Jan 3, 2014
SALT LAKE CITY
- Most world-class athletes know they can't compete forever. After years of racing at top speeds and flipping and twisting their body in ways most people can only imagine, life in the fast lane can take a toll.
While many elite winter athletes wonder what their future will hold once they hang up their skis and snowboards, nearly 100 U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Team (USSA) athletes-including 12 Sochi Olympic Hopefuls
-have decided to take control of their destiny and pursue a college education at Westminster College
in Salt Lake City. As the "Official Partner of Higher Education" for USSA, Westminster provides a tuition grant
to A, B and C team athletes to help them fulfill their educational aspirations while continuing to train and compete on the world circuit.
With a combined GPA of over 3.5, Westminster's USSA athletes have been as successful in the classroom as they have been on the slopes.
"Over the years I've had many U.S. Ski Team students in my class, and I have a great respect for them and recognize the challenges associated with trying to balance a demanding athletic career while also moving forward with an education," said Lauren Lo Re, assistant professor of finance at Westminster. "These students are not only hard working, but they perform very well in a classroom environment."
Westminster's USSA athletes are pursuing a variety of degree programs in subjects such as business, communications, art and nursing. Some are looking to start up businesses in the ski industry after they retire, while others hope to pursue unrelated career fields.
Some of Westminster's current USSA athlete's stories include:
The Fletcher Brothers (Nordic Combined)
Brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher
started skiing almost as early as they could walk.
Diagnosed with leukemia at age 3, Bryan discovered ski jumping as a way to escape his disease. Not knowing whether he would survive, his parents figured they'd let him try out the sport and see what happens.
"I went out and tried it once, and was hooked from the get-go. Ski jumping became my motivation to beat cancer," explained Bryan, who has been cancer-free since age 10. "I'd go to Denver every week for chemotherapy, and while I was there, all I wanted to do was get back to Steamboat and jump. When I was jumping, I didn't ever want to leave, so it was a perfect match for me."
Taylor Fletcher followed in his older brother's footsteps, and began jumping with his brother at age 4. Fast forward 17 years, and the Fletcher brothers are not only a couple of the best Nordic combined skiers in the world, but they are both Olympic Hopefuls for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
"I think if you talk to any child, especially in Steamboat, they dream of going into the Olympics rather than hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series, and I've always, always dreamed of it," said Taylor, who competed in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Taylor is now a freshman at Westminster pursuing a business degree. He hopes to start his own business or fundraise someday. Bryan is also a Westminster freshman who is interested in environmental studies and hopes to ultimately work in a sustainability field or business marketing.
"I think a degree is really important to success in life and what I want to do," said Bryan. "Westminster has helped us out and kept college feasible for student athletes-and that's a really important thing. Without it, I don't think a lot of athletes would be attending school, and we'd all be one step further behind our careers after skiing."
Taylor echoed his brother's sentiment.
"Westminster is a super, super unbelievable college, and I can't thank them enough for being able to come down there in May or to take an online class," added Taylor. "Westminster has made education available and accessible to us, and that's a great thing."
Alissa Johnson (Women's Ski Jumping)
As one of the top women's ski jumpers in the world, Alissa Johnson
had a hard time sitting on the sidelines watching her younger brother compete in two Olympic Games knowing she should have been there too. The sport of women's ski jumping has been around for more than a century, but until recently, women were not afforded the opportunity to compete on an Olympic-level. After more than a decade of legal battles and gender discrimination charges, the International Olympic Committee announced in 2011 that the sport of Women's Ski Jumping will be included for the first time in history in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
Three Westminster students have the opportunity to be named to the historic Women's Olympic Ski Jumping Team, including Johnson, who is currently a junior pursuing a nursing degree. Her fellow teammates, Jessica Jerome and Abby Hughes, both juniors and sophomores respectively, are also Olympic Hopefuls. All have been working toward various degrees throughout the years while pursuing their Olympic dreams.
"Westminster's been huge for us, and it's really allowed us to continue and further our education while still remaining at the top of our level in sports," said Johnson. "They do that by being very accommodating to their athlete student body. It's allowed us to fully take advantage of doing sports and working on our college degrees at the same time."
When asked what she's looking forward to most about finally getting to compete in the Olympics, Johnson added, "All of it, obviously competing and representing my country, but finally knowing I'm there and I belong there, and all my hard work has paid off. The Olympics are the end goal for a lot of people, so watching all your hard work finally be something tangible is great."
Johnson ultimately hopes to become a nurse once she retires from the sport. She has taken as many classes at Westminster as she can while competing, and plans to inevitably finish up her degree after the Games.
Alice McKennis (Alpine)
For alpine skier and former 2010 Olympian Alice McKennis
, pursuing an education was a way for her to take her mind off her sport and focus on something other than skiing. After shattering her tibia during a competition in Garmisch, Germany in early 2013, McKennis enrolled in multiple classes to try to complete as much of her degree as possible before gearing up for the 2014 Olympic training season.
"Sports consume all aspects of your life, and you get on such a single track just trying to achieve all these goals, and you don't think about anything else," she said. "I think it' really important to challenge yourself in a different aspect. It's really good to focus on something else.and I think that's important for your mental health to do something different than just think about your sport all the time."
McKennis is currently a sophomore at Westminster, and is halfway done with her business degree. She hopes to do something within the ski industry after she retires.
Keely Kelleher (Alpine - Retired)
After ski racing nearly her entire life, Keely Kelleher
decided to retire from the U.S. Ski Team in 2010 and become a full-time Westminster student and entrepreneur.
Taking advantage of a void within the ski industry, Kelleher created the first-ever "Ski Camp for Girls" with the mission of coaching, inspiring and empowering girls through ski racing and big mountain skiing. As part of her business, Kelleher hires other world-class female athletes like herself to help coach and mentor young girls.
"I spent so many years racing at such a high level that I thought it would be a waste of my knowledge and experience to leave the sport without giving back," added Kelleher. "I thought the best way to do that was start up a ski racing camp for girls."
Kelleher, who came close to competing in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver but was injured, is on the cusp of graduating from Westminster with a degree in management. She recently placed in the top 10 in Westminster's Opportunity Quest Business Plan competition, and will proceed to the next level of the competition next semester. In her spare time, she has also starred in several Warren Miller films, as well as Sweetgrass Productions' latest movie, Valhalla
"Being a student at Westminster means having the best educational opportunities, along with incredible mountains to play in outside of the classroom," she said. "I cannot think of a better school to facilitate my goals as a business student, a professional skier and an entrepreneur."