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
Last month I had the privilege to join my Stratton teammates for a camp down under at the Snow Farm in New Zealand. Breathtaking views, phenomenal skiing, and sunshine so sweet that you couldn't stop smiling, it was a trip that was worth every penny and every hour of travel (40 hrs).
Driving up from the town of Wanaka you forget about summer and say hello to Winter! For the first week, the SMS team stayed in an apartment about 2 kilometers from the Snow Farm Lodge. Unfortunately, this became a battle between slick roads and a horrific rental van. Luckily, Coach Pat came to the rescue (along with a few strangers who chose to help us when we got stuck, multiple times...) and we made do for the time being. On the bright side, we were staying right above a car testing track where people from all over would come test whatever brand of cars and go for a "joy ride." We got some good afternoon entertainment watching Audi's drive around an ice rink for fun!
We made sure none of these van problems held us back and were able to jump right into skiing for hours and hours everyday. Turns out it's not that hard when there's always spectacular views to keep you company.
Part way through the camp we took a trip down into the town of Wanaka to go for a mountain run and get a taste of New Zealand tourism.
By the third week of our camp, we began racing. Jessie and I competed in the 42k Merino Muster, my first marathon ski race! I learned a lot in this ski race- like how to fuel before, during, and after such a long competition. After experiencing a boot-and-rally at about 14k, I learned my lesson and was able to happily and comfortably finish the race in third place.
Next were the 2018 New Zealand Audi Quattro Winter Games. The women competed in a freestyle 5k, freestyle sprint, and classic 10k, while the men raced in a freestyle 10k, freestyle sprint, and classic 15k.
After the races were over, we had a few days remaining. We spent every last second we could embracing the snow and sunshine including some great crust skiing.
It was an unforgettable three week trip with so much skiing and so many laughs. Can't wait to go back again sometime soon...
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.
Professional skier, traveling the world, exploring the culture, racing my heart out.