About Utah: Westminster's got Sochi athletes covered

Published: Sunday, Feb. 9 2014 10:20 p.m. MST

Westminster College academic adviser Deb Vickery's office is full of autographed posters from grateful skiers and snowboarders who are taking advantage of the school's tuition waiver program.

Lee Benson

SALT LAKE CITY — The Sochi Olympics are off and running, meaning millions of people will be busy with their televisions over the next fortnight. But none any busier than Deb Vickery.

She’s got 23 Olympians to keep track of.

At Westminster College, Deb is the director of START, the school’s program that helps undergraduates negotiate the maze of higher education. Part of her job is to advise and keep track of the 101 members of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association who are currently taking advantage of Westminster’s tuition grant waiver for USSA athletes. Which, translated, means: “Come to Westminster, dude, and we’ll pay your tuition.”

That’s no small offer, considering Westminster’s yearly tuition is $29,500.

Of those 101 student-skier/snowboarders, 23 are as we speak trying to get some sleep in the Athletes Village in Sochi.

Twenty-three!

No other college or university in the United States comes close to that number of Olympians. It represents 10 percent of the entire U.S. delegation to Russia (230 strong) and a full 1 percent of Westminster’s 2,526 undergraduate students.

Picking up on the story in its online sports page last week, Yahoo! Sports noted that USC had 41 Olympians at the London Olympics, but that was out of 40,000 students. Westminster’s percentage blows USC out of the water.

Walk around the Westminster campus and one of every 100 students you pass will be an Olympian — that is, if you walk around in the spring or summer, when it’s the offseason and most of them fit in their classwork.

If Westminster were a country, it would have the 27th largest team at the Sochi Olympics — bigger than 61 other nations. It has as many Olympians as Denmark (12) and Croatia (11) combined.

The partnership between Westminster and the USSA dates back to 2005, when then-school President Michael Bassis mounted a campaign to have the college become more closely partnered with the surrounding community. The school reached out to the USSA, headquartered in Park City, and the Westminster College/USSA Tuition Grant program was born. Anyone who is an official member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams, A through C, or is an alumnus can apply. Entrance requirements are the same as for any other Westminster applicant. Those who qualify pay for their own books, fees and housing, but the big expense — tuition — is on the house.

It’s like the GI Bill for boarders and skiers.

The program wasn’t up and running in time for the Torino Winter Games in 2006, but four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, no fewer than 14 Westminster Griffins were there. Two of them medaled — the late Jeret “Speedy” Peterson won silver in aerials and Bryon Wilson won bronze in moguls.

The two medals tied Westminster College with Latvia for 23rd place in the medal count.

This year, the numbers and potential are both up. There isn’t a ski or snowboard event a Westminster student isn’t in. Strong medal contenders include Lindsey Jacobellis, a three-time Olympian in snowboard cross who might be best remembered for turning a cinch gold medal into silver in Torino when she fell just before the finish line; freeskier Maddie Bowman, who has two World Cup halfpipe gold medals to her credit; cross-country skier Jessie Diggins, who won gold with teammate Kikkan Randall at the 2013 world championships; and the Fletcher brothers, Bryan and Taylor, who could combine with veterans Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong to win team gold in Nordic combined.

In Deb Vickery’s eyes, they’re all winners already. Surrounded by dozens of autographed posters from grateful skiers and snowboarders in her office in Carleson Hall — “Deb, You Make This Possible, Thank You!!!!” — she has nothing but good to say about her experience in dealing with the athletes.

“They come in here so thankful, so humble,” she says. “They’re just a pleasure to work with. They’re already mature and they’re good role models for our other students.”

She sounds like a proud parent when she gushes about their combined GPA of 3.56.

Their actual parents, she points out, are equally thankful. “They’ve double-mortgaged their houses, some of them, to put their kids through training,” says Deb. “So many of them couldn’t afford it any other way.”

And, she adds, the exposure for Westminster is just the kind of exposure Westminster wants — a responsible college responding to the needs of its community.

In addition to all that, it’s expanded Deb’s vocabulary.

Just the other day she was talking to a colleague about one of her snowboarders’ performance at the X Games, which she described like this:

“She had a sick jump and really hit that back 720.”

The colleague looked at her as if she was speaking Martian.

Stay tuned. The Olympics are on. More sick jumps from Westminster Griffins to come.

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

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