics about 70% of 2017 high school graduates enrolled in some form of college the following fall. In addition, a handful of the working population decided to either start college after a few years, or return to classes after a much needed hiatus. But what happens if you stray from the norm… and something pulls you in another direction? For Jessie Diggins and Andy Newell, there were alternative ideas for the future.
At the time, both Jessie and Andy followed the same route exploring collegiate racing right out of high school. Similar to many high school skiers, they went through the process of applying to schools, talking to coaches, and establishing academic opportunities for themselves after graduation.
“When I decided to go full-skiing, I had deferred a place at NMU, and had that as my plan B if I decided that full-time skiing was too stressful or not as fun as I wanted it to be,” states Jessie.
“What I decided to do was defer from UVM but I was also able to take some classes from the University of Utah with tuition reimbursement and a loaned laptop courtesy of the US Ski Team,” Andy claims.
At the time, both skiers were still open to going to college, but decided to “take a year off.” The only difference was that they never experienced that longing to go back into full-time school. As previously mentioned in Part 1 of this article, many skiers who decided to take a gap year soon came to the realization that something was missing and that they still wanted a balance in their life. It made sense for them to go back to school and ski in college. But why change something when you’re already happy?
Jessie explains, “At the end of the day, a happy skier is a fast skier… For me, I was super happy having all my eggs in one basket and making skiing my full-time job. I love having skiing as my career, and I perform well under stress so having the pressure of becoming a professional athlete at a young age didn’t create too much anxiety.”
This stress worked well for Jessie. With such a unique combination of personality, work ethic, and training load, Jessie knew taking this route would be better for her.
“Personally, going to college wasn’t going to work for me if I wanted to get the grades I wanted and train as hard as I wanted,” Jessie notes.
Jessie goes on to note how important it is to figure out your own personality; whether you can do a good job at balancing school and skiing, or whether you’re excited to focus all of your time and energy on one goal. She found that specificity suited her lifestyle really well after high school and carried that momentum for years to follow. Similarly, Andy found success from a young age and didn’t see a reason to change what was already working so well for him.
“To get that kind of international exposure was sweet for a junior but more importantly it got me hooked on skiing; the addiction to the big show and excitement of European racing,” Andy reflects after racing at World Juniors, U23’s, and World Championships his first year out of high school.
With the need for speed and an obvious progression into becoming an elite skier, Newell admits that he pretty much gave up any opportunities for racing in college after he started signing contracts and collecting win money. Although, he notes that the ski racing environment was slightly different at the time he made this choice. In high school, Andy was named to the US D Team which, at the time, provided free housing in Park City, access to daily coaching, and most of the Winter travel expenses covered.
“I consider myself lucky that the US Ski team was in a position then to support D team members a little bit better,” Andy admits.
Andy explains that he wouldn’t have given up his opportunities for anything. He was feeding his addiction to the big show of European racing, making decent money, and having the time of his life! What else could he need or want?
So, the big question is, do all the stars need to align? Do you need to have the right opportunities present themselves at just the right time? Maybe! But it’s important to note that this right moment appears differently for everyone! What is more impactful, is the way you respond to the opportunities presented to you.
“There are a lot of options these days, but those who become exceptional are the ones who actually pick something from the list. And they run like hell with it,” says USST coach Matt Whitcomb.
You don’t need to do exactly what your teammate did, or what an olympic medalist did.
Whitcomb advises, “Create your own path, get vulnerable. Most people just run down America’s path of mediocrity, when they could instead be cutting their own unique route.”
Every skier can take a different road. Maybe that road is pin straight without a single bump, or maybe that road has curves and hills and potholes. It doesn’t matter what it looks like or how you approach it, as long as you figure out the best scenario for you and what makes you happiest. One way to solve this solution would be to test out every possibility; take a gap year, go to one school, maybe transfer, take another year off... but this is unrealistic and requires far too many resources. I think that the easiest way to find your way is to talk to others that have faced a similar situation- an older sibling, teammate, coach, or friend. Also, remember that you really can’t go wrong. No matter what choice you make you will still face unexpected fears, experience a new lifestyle, and figure out why exactly you still love this crazy sport!
For those of you taking a year off from school, I wish you the best of luck in finding the perfect place where you belong. For those heading back to school, I hope you cherish every moment of it, because it goes by far too quickly. Regardless of which road you choose, own it! Make it your decision and give it your best shot/all you’ve got. If you do that, you can’t go wrong.
