Courtesy USSA
Four athletes celebrate their high school graduation as the first graduating class of the USSA's TEAM Academy.

PARK CITY — Instead of senior proms, pep assemblies and football games, the four girls standing in the sunshine on the deck of the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence Saturday morning spent their final year of high school traveling to cities most of their friends can’t even pronounce to compete against the world’s best athletes.

“It was hard because I wasn’t going to be with my friends I’d grown up with for my senior year,” said Park City’s Maddy Olsen, who was attending Park City High until she enrolled in the USSA’s new TEAM Academy last fall. “But it was an awesome opportunity for me to be able to travel and train.”

The promising freestyle skier was one of four athletes honored at TEAM Academy’s inaugural graduation.

“This is a historic moment,” said USSA President and CEO Bill Marolt. He said the first-of-its-kind academy “raises the bar.

“And that’s where we want to be,” Marolt said. “That’s what Americans believe in. Americans believe in being the best. They don’t want to be second-best. They want to be the best. That’s our system; that’s our society; that’s our culture. So what we’re doing here is we’re making a cultural change in our organization where we encourage youngsters from around the country to come here and to go to school ... to train really hard and at the same time to get their education.”

The academy was born out of discussions that began several years ago.

As winter sports have evolved, two critical changes occurred. First, athletes found success at much younger ages, especially in new and emerging sports like snowboarding, slopestyle and free skiing. Second, the schedule for winter sports competitions expanded, which made it much more difficult for athletes to compete internationally while trying to maintain a traditional school schedule.

Initial resistance came from a number of areas, including winter sports academies that already exist, like the Winter Sports School in Park City. But Marolt said the Team Academy fills a different need than those met by traditional high schools, online high schools or winter sports academies.

Marolt told the small crowd gathered to honor Jess Breda (freeskiing), Kiley McKinnon (freestyle), Alexi Micinski (freeskiing) and Olsen (freestyle) that the Team Academy acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between sports and education.

“We believe academics and athletics enhance each other,” Marolt said. “They go hand in hand. Academics is more than what you learn in books.”

Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president of athletics for USSA, said the academy will help athletes commit to a balanced life at a young age.

“We hope to give you an environment where the demands of high performance can effectively be balanced with a high-quality education, where we can set you guys on a path that makes becoming the best in the world not only possible but very much within your grasp,” Bodensteiner said. “I have no doubt that some of the athletes in this school are going to go on to be Olympians and even Olympic champions.”

He acknowledged the parents for “taking the risk” to send their children to a new, “unproven” program.

“We’re proud to have given them a head start on what is undoubtedly going to be a great journey for all of you guys,” he said.

The most tender moments came when each graduate’s parents recalled memories of the girls. They acknowledged the drive, independence and courage their daughter’s showed long before they were elite athletes.

Olsen said she’s improved significantly in the classroom and on the aerial hill since enrolling in the academy. The courses are a combination of online and classroom work, while the students train full time and compete on national and international circuits with their adult counterparts. The academy serves 27 students at campuses in Park City and Lake Placid, N.Y.

The girls graduate with a 4.15 cumulative GPA and all of them have enrolled at Westminster College. The athletes have won World Cup and Junior World Freestyle Skiing championship podiums and numerous top 10 finishes nationally and internationally.

“We’ve absolutely succeeded in this opportunity,” said Dan Kemp, headmaster of the academy.

His graduates agreed, with McKinnon calling the experience “amazing” and Micinski saying it allowed her to make her dreams a reality.

Olsen’s father, Tom, talked about the difficulty he had trying to simply feed himself while trying to compete on ski circuits.

“It’s allowed our daughter to surround herself with greatness,” he said choking back emotion. “I think USSA has always represented trying to achieve the best, and they worked hard to develop a program. ... They put in the effort to make it happen and to make it happen right.”

Breda, a slopestyle skier, said she struggled trying to keep up in her school work before the academy. While she found success in the classroom, she was also pushed to new heights on the mountain.

“Everyone is so focused and motivated that it’s hard not to be focused and motivated yourself,” Breda said. “You’re training next to people that have won Olympic medals, that have so much experience, that are so determined that they’re the best role models. You become the best by training with the best and if you see what the best in the world are doing, you want to become that and you want to reach that goal.”

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