As Brian Krill sat in the parking lot of a random casino in the middle-of-nowhere, Nevada, carrying out his final conference call as the Executive Director of Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club, the pandemic felt more real than ever.
“I was doing everything in my power to make sure they’d be in the best shape possible in Jackson,” he says. “Yet there I was, parked in Winnemucca, Nevada on the way to my next chapter and thinking about everything that was ahead.”
Krill was traveling toward Sugar Bowl Ski Team & Academy, in the Lake Tahoe area, to assume the role of Executive Director & Head of School. And despite the 12-hour drive across 700-plus miles, he’d arrive in California only to tackle the very same problem he’d faced back in Wyoming: COVID-19.
This virus is a problem everyone is facing. And while it seemed back in March that it’d go away in time for the 2020-21 academic year — or certainly the 2020-21 winter — it didn’t. COVID is still very much a threat, and ski academies and clubs are no exception. Faculty, staff, parents, and athletes are climbing mountains of logistics to figure out how on Earth they’ll get through this strange time. And in true ski racing fashion, they seem to be doing it all with the utmost vigor and attention to detail.
The first, and most obvious step to allowing students back to ski academies and clubs is to monitor their health through a combination of strategies like morning temperature checks and daily wellness tests conducted through a variety of detailed questions. At Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, one such strategy is weekly COVID tests for every person on campus.
“By testing our athletes and faculty every single week, we can accurately and consistently be informing ourselves, the parents, and our local community,” says the school’s headmaster, Carson Thurber. “Whether we are COVID-free, or if we have positive cases on campus, we’ll be dealing with the situation accurately because of these tests. Because it’s easy to open the school, but it’s hard to make sure you stay open.”
Ski academies are notorious for their demanding schedules full of classes, workouts, and of course, when winter rolls around, skiing. And with the mix of boarding and day students going back and forth between the campus and the public sphere, the number of possible infection scenarios is limitless. So, sweeping changes are taking place — from socially distanced workouts in extra-small groups, to converting bigger non-classroom spaces into classrooms, to sanitizing absolutely everything at every opportunity. At Sugar Bowl, one of the many plays Krill has enacted is shifting school days from consisting of five 60-minute classes, to three 85-minute classes.
“That alone will drastically limit the amount of transitions happening daily,” he says. “We’re also looking into our teachers being the ones who move in and out of classrooms versus the students, so the kids would be more set up in a room for all three of their classes each day. That’s obviously not a perfect science because, for example, not every sophomore is in geometry and not every junior is in pre-cal, but we’re re-evaluating all these seemingly established schedule details to help our long-term efforts and keep everyone safe.”
With the right health monitoring and attention to detail, preventing COVID on ski academy campuses is certainly doable. But ski racing isn’t just about its campuses and training facilities. It’s also very much about travel. For most academies, travel is a work-in-progress and a matter of keeping a close pulse on the nation’s health at large. The popular November camp in Colorado, for example, is still on the books for Thurber and Krill’s students, but they’re ready to change — or cancel — plans if needed.
Meanwhile, ski clubs with day-only programs have a bit more flexibility to put the onus on parents. At Park City Ski & Snowboard Team, for example, Executive Director Christie Hind says all foreseeable travel and lodging must be coordinated independently.
“We are not doing the pod environment where everybody sticks together,” she says. “We just said to everyone, ‘In an effort to keep everybody safe, kids have to get to camp on their own and find their own accommodations with their parents. No meals together. No vans together. Just workouts and skiing together.’”
It should be noted that PCSS enrolls about 800 students across its program. Most ski academies typically hover in the 100 to 200 range. So, in some ways, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison in terms of numbers. But a common theme — whether at an academy with 100 students or a club with 800 — is interest in enrollment seems to be higher than ever. The pandemic is pushing people toward mountainous areas in search of space and fresh air. And they want to stay.
“We have some families that have made full-time moves to Vermont residences,” says Thurber. “Families are choosing us because when they look at the public school options and just doing a weekend ski program, they eventually find us as an ideal alternative.”
And for families who aren’t ready to enroll their kids in ski academies, they’re looking to clubs like PCSS — not just to ski race, but also simply to spend more time outside.
“The country’s school experience is really up in the air,” says Hind. “Kids will have more time for skiing here in Utah if they’re doing distant learning, and they’ll have a deeper desire to connect with their peers safely outside. So I think going forward, we’re going to deliver on something that kids really need more than ever.”
Skiing is not considered an essential activity. But when your life revolves around it, it sure feels essential. So the people behind every academy, club, and organization — the people who obsess over hundredths of seconds for a living — are putting their minds together to save the ski season. They’re upping sanitization. They’re implementing health checks. They’re reworking schedules. They’re redesigning facilities. They’re replanning trips. And above all, they’re leaning on athletes to take this pandemic seriously. Because before everything feels the same again — before the race community can feel the joy of simply existing at a ski race — it will need to reimagine everything and do it a little differently.