“There is no right or wrong decision, do whatever works for you!” -Sophie Caldwell
“You can be the fittest person out there, but if you are not happy and motivated, it will be very hard to ski fast.” -Julia Kern
“My only regret in my skiing career is that I was not mentally prepared to win a medal at my first Olympics as a 22 year old…. I thought I had a chance of winning a medal but I didn't actually BELIEVE I could do it. So above anything else I want young skiers who are graduating from high school to know that 4 years is not a long time and you can find yourself at the start line of the Olympics before you know it.” -Andy Newell
“I don’t think there’s one model that fits every person. It’s also important to remember that it’s not forever!” -Jessie Diggins
“The opportunities will present themselves when the the time is right!” -Ida Sargent
“If you want to be exceptional, don’t be afraid of being an exception.” -Matt Whitcomb
For the first time in 17 years I will not be going back to school this fall. Saying that out loud is more daunting than I had anticipated. For the most part, the classmates that I graduated with can say that they are “going to grad school,” “starting a new job,” or “taking a year off to travel,” but I still don’t know where I lie. I am not taking any classes this year, I am not working anywhere consistently, and I am doing more than just traveling to explore, I’m traveling to race!
I am wrapping up a three week training camp in New Zealand with the SMS, Craftsbury, and US Ski team. When I walked through customs I had to write down my reason for visiting New Zealand: Was I a student? Was I visiting a family or friend? Was I working? What was my job? In the rush of the moment and due to habit, I wrote that I was still a student and continued on my way. I later had a few reflections; I still haven’t reached the point yet where I can say I have a job. I don’t have a salary and there are no company benefits. Yet, I work 24/7 toward my job- my job is ski racing. But why is this so hard for me to admit to myself? Is it because, for my entire life, I’ve been a student? What if I hadn’t taken this route? How do others make this decision?
Racing throughout high school I was given a number of perspectives about picking skiing versus school. My friends were all preparing to go to college and I always assumed I would go to college too. My parents and older sister went to school, why wouldn’t I go as well? But then I thought about skiing. I never had the most outstanding results in high school (never qualified to race internationally), but I was good enough to qualify for regional and national level camps like REG, NEG, and NTG. I traveled to these camps and trained with other high-level athletes, getting more and more motivated by each skier or coach that I met. Then the thought came to me... what if I didn’t go to college? I could focus on training, make those vital steps toward international racing, and continue along the “pipeline” that so many olympians had followed. Maybe I would make bigger jumps and improve my skiing exponentially? I was entering the unknown and I was unsure how to pick the right choice for me. Looking back on this four years later I realize that I was far from alone in this predicament.
I have since had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of skiers and competitors and have learned so much that I wish I knew in high school. It’s okay to be confused. It’s okay to make your own path. Every athlete is in a different situation, comes from diverse athletic and academic backgrounds, and has various goals that they hope to achieve post-high school.
“I've always believed that the most important thing to remember when discussing the decision to go to school or not (or when to go to school) is that is it a completely individual decision and the right decision for one person might not be the right decision for the next,” states Sophie Caldwell.
Personally, I finally decided that taking a gap year might be too big of a jump for me. I wasn’t ready to focus on skiing and I had a lot of goals for myself academically. I decided to attend the University of Vermont and upon reflection, can admit that this was one of the best decisions of my life. Similarly, SMS teammate, Kelsey Phinney, went from high school in Boulder, CO directly to Middlebury College.
“The reason I chose Middlebury College was simple: I went to visit and I was ready to unpack and stay for good. I loved the people, the area, the ski team, and the classes I sat in on,” says Kelsey Phinney.
Kelsey and I both fell in love with our schools from the start and knew we were where we belonged. We took these college experiences as learning opportunities; maybe we wouldn’t have been ready to jump right into the professional circuit but we both determined this was the right path for us.
“I loved the experiences I had on the Carnival circuit. Both good and bad times taught me a lot about life and skiing, and I felt like the balance of school and sport made me better at both,” Kelsey reflects.
Similarly, Sophie Caldwell had her mind made up without the need to hesitate over a gap year or jumping into full-time skiing.
“I chose to go to college right out of high school and it was something I had always known I wanted to do. I knew there was a good chance I wanted to ski professionally at some point in my life, but when I was 18, I wasn't ready to 100% commit to skiing” Sophie explains.
