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World-class athletes — and no sports teams

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 6:45 p.m. MST

Rob Clayton, headmaster at The Winter Sports School in Park City, stands in front of the school’s headquarters at Olympic Park. The school, in session from April to November, is scheduled to become a public charter school in 2014.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

PARK CITY — The irony of the school’s name is not lost on Rob Clayton, headmaster of The Winter Sports School that is located in and around the ski jumps and bobsled track at Utah Olympic Park.

“We’re called the winter sports school, but we go to school in the summer and we don’t field any sports teams,” he says.

But if they did field sports teams, they would be something to behold.

At the recent alpine and nordic world championships, for instance, Winter Sports School alumni accounted for no less than six of the eight medals won by the United States. Skier Ted Ligety, Class of ’02, won three gold medals; Sarah Hendrickson, Class of ’12, won the gold medal in women’s ski jumping; Julia Mancuso, Class of ’00, won a bronze medal in skiing; and Bryan Fletcher, Class of ’04, won a bronze medal as part of the nordic combined relay team.

“We did better than most countries,” says a beaming Clayton. “We are proud of our (former) students beyond words.”

Not only are they world champions, you couldn’t ask for better recruiters.

They are living proof positive that you can make it to the top of your sport and still find time along the way for your education. Particularly when that time is in the summer, when the snow is off the ground.

The Winter Sports School was established in 1994 for just that purpose — offering an April-to-November school year that leaves the winter months wide open for training and competing.

The school opened that first summer with 17 students and a single yellow trailer towed into place between the bobsled track and ski jumping hill at Olympic Park. Two more yellow trailers have been added since. Last year’s class totaled 49 students, grades 9 through 12. Clayton expects about the same number this year — the usual assortment of aspiring skiers, bobsledders, jumpers, aerialists and lugers, along with the occasional non-winter athlete who likes the idea of going to school in the summertime.

But next year, they’re probably going to need more trailers.

That’s because the Winter School was recently granted charter school status for 2014 by the state of Utah, meaning the $17,000 private school tuition will be going down to something a bit more affordable, as in free.

“We will be a public school; we’re very excited about it,” says Clayton. “We are already examining opportunities to expand.”

The curriculum won’t change. The school will continue to operate as it always has, condensing the school year from 180 days to 136, with longer class time each day and fewer breaks for holidays, and concentrating on basic, college-preparatory courses.

The frills are few. “What we offer here is a great education,” says Clayton. “Kids who come here do everything but their sport.”

For Clayton, 55, that’s as much of a departure as it is for the students. A native of Vermont, he relocated to Utah in the 1990s to coach for the U.S. Ski Team, whose headquarters are in Park City. Later he became head coach of the ski team at Park City Mountain Resort, where he coached future Olympians the likes of Ligety, Steve Nyman and others.

In 2002, just after the Salt Lake City Olympics, Clayton, a graduate of the University of Vermont with previous experience as an educator at the Stratton Mountain Academy, also in Vermont, was approached by the Winter Sports School to take over as its director.

The ski coach decided to give it a try — and eleven years later he’s still at it.

Running a school “is the same as coaching,” he says. “You organize, you manage and you motivate.”

He adds, “You have to know how to handle talented people. The kids who come here are driven; we see a higher level of engagement. But it's still school and they’re still kids so it’s not perfect.”

Still, 90 percent of Winter Sports School graduates go on to college.

A healthy percentage also go on to the upper echelons of winter sport. At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, seven Winter School alums competed, winning four medals (Mancuso with two silvers, skier Andrew Weibrecht with a bronze and bobsledder Steve Holcomb with a gold). If the school had been a country, Rob Clayton will tell you, it would have placed 17th in the medal count.

If the recent world championships are any indicator, the next Olympics, in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, is likely to have even more Winter Sports Schoolers in the ranks. Not bad for a school that doesn’t even offer P.E.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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