Chasing dreams; chasing excellence
For generations, top skiers have relocated to Steamboat Springs to chase their dreams of making it to the U.S. Ski Team and possibly competing in the Olympics. But these days, the changing culture of sports in our country has led more than a few local athletes to chase their dreams to other towns.
Steamboat Springs senior Savanna Atkins says her choice to leave her hometown this winter to pursue her snowboarding dreams makes perfect sense, but it will not make boarding a plane bound for Oregon this week any easier.
“It’s hard,” Savanna said about her decision to attend Windells Academy. “I’m going to miss hanging out with friends every single day … I’m going to miss all those senior traditions. But this was just too big of an opportunity to
Pearson Alspach, director of admissions for Steamboat Mountain School, says Atkins is not alone when it comes to high school students who chose to change schools to follow their athletic dreams.
In the case of Steamboat Mountain School, students are normally coming to Steamboat Springs to pursue sports offered by the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
She said 60 percent of the students at Steamboat Mountain School are from outside of Steamboat, and most of those athletes are involved with skiing or snowboarding.
The school has long provided students with a top-level high school experience built around the demanding training and competition schedules of skiing or snowboarding. Alumni include two-time Olympian Caroline Lalive Carmichael and 2002 moguls silver medalist Travis Mayer. Three-time Olympic silver medalist Johnny Spillane, who grew up in Steamboat, also attended the school.
“Our niche is balancing the demands of academics with high-level athletics in the winter,” Alspach said. ”Many times, we get athletes who live in places where it’s a struggle to compete and train and who miss a lot of school because of it. They can come to the Steamboat Mountain School and continue to excel in the classroom while they continue to pursue their athletic dreams.”
Lalive Carmichael moved to Steamboat when she was in high school and not only loved going to class at Steamboat Mountain School — Lowell Whitman School then — but fell in love with the town.
“At the time, moving to Steamboat Springs was the best decision for our entire family,” Lalive Carmichael said. “I think it was a huge thing in my push to make it to the U.S. Ski Team — not only the school, but the heritage and Olympic culture of Steamboat. I felt like I was allowed to grow into it and be a part of it.”
Lalive Carmichael was a perfect fit, but Alspach advises students and their parents to make sure that a private school designed for students to excel outside the classroom is the right choice.
“The first thing parents need to do is sit down and have that hard conversation about what the child really wants,” Alspach said. “Does the child understand how many hours training are involved and how many days they are going to be spending at the training facility: The parents need to evaluate how dedicated the student is and if they know that they will be training after school and training six days a week.”
Alspach said many Steamboat Mountain School students come to Steamboat with dreams of pursuing their athletic goals but eventually decide the school’s global emersion program, which allows students to experience a rewarding academic journey while also enjoying Steamboat’s mountain lifestyle, is what they were seeking.
Every year, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athletic director Jon Nolting picks up the phone in his office and does his best to answer questions from prospective athletes and their parents who are thinking about moving to Steamboat. He said it is not his job to sell the club and town to outside athletes but to make sure that, if they decide to come, it’s a good fit.
“There is no question that for some athletes, leaving home to further their athletic goals is the right move,” Nolting said. “In most cases, going to a program that focuses on a sport offers athletes the opportunity to focus exclusively on their athletic goals; it provides a place that allows them to access the facilities they need to improve, and it allows them to join a peer group that has similar aspirations that can help them get to the next level.”
Nolting said skiing and snowboarding have a long tradition of athletes who are willing to travel to find a place that blends skiing and snowboarding with academics. But Nolting said student athletes shouldn’t expect to get to the next level simply because they chose to take an alternative route.
“A lot of athletes and their parents think that if they make the move to Steamboat, their children’s results will automatically improve, and getting to the next level will be easy,” Nolting said. “Many families see a great town, great snow and great coaches, and they think the children’s success will be automatic. Truth is that getting to that next level takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication, especially when an athlete gets to the top levels. But it’s not that easy.
“Sometimes, the competition is tougher in our region than where they came from, and then, the athlete gets frustrated with their results, because they thought they should just move right up the ranks,” Nolting explained. “It doesn’t really work that way — all we do is provide the opportunities for the athlete to get to their goals. They still have to put in the work.”