With academic goals in mind and the confidence to pursue skiing in the long-run, sometimes there’s no need to question it. Going directly to college might challenge you more than you think and it might make you question what you’re doing. The balance of school and skiing is great, but it’s TOUGH! At least you worked through those challenges and figured out where you want to be though.
“I definitely had my ups and downs throughout college and at times I considered not pursuing skiing after college, but by the time I entered my senior spring, I knew I wanted to give skiing professionally a shot and knew it was because it was what I wanted to do, not what I had to do,” Sophie notes.
Over the course of four years we were able to say goodbye to our homes, grow into adults, and develop as skiers; allowing a much smoother transition into the professional racing circuit post-college. This decision to go right to college made sense for Kelsey, Sophie and me - it was simple; but I recognize that this choice isn’t as straightforward for everyone.
“I loved my time at Burke and wasn't quite ready to leave. I also didn't know where I wanted to go to college as part of me wanted to go out west while part of me wanted to stay closer to home,” says Ida Sargent.
The conflict of picking a school, a place we are willing to spend at least four years of our lives at, can be intimidating to anyone. Taking a year off to think and explore what motivates you once the structure of school is taken out of the picture can be extremely vital to one’s skiing longevity. Other times, this year off can be done to test out what skiing professionally is actually like.
“I wanted to test out whether I could do only professional skiing,” offers Katharine Ogden.
A feat that might sound easy to accomplish- ski, eat, sleep, repeat - can’t be THAT hard! But what happens when you suddenly put all of your time and energy into one goal?
“Ironically, my gap year did not turn out even close to how I had planned or imagined!” reflects Julia Kern.
After facing an early summer surgery for compartment syndrome, and then an untimely back injury in the fall, Julia notes that her gap year was extremely tough with plenty of lows and setbacks.
Ida Sargent offers, “My PG year was a bit of a disappointment as I wasn't as happy as I was expecting and I also didn't feel like I made as big of a jump with my results as I had hoped.”
“I think in hindsight it was a good philosophy but I think I approached it wrong. I didn’t do a good job securing other things to do besides training and was thus pretty bored, which led to me putting a lot of stress on skiing and racing,” says Katharine Ogden.
Maybe taking a gap year isn’t as easy as it sounds? Coming face-to-face with this type of ski-focused intensity as an 18 year old can be challenging.
“It showed me how much I really wanted to go to college,” offers Katharine Oden.
It can also be validating, as it can prove to oneself where they really belong at that point in their life.
“It made me realize that I wasn't ready to ski full time and I still needed balance in my life,” reflects Ida Sargent.
What might be the most beneficial part of taking a gap year, is the lessons you learn throughout. How to deal with the pressure, free time, potential obstacles, and how to respond when you’re suddenly put in an unfamiliar situation.
“My gap year turned out to be far from ideal from a training/fitness standpoint; but I became very in tune with my body, learned how my body responds to training, became mentally tougher, and learned that I love the skiing lifestyle (even if it is tough sometimes) and that I want to ski at the highest level possible,” says Julia Kern.
Some things you just can’t learn in a classroom.
After taking a gap year to figure out what skiing was like full-time; Ida, Katharine, and Julia attended Dartmouth College (via various routes):
Ida states, “I started by going to school full time and I raced for Dartmouth for three years and then made the National team so I took my senior winter off to race for the USST and then I went back for a spring term my fifth year.”
“One year in [as a traditional student], I am very happy at Dartmouth and racing the collegiate circuit last year reignited my love for the sport,” adds Katharine.
While Julia contributes, “I chose Dartmouth because I wasn’t sure what skiing and school balance I wanted to have, but I did know that I wanted to be able to take terms off to race internationally.”
Regardless of which Dartmouth plan they followed all three skiers seem to have enjoyed the choices they made. Whether taking a gap year is or isn’t part of your plan, the most important takeaway is that you should TAKE SOMETHING AWAY! Learn something new about yourself, about skiing, or about classes you want to study.
So what about other options for pursuing a ski career? Jessie Diggins and Andy Newell both chose to skip college and go straight into skiing. Stay tuned for my next post when I’ll include input from both of them as well as what Matt Whitcomb has to say on this topic.
