How to make an Olympic snowboarder

Start young. Sign up for the sport's premier academy, located in Vermont. Pay $40,000 a year for tuition and board. Devote days and nights to the pursuit. Add guts. Expect glory.

Reading and riding From left: Makayla Tierney and Serena Shaw, both 14, and Phoebe Novello, 15, mix academics with intense snowboard training. Reading and riding From left: Makayla Tierney and Serena Shaw, both 14, and Phoebe Novello, 15, mix academics with intense snowboard training. (Photograph by Rob Bossi)
By Billy Baker
December 13, 2009

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The future of women’s snowboarding is sitting in front of me. It’s teenagers, three young teenagers, the squealy kind and the “whatever” kind and the kind that squeals “whatever.” They’re not the sort to think too much about the future because they’re, like, kids. But here they are, squished onto a black leather couch in their coach’s office, sitting in front of a reporter who wants to know what it’s like to be so young and so talented and have their coach throw big, fraught compliments at them, compliments like “They’re the future of women’s snowboarding.”

“When I think of the future,” Makayla Tierney says, “I think of . . .”

“The US team,” Serena Shaw says, finishing her sentence, which the girls do quite often.

“Yeah, I want us to be like Lizzy and Ellery and Brooke,” Makayla says, talking about three young women who are trying to make the Olympic snowboarding team for the games in Vancouver this February. At least one should succeed.

“We want to be the next generation,” Serena says. She’s at the right place to do that, the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in Vermont. It’s one of New England’s four private ski and snowboard academies -- which combine rigorous sports training with secondary schooling -- and the one that draws the best snowboarding talent in the country.

“But that’s almost too soon,” Serena continues. “It’s hard to believe.”

“It’s scary,” Makayla says.

She’s not talking about the pressure; what’s scary is the “soon.”

Serena and Makayla are 14 years old; the eldest of the trio, Phoebe Novello, is 15. The women they’re talking about -- Lizzy Beerman and Ellery Hollingsworth and Brooke Shaw (Serena’s older sister) -- are still kids themselves. Lizzy and Ellery just graduated from Stratton in the spring. In snowboarding, where the freestyle events have become increasingly gymnastic, soon is very soon.

Coach Mike Mallon, the 37-year-old director of the snowboarding program at the school (and the man who had told me the three girls were the future of women’s snowboarding), sticks his head in the office and looks at the girls. Serena is playing with her purple braces. Makayla is kicking one sneaker off her heel and then pushing it back on. Phoebe is tucking her bare legs to her chest and pulling her T-shirt over them. Then he looks at me.

“Get their autographs,” he says to me. I smile.

“I’m not kidding,” he says.

He leaves, and I don’t ask for their autographs; instead, I ask how they feel when they hear such things so early in their lives.

“It makes me feel like he has a lot of confidence in me,” Phoebe says, in a tone that politely tells me I’m missing the point. “It makes me feel stoked.”

This, I will learn, is how they do things at Stratton Mountain School, opened in 1972. Expectations are set very high, and the costs are extraordinary. Parents commit nearly $40,000 a year for a full-term boarder; students commit their adolescence. They start as early as eighth grade, choose a specific discipline -- snowboarding, Alpine skiing, or cross-country Nordic skiing -- and live the schedule of a professional athlete while cramming in the strenuous academics of an elite private school.

When there’s snow on the mountains in Vermont, they spend half their day on the slopes and half in the classroom. The rest of the school year, they’re either going through an intense twice-a-day conditioning regimen or they’re chasing winter around the world. In the fall, skiers spend a couple of weeks in Chile; snowboarders go to Colorado. In the summer, many of the students train in New Zealand. In winter, many of the best athletes, those already competing at the national level, travel frequently, flying from competition to competition, continuing their Stratton Mountain studies when in Vermont and then on the road. By the time they graduate, some will be making more money than their teachers and coaches.

It is a singular commitment, an expensive commitment, but the results are hard to argue with.

Since 1972, Stratton has graduated 30 Olympians. Five have won medals, including two golds. Those are staggering numbers, especially when you consider that the school has a current enrollment of just 112 students (51 are full-term boarders). And much of this success came before the boom in snowboarding, which is where the school has really distinguished itself in recent years. Stratton alumni are hoping to fill a third of the spots on the US Olympic snowboarding team for the upcoming games.

“It’s become the Harvard of snowboarding” is how a spokeswoman for the US national team puts it. As with Harvard, the students have to be talented even to get accepted. But that’s just the beginning. If you’ve ever wondered how an Olympian is made, the Stratton Mountain School can tell you.

It’s 8:15 a.m. on a Wednesday in the fall, a dead time on the mountain between the leaf peepers and the first dusting on the peaks. I’m sitting next to Serena in the back of Mrs. Hall’s freshman geometry class. Makayla is two rows in front of her. Mrs. Hall is teaching logic, the law of syllogism, and shows them a clip from a Monty Python movie where the actors fail to follow the “chain rule” and, through a series of illogical connections, come to the comic conclusion that a woman must be a witch because she weighs as much as a duck.

When I was in high school, movie time meant mayhem. But the 11 students in this class are shockingly calm and attentive. Or maybe it’s not so shocking when you consider that they’ve already been up for two hours and gone through a strenuous pre-breakfast workout. This is how Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer,” trains his pack -- exercise, then discipline.