Steamboat has long been a destination for athletes looking to make the national team or to compete in the Winter Olympics, but some local athletes choose to leave this scenic mountain valley to pursue their athletic endeavors elsewhere. It’s rare in a town that takes pride in producing Olympians, but that doesn’t mean Steamboat fits every athlete.
Former Steamboat Springs tennis star Tatum Burger is a perfect example. As a freshman, she was dreaming of bringing home a state tennis title, but these days, she’s in Newport Beach, California, training at the Advantage Tennis Academy.
“We are making the most of it,” Tatum’s mom, Darby Dale-Burger said. “These young athletes have such a small window when it comes to reaching their goals, and as a family, we decided that this was the best move.”
Last February, Tatum’s family, including twin sister Shea and younger brother Teague, made the move to California and rented a home near the Academy. Tatum also has three older brothers, Brian, who played tennis at the University of Puget Sound; Jack, who played at Colorado College; and Keegan, who played tennis at Rollins College and is now coaching at the Academy.
Tatum’s goal is to play Division 1 tennis, and last year, Dale-Burger bumped into Adrian Games, a coach who had worked with Tatum’s older brothers, Jack and Keegan, with Team Colorado and who is now the director of tennis at the Advantage Tennis Academy. He encouraged Tatum to look into the prep school as a way to pave the road to a top college.
“I miss Steamboat,” Tatum said. “But I also want to get to the best college I can go to, and I knew that I need to do something more to achieve my goals. It’s been awesome, so far. I keep getting better every time I step on the court, and I feel like this has been a move in the right direction.”
Though Steamboat has a strong tennis community that has been very supportive, Dale-Burger recognized that many of the things Tatum needed could not be found in the mountains of Northern Colorado.
One of the biggest reasons for the move was to allow Tatum to train at sea level. She also needed a location closer to major tournaments, and she needed to focus on tennis for more hours of the day.
“Her plans are to play Division I tennis,” said John Aragon, her former high school coach. “This is a really good opportunity for her to go and do the things she needs to do to reach that level. The level of competition she sees in practice on a daily basis has to be incredible, and when you get a chance like that, you have to take advantage of it.
“I’ve looked at her travel schedule, I’ve looked at her tournament schedule and the coaches she is working with,” Aragon added. “This is an incredible opportunity.”
The full-time program at Advantage Tennis Academy provides players with the ideal environment to improve their tennis skills under professional coaching while they pursue an exceptional education.
Each year, top national and international players train at Advantage, and the players are consistently among the top-ranked juniors in Association of Tennis Professionals, Woman’s Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation.
“From the minute that we arrived in California, Tatum’s tennis progression has gone through the roof,” Dale-Burger said. “She is constantly exposed to top-level coaching, she is going to top-level competitions all the time and things really seem to be moving in the right direction,”
But there also has been a downside — the family misses the community where they still own a home.
“To me, the experiences that Tatum had in Steamboat Springs were equally as worthy as what she is getting out here,” Dale-Burger said. “Her experience of being part of a team, and the fact that John (Aragon) never gave her any special privileges because she was a top player, were important lessons.”
The family hopes Tatum will be able to return home sometime this year and rejoin the Steamboat Springs High School programs.
Still, the coaching and exposure her daughter has gotten in California can’t be downplayed, and Dale-Burger hopes the family will get a feel for the interest top college programs have for Tatum next month when Division I programs are allowed to start approaching high school juniors.
Aragon is confident the interest will be there.
“There is no question that a move like this can open a lot of doors,” Aragon said. “I’d just love to see her continue on that path, see her keep enjoying what she is doing and see what level she can really reach.”
Journey leads home
When Olympic ski racer Caroline Lalive Carmichael’s family came to Steamboat Springs in 1995, she was looking for an opportunity that would lead a spot to the U.S. Ski Team.
The move paid off for the California native, who spent 13 years as a member of the national team after being named to it in 1996. She also won a Junior World Championship and went to the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, and Salt Lake City.
Lalive Carmichael became a poster child for parents willing to pick up and move to a town in order to give their children a shot at reaching their athletic goals, but she is quick to point out that the move to Steamboat was about more than just her skiing career.
Sure, she came here for top-level coaching and so she could train as much as possible, but more importantly, she came here because her parents thought it would be the right fit — not only for Caroline, but also for her younger sister and brother.