It’s crazy to think that we only have one last week of summer! Next week we all head down to New Zealand to greet Winter with open arms for some great training on snow. As yummy as the current fresh berries and garden veggies in Vermont might be, I think we’re all excited for some cooler temps and a break from the humidity. After just about every workout this week we’ve been able to wring out our training clothes due to either sweat (GROSS!) from the 95% humidity or to the pouring rain from the ruthless afternoon showers. So, we’ll have one more week of this, escape for a little winter adventure, and then HOPEFULLY come back mid-September to a few crisper mornings- keeping my fingers crossed.
Upon this realization that summer is almost over I’ve done a bit of reflecting on what I have accomplished thus far. As one who usually classifies myself as a “distance” skier, I’ve been really excited about the progress I’ve made in some of the speed/sprinting workouts we’ve done, one of my major goals for this year! I’m not saying my super fast teammates have magically rubbed off some of their fast twitch on me, although that would be nice, but I have become so much more comfortable skiing well at higher speeds. I’ve been able to pass Coach Pat during a speed, turn around after, and hear him say, “Alayna that actually looks pretty darn good!” This is something new to me and I’m excited about it! Now I just have to learn how to transfer this over to real skiing on snow…. Good thing I have plenty of opportunities for that coming up soon!
We ended our last big training block before New Zealand with a race at the Nensa App Gap Challenge. This race was a 5k skiathlon. The juniors started in 30 second intervals while the elite skiers started after everyone in one big wave. We skate skied 2.5k up to the base of Mad River Glen, switched to classic skis, and then skied another 2.5k to the top of the App Gap. Quite the butt burner! It was a super hard race with some relentless climbing, but it was great to put on a bib and really go for it. Nensa did a ton of planning and logistical organizing for this event and we all enjoyed a great celebratory BBQ at Green Mountain Valley School after the race. Huge thanks to Nensa and to GMVS! Ready now for a week of rest and packing before a big trip!
A few weeks ago I had the privilege to tag along with the US Ski Team at their mid-summer Women’s Camp in Lake Placid, New York. Fellow SMS T2 skier, Kelsey Phinney, and I were able to live in the house with the National Team and use the facilities at the Olympic Training Center to optimize our recovery between hard workouts. It was a 10 day camp with intensity every other day and long distance workouts on the opposite days. The camp consisted of skate sprints, threshold bounding intervals, a skate sprint simulation, hard double pole intervals, and threshold skate intervals. In the middle of all that, Coach Pat helped me with a lactate test on a treadmill at the OTC to make sure I’ve been training well the past few weeks. 10 days later… I was ready for a nap!
Through the tired legs and sweaty mess though, I had a chance to reflect on all this work and be really proud of myself. Back when I was in high school I attended a US Camp in Lake Placid during the fall where we did many of these same workouts. I remember doing double pole intervals in the exact same location as we did this summer. The entire setup was replicated--starting location, intensity, length, most of the same girls. The only difference this time? I was able to keep up.
Sure, I’ve been training with some of these athletes all summer, but hanging on in a workout once a week versus sticking with them everyday for 10 days, that’s a big difference!
Other firsts for me at the camp: we ran to the highest peak in New York (Mt. Marcy), I received my first massage mid-week to help with recovery, I went mountain biking in New York, I went swimming in Lake Placid (the lake downtown is actually called Mirror Lake) with some old college teammates.
The USST Athletes and coaches have been so welcoming to guests like myself, as well as the Craftsbury Green Racing Project Team. Living in the same house as them and hanging out between workouts have made me feel really included and remind me that I am right where I belong, which I am so thankful for. A busy week at camp made me both exhausted and excited for more. Most of the team took advantage of a few days off to go visit family and friends after Lake Placid but now we’re building up to one last big blocks of training before we head to New Zealand in a few weeks!
It’s almost been one full month since I arrived in Stratton and so far I’m loving it! I’ve settled into a new home, a new team, and a new schedule. There has been a lot of change for me but it excites me to be doing something so different. One of the biggest hurdles for me as I take on the world of professional skiing is funding. I am working hard on finding sponsors and support from the Minnesota and Vermont community, but in the meantime I’ve been continuing my juggling act by getting not one, but two jobs in the Stratton area.
On Mondays I get to work in a ski shop located in the Stratton Village, close enough that I could walk or bike to. As there isn’t much downhill skiing going on at the Mountain these days, things have been pretty quiet. So I get to spend most of my day sitting and reading my book, while occasionally selling a water bottle or two. Then I get to focus completely on my own skiing the following three days of the week until Friday rolls around and I head to the J.J. Hapgood General Store three nights in a row. Although, not your most typical general store, they also have a full restaurant where I work as a server… among other things.
