Grit and Grace

Grit and Grace

The newly announced Bode Miller Ski Academy brings hard training and lofty education to Granby Ranch.

Bode Miller wasn’t your traditional ski academy kid. A pay-as-he-went day student at Carrabassett Valley Academy, Bode’s day began at 4:45am hauling the firewood, cracking and scrambling the eggs, and scouring the cast iron before he grabbed his books and pull-started the snowmobile for a six mile sled in the Maine woods where he’d cross a frozen river before hitchhiking the remaining 18 miles to school. Once there, he’d study and train all day before returning via thumb and sled for dinner and more chores at the house where he bunked with family friends. Like your grandfather, it was both ways in the dark for Bode. He repaid all his race fees with summer work, but each winter he sank into debt.

Bode was offered an easier way out. All this struggle could go away, his coaches and the headmaster told him, if Bode simply quit ski racing and dedicated himself to snowboard racing—and a waiting scholarship complete with lodging and meals. But that wasn’t Bode’s path. The frontier life—his parents were back-to-the-land hippies who ran kerosene lamps in a remote cabin; Bode’s bedroom was a cubby hole—had taught him grit. And it wasn’t long before that resolve earned him a spot on the U.S. Ski Team. Over the following decades, Bode would become the winningest alpine skier in American history.

As with a long list of great American ski racers that didn’t come from means, Bode only got a shot at elite competition because of happenstance, a preternatural determination, and a ditch digger’s work ethic. The system favors the wealthy, who can weather ski racing’s costs. Attrition takes most of the middle class and lower income kids.

That’s no way to develop skiers. But with the recent announcement of the inaugural Bode Miller Ski Academy at Granby Ranch, the system will soon see real change. The Academy’s mission is to provide young people with world-class academics, advanced leadership training, and unparalleled athletic opportunity. A not-for-profit enterprise founded by Bode and Andy Wirth, who oversees the outfit that manages Granby Ranch, the Academy will offer alpine, nordic, and freestyle skiing, as well as a first of its kind adaptive skiing program backed by people like Christopher Reeve Foundation alum Sam Fairchild, the National Sports Center for the Disabled, five-time Paralympian medalist Alana Nichols, and High Fives founder Roy Tuscany. On the education front, the Youth Performance Academy program will incorporate rigorous academics and project-based learning, providing a fast-track to achieve state requirements.

“Over the past five years, Bode and I have worked on developing what could only be described as a new breed of ski academy,” says Wirth. “We’ve developed the business model behind the Academy so that in our first year of operation we can offer 25 full scholarships.”

In other words, kids with grit will get a chance too. And for Bode, grit is often the determining factor of who ends up on the World Cup. “What I love about the Academy is that the kids that don’t come from means will bring positive traits that will make them better skiers. They have an intrinsic awareness that things don’t come easy; that you have to grind. In this country, we have what I like to think of as an unofficial screening process for winter sports. The status quo isn’t getting it done, though. If you look at a cross section of ski racers at the academy level, it would reveal less grit than you would see on the World Cup. It’s the less entitled people that make it to the top.”

The inclusion of adaptive athletes—they’ll train side-by-side with the able-bodied kids—will only accelerate this effect. Alana Nichols is a five-time Paralympian who medaled six times (summer and winter) in basketball, kayaking, and skiing. In the lead-up to the Sochi Games, she crashed and broke both ankles on her already paralyzed legs and nearly destroyed her left shoulder. Barely recovered in time for the Olympics, she managed a silver in the Downhill, but crashed out in the Super G on the same gate that saw Bode blow out of the course. She was helicoptered off the hill. Somehow she came back for the GS. “I was devastated that winter,” says Nichols. “I’m already in a wheelchair. I had one working limb for six weeks.”

That’s grit. Still, when Nichols is asked what the benefit will be from able-bodied and adative kids skiing together, she doesn’t talk inspiration, she talks tactics. “The adaptive kids will learn a ton about line selection. I was given the opportunity to train with my able-bodied counterparts at Winter Park and that made all the difference. When you train with people that are better than you, you rise to the occasion. With Bode’s history as a ski racer, the Academy has the chance to elevate adaptive winter sports to a level it’s never seen.”

Even the mixing of Nordic and Alpine pursuits will help build grit. No athletes on the planet train or compete as hard as the Nordic set. When you see them collapse at the finish line, it isn’t soccer style theatrics, it’s because they can no longer stand and take in oxygen at the same time. When the Alpine kids hang around with classmates accustomed to this much fight, they’ll get after their conditioning.

Again, grit is baked into the type of kids who end up Nordic skiing. The Olympian Todd Lodwick (Nordic Combined) grew up in Clark, Colorado—30 minutes outside of Steamboat where he trained with the egalitarian Winter Sports Club. Now, in addition to running nearby Snow Mountain Ranch, Lodwick is on tap to help envision the Nordic program at Bode’s Academy. “I learned a lot at the Winter Sports Club that translates perfectly,” says Lodwick. “Not only from discipline and success and failures, but with the non-skiing elements. I’m a public school kid. We went to school at 7:00am and left at noon so we could train. Because you can Nordic ski wherever there’s snow, it’s a cheap sport to get involved with. Nordic kids tend to be humble and studious. But there’s always a rivalry between Nordic and Alpine, and that healthy competitive spirit will drive excellence too.”

When the build-out is complete, the Academy will put all those kids—bumpers, gate bashers, adaptive skiers, snowboarders, and the lungs-with-legs crowd in one brand new facility purpose built to help student athletes recover more quickly from training stressors and excel academically.

Conceived by famed Colorado architect Don Ruggles—author of Beauty: Neuroscience and Architecture the Academy as it’s now drawn will feature vaulted ceilings, natural materials like stone and wood, long sightlines of the valley floor, and an intentionally repetitive bilateral symmetry pattern in from the door handles to the windows and more. “Our subliminal nervous system controls about 95 percent of our actions,” says Ruggles. “What I’ve found as an architect involved in neuroscience is that there are patterns that help us relax and allow us to open ourselves to learning. This evolution has happened over millions of years. We feel good in a home or a cathedral with arching ceilings because we evolved beneath a forest canopy. We feel safe when we can see long distances because at one point it was a key to our survival. We feel at ease when we see bilateral symmetry because humankind is always seeking these patterns. Wood and stone also calm us. The Japanese called this effect biophilia. We evolved with these materials. When we’re around wood and can see the natural grains, our heart rates go down. The environment you’re in can be as effective as meditation. Bode and Andy were discussing these ideas before they reached out to me and realized I’d written a book on the subject. I’ve never been as excited about a project. Between the coaching, Bode’s vision, and the building, these kids are going to have a unique opportunity to grow as athletes and students.”

Which is of course the entire point. Only a few kids make it to the elite levels of competition each year. But every kid at the Bode Miller Ski Academy will learn resilience, motivation, and love of learning and sport. And heck yeah, some will go on to crush it on the World Cup too. It’s inevitable. “The academy is about that next generation of competitors,” says Wirth, “many of whom are only ten years old right now. When you see the faces of these young kids from all backgrounds pursuing a range of winter sports, it can’t help but create a sense of pride in the community.”

This story appears in Granby Ranch’s winter mini-magazine edition. For more information or to get a print copy, please email eloveland (@)