“I would never second guess anyone’s decision to move their family or their children for an opportunity of getting to the next level,” Lalive Carmichael said. “I think parents will do everything possible to see their child succeed, and if that means moving to provide an opportunity, I think most parents would do it.
“The important thing is to look at the big picture,” Lalive Carmichael explained. “They need to look at where the family is at that moment, but they also need to consider where they will be down the road — they need to think about the repercussions.”
Lalive Carmichael said the decision to move was easy for her, because she came to Steamboat Springs with her family. She said her father was a developer and contractor, so he could find work in Steamboat, and her family was also looking for a change after spending several years running a peach orchard in northern California.
“Steamboat was kind of like coming back to what we were more familiar with,” Lalive Carmichael said. “Since my sister and brother came with me, there wasn’t a lot of pressure to succeed. I just had to go out every day and do what I loved.”
It wasn’t long before Lalive Carmichael was dominating races in the region, and within months of arriving in Steamboat, she was named to the U.S. Ski Team. She said the move to Steamboat was the push that put her over the top.
Steamboat left its mark on the two-time Olympian, and when she finished skiing, she returned to the valley that launched her career. She coached at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and spent a season as the Alpine director. She married Nelson Carmichael, and the couple is now raising their daughter, Freya Lalive Carmichael, here.
Lalive Carmichael’s mother still lives in town, and her sister is just down the road in Breckenridge.
“Moving to Steamboat Springs was a pretty easy decision,” Lalive Carmichael said. “The town had so much to offer, and it went way beyond just skiing. The town had good schools; it had a good lifestyle with the mountains and outdoors. It wasn’t like we were moving to the middle of nowhere — that would have been weird. But I understand why parents do it. We would do anything for the success of our children.”
College is still a year away for Steamboat Springs senior Savanna Atkins, but that won’t stop her from boarding a plane this week in Denver with dreams of pursuing her goals at Windells Academy.
“It’s bittersweet,” Atkins said. “I don’t want to miss my senior year in Steamboat, but this is just too big an opportunity to pass up.”
Atkins, who competes in the half pipe, has won five national championships at the USASA Championships. Last season, she placed fourth twice, just missing the podium at Revolution Tour events at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania and Mammoth Mountain in California.
Those results are a big reason the local snowboarder is bypassing her senior year at Steamboat Springs High School to attend Windells Academy in northern Oregon. She believes the attention she will get there could help her reach the next level and might pave the way to getting an invitation to the Winter Olympic Games.
“She is one of the first people from Steamboat to receive a scholarship to Windells,” Savanna’s mother, Rose, said. “I’m very happy for her, and I’m OK with it, as a parent. I think this is an opportunity that can give her a head start — not only in snowboarding, but in life.”
The small private school offers athletes an intimate setting, with only 30 students enrolled, and a focus on snowboarding and free skiing. Savanna said individual attention in the classroom is designed to fit in with the rigors of training and competing in high-level snowboarding competitions across the country and around the world. Students will kick off the new school year with a three-week training camp in New Zealand, and once the competitive season begins, athletes are on the road every weekend, competing in top-level regional and national events.
“It’s going to be nice to focus on my athletic goals, but I also know that I have to keep up in the classroom,” Savanna said.
The school day at Windells begins at 7 a.m. Students normally train from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and take classes from 2 to 6 p.m. Most of the classwork is done online, so athletes can keep up with classwork when they are on the road.
“All our classes are online, so it takes some self-discipline to get them done,” Savanna said. “There is a teacher to make sure each student reaches their academic goals, and they help support the students when we have class.”
The local snowboarder has been exploring her options since the end of last season and recently received a scholarship that will make attending the academy possible. She also works as a waitress at Back Door Grill and recently started a Go Fund Me page at gofund
me.com/2kf4rhvy to help cover expenses.
“I definitely believe this is the right move,” Savanna said. “I’ve been a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club for the past nine years, and it’s a great program, but I didn’t think they offered me enough to get to that next level.”
Savanna also pointed to the lack of a major halfpipe and other training facilities in Steamboat as a reason for leaving her hometown. Windells is located at the base of Mount Hood and offers plenty of year-round training.
“I like to take each year at a time and accomplish the goals I’ve set out to reach,” Savanna said. “This is my senior year, and I would love to end up on the podium in a Rev (Revolution) Tour event.”
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