Working two jobs on top of training full-time is not the most ideal situation when it comes to scheduling workouts and recovery. Fortunately, the team has been very supportive of my decision and they even come to visit me while I’m at work!
Running around the store can be a little tiring from time to time, but the fast-pace business keeps me on my toes, entertained, and time flies by! I just need to be sure I head straight to bed after work and keep off my feet whenever I’m not training or working. So far it’s all going well and I’m happy to be getting more acquainted with the Stratton community!
I grew up in the Midwest with mosquitoes, deer flies, and the most dreaded: humidity! I thought I did a good job surviving it, knew how much my body could handle, and stayed as hydrated as I could. I went to college in another notoriously humid area, but I only spent September through April training, when things had already started to cool off. My coach at UVM recommended I spend a summer training in Bend, Oregon, an idea I jumped on right away. It only took a couple weeks to absolutely fall in love with the Western summer. The dry heat, mountains of opportunities, and lack of bugs, had me crawling back to Bend three summers in a row.
Alas, it was time for me to grow up. I didn’t pick a ski team according to its local weather patterns. So I had to say goodbye to the endless sun and welcome back the spontaneous thunderstorms with open arms. During my first month of training with the SMS T2 team in Southern Vermont, I received a good slap in the face. I traded in the sun screen for bug repellent, the sun glasses for a rain jacket, and pretty much anything I could find for MORE WATER! Last week we had a pretty intense week of training with lots of intervals and volume. One of our workouts included 4x11 minutes of skate roller skiing intervals up and down a gradual pass working on skiing well at high speed. The goal was to build neuromuscular adaptations while not being too aerobically taxing. The humidity killed me! After each training session it wasn’t only about replenishing the thirst from what our body just endured, but preparing it for the next time we had to go run for 2 hours in 90 degrees and 88% humidity.
Thankfully, this team is not new to breathing in a sauna. In order to get through the challenging weather we held each other accountable to take plenty of water breaks, restore electrolytes, and eat many snacks along the way. Luckily, Coach Pat came prepared with PLENTY of extra water to keep our core body temperature down.
Finally, we made it through the end of the training block and got to take some time off for more R&R. I've spent the last few days trying to find any body of water I can to jump in and have taken on average 3 cold showers each day. Thankfully, the weather is starting too cool off again before we jump back into the next big block of training!
Hours after graduating from the University of Vermont I flew out to Bend, OR to meet my new teammates. I spent three of my college summers training in Bend and after learning I had the opportunity to join the US Ski Team for a camp there, I got really excited to get out west as soon as possible. So I left Vermont at 6:00 am the day after graduation. I’m not saying it was easy… I finished my last round of college finals, sold all of my furniture, completely moved out of my Burlington apartment, welcomed my parents and grandparents to town, sat through hours of commencement speeches in Vermont rain, and said goodbye to some of my closest friends, coaches, and professors, all in a matter of a few days. In the moment, I didn’t have much time to think about how big of a change this was. Now that I have plenty of time to recover after camp in my hometown of Plymouth, MN this transition is really starting to sink in for me.
I’ve never really been one to “sit still”. Throughout high school and college I juggled a heavy academic schedule, a job, volunteering, and participating in or leading multiple clubs. I always did my best to recover between workouts and get plenty of sleep before races, but the juggling required extreme time-management and productivity. All of that being said, my lifestyle is about to flip upside down. I’ve never been able to give 100% of my attention to just one thing before, and the Bend camp gave me a little taste of what’s to come. I’m not sure how things will go but I am excited to enter the unknown and ready to tackle new obstacles.
In the meantime, it has been so nice to spend a little extra time at home visiting with friends and family. My younger brother, Anders, just graduated from high school so a lot of relatives that I haven’t seen in years were in town to celebrate. Anders has competed in the MN State Track Meet the past four years and I had yet to see him race so I was really happy to finally be there for him. He absolutely crushed it getting a Personal Best time and placing 5th overall in the 800m!!
Having had little time to spend at home the past four years I’ve decided to stick around for a while longer to catch up with some much needed sibling time. I can’t wait to get back East soon though to join the rest of the crew. I am sure I can learn a lot from them about adjusting to this new life.