Serena, who is from Bantam, Connecticut, is wearing a colorful striped scarf and socks that sort of match, a Pippi Longstocking aesthetic that works for her. She’s small and limber, and before committing to snowboarding she was a good gymnast and gave serious thought to trying to go that route to the Olympics. The previous weekend, she’d been in Utah with some of the students trying to learn to do a double cork rotation, a complex twisting flip that has become a separator between the merely good halfpipe snowboarders and the elite (you’ll see double corks from the men at the Olympics). When Mrs. Hall mentions the Utah trip for my benefit, Serena does not seem the least bit impressed with herself; neither do the other students.

Makayla has her hand raised. She’s tall for her age, with long blond hair thrown haphazardly over one shoulder. Her family moved from Rumson, New Jersey, to Vermont three years ago so that she and her siblings could more seriously pursue snowboarding (her older brother, Chris, is a Stratton Mountain sophomore and a top snowboarder).

Later, when I speak to her father, Chris Tierney, about his decision to uproot the family so his children could pursue snowboarding full time, he tells me most people think he’s crazy. “But they’re getting this amazing experience,” he says. “They’re traveling to places most people don’t get to see in their lives. They’re packing a lot into a short time.” And, he concedes, with that comes pressure, and sometimes he has to step in to temper it.

In the classroom, Mrs. Hall sees Makayla’s hand raised but doesn’t call on her. Instead, she walks toward her, leans in to her desk, and tries a different approach to explaining the chain rule. “If you win the US Open,” Mrs. Hall says, “you go to the Olympics.”

Makayla lowers her hand. The following day, she’ll leave to train with the national team coaches for a couple of days. She understands how that chain works, doesn’t need it explained to her.

I spent two days on campus, and what was most shocking about the school was how normal it all seems to the students -- the jet-setting lifestyle, the boot-camp schedule, the halls filled with framed photos of Olympians, the 18 professional coaches on staff. Even the fact that the skiers have their own full-time wax technician, a guy who used to work for the national team, who will carefully scrape and wax each student’s $5,000 worth of skis -- each usually has six pairs -- to match the snow and the temperature and the humidity.

Phoebe, who is also from Rumson, New Jersey, describes this as “the SMS bubble.” She lives an unusual life in an unusual place, but so do her classmates.

“For the first week, I noticed the photos of the Olympians,” Randall Stacy, a 17-year-old senior snowboarder from Ipswich, tells me. “Now it’s just something that’s always there.”

The bubble floats on a schedule so regimented that the New York Times, in an article that’s framed in the library, compared it to the days of the East German Olympic program. In the winter, the students are up at dawn, stretch, watch video of the previous day, hit the slopes till lunch, go to class, do more conditioning, eat dinner, and then go to study hall for an hour and a half. At most, they get about an hour of “free time” a day, but it’s usually used for homework. “That’s what sets the Stratton kids apart,” says alum Ross Powers, who won an Olympic bronze in the halfpipe in 1998, the year after he graduated (and followed it up with a gold four years later). “The work ethic that they need to survive at that school means that when they get to the slopes, they’re ready. They’re strong. They’re prepared.”

Coach Mallon knows that risk brings reward in action sports; his job is to make sure ability matches ambition. Before students can attempt a trick, he’ll have them practice it on the ground, then on the trampoline next to the ramps in their indoor skate park, then into a foam pit.

When students first arrive at the school, many are under the illusion that they’re going to spend their high school years playing in the snow -- especially if they’re aspiring to the laid-back stereotype of a snowboarder, born from the cultures of surfing and skateboarding. Then the school schedule hits them like a cold shower.

The clash between the free-spiritedness of a snowboarder and the seriousness of an Olympic athlete came into sharp focus at the 2006 games in Turin. Lindsey Jacobellis, a 2003 graduate, had a huge lead in the finals of the women’s snowboard cross, an elbows-out grudge match where four competitors battle down a twisting, jump-filled course. When she came to the last jump, she pulled a method air in which the snowboarder hikes the knees up and reaches back to grab the board. It was a shot at gnarly glory that would have rocked the snowboarding world and no doubt flooded her with big-money endorsement deals from companies selling that edgy ideal.

Except she fell. Badly. She limped across the finish line in second place and earned a silver medal and the scorn of the world’s media.

“But if she had stomped that method, which was one of the best methods you’ll ever see, things would be different,” Mallon tells me.

Stratton Mountain School knows how to produce Olympians. “This place is not some big experiment,” says Louie Vito, an alumnus who is just 21 but has already achieved enough action-sports fame to earn a spot as a contestant on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. “This formula has been working.” It just doesn’t work for everyone. The staff knows that very few students will make it to Vito’s heights. Academics are strenuous, and those students who don’t rise to the level at which they can make a living skiing or snowboarding do earn a high school diploma from a school that boasts a solid record of placement at elite colleges. Alumni fill the ranks of the top college ski teams. Snowboarding, which entered the Stratton curriculum in 1993, is not yet an NCAA sport.

Serena and Makayla and Phoebe are getting bored with me. They’re tired of my questions about their potential, and the future, and the life they live. So they do a very teenage thing and ignore me and start having their own conversation. They’re complaining to one another -- which is not surprising -- but they’re not complaining about a teacher or a classmate or any of those things typical girls in a typical high school might be whining about.

They’re complaining about airports. They’re talking about an upcoming competition in Austria which means, ugh, more airports. “I know my way around too many airports,” Makayla says. Serena and Phoebe totally understand.

They’re not bragging. And they’re not guilty of not knowing how good they have it. They’re in the SMS bubble. This is their normal. They’re the future of women’s snowboarding. This is how it’s done.

Billy Baker, a freelance writer in Cambridge, is working on a book about jugglers and the great juggling war. E-mail him at