It's a dream come true - and yet, there are still so many dreams to realize for Jenni Stielow, a Summit County native born and bred, who was recently hired as human performance coordinator and women's coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine, a school that balances academics with elite alpine skiing.
After amounting a decade of professional ski industry experience as a coach, sports physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist, Stielow has reached one of many pinnacles in her aspiring career.
She also owns Summit Training Systems, based out of Summit County, and hopes to continue to develop that. She's an instructor at Colorado Mountain College, and will be bouncing back and forth between Summit and Maine for the forseeable future. Eventually, she'd like to write articles or a book on athletic development. Delving into consulting is also attractive.
For now, though, she's jumping wholeheartedly into the human performance aspect of athletic development for the school.
Stielow, once a Team Summit athlete, helped coach after her racing days. In school, she pursued anatomy and physiology, exercise physiology and athletic training. She holds a master's degree in exercise science from the University of Montana, where her research focused on developing a sport-specific analysis of junior athlete fitness in comparison to performance variables. She's presented that research both nationally and internationally.
"I started tailoring things to go in that direction," she said. Internships with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which put her to work on some development pilot programs, paid off along the way.
"That mix has given me a strong background to relate to where the elite athletes are, and where they want to get to - and working backwards from there," Stielow said.
Day-to-day, her duties look like this: "A great big grid." That grid lists every athlete and his or her athletic development plan, blocking out training and keeping competition to training to rest and relaxation ratios. Every CVA student is on a different program - whether elite, average or beginner.
"It's a good challenge because I have a wide variety of student athletes and skill levels," Stielow said. She manages 79 full-time students and 125 weekend athletes ranging in disciplines from skiing and snowboarding freestyle, ski and board cross and alpine events.
One thing Stielow has implemented at CVA is a combine-style fitness test for continued off-season development. Based on the results, athletes are put into groups of similar ability, which are designed to push them into better success and "develop their skills at the level where they're at," Stielow said. "It closes the gap of strength and conditioning in the off-season. It's a cohesive program for them to develop. They get the time and attention they deserve at their level."
It's about maintaining the unique fitness needed for ski racing throughout the non-racing season.
In many ways, Stielow is forging a path where none existed before. There are few programs that do what she's doing - incorporating the human performance component in the academy setting.
Ski and Snowboard Club Vail is doing it, but few others in Colorado are. Similar configurations to CVA exist in the East, but not as many as Stielow would like to see. Instead, elite skiing often happens in the public schools that allow early release for training purposes.
Which leads Stielow to another aspiration: developing more integrated student-athlete programs in Colorado. Eventually, she'd also like to head back to school, perhaps for a sports medicine physician assistantship or health management.
What she's doing at CVA is cutting-edge, even for a school that's centered around developing athletes as much as students. The school doesn't currently have the year-round fitness program, and it's up to Stielow to develop it. And she's not just keeping her "great big grid," she's also trying to incorporate constant connectivity to the students, so they can check in virtually and let her know how they're progressing with the fitness plan. All that without spending the kind of money it would take to actually meet face-to-face in the off-season.
"I am thrilled to have Jenni coming to CVA to join our coaching staff," said Mike Savage, alpine program director at the school. "She brings unparalleled knowledge of long-term athlete development systems, coaching and conditioning to the program in order to assist CVA athletes in reaching optimal levels of performance. Having her on our staff will raise the bar for all our athletes, and improve our race results dramatically."
Though Stielow has an education to back where she is now, she says it likely would have never happened if she didn't grow up in Summit County.
"I think the fact that I grew up here and grew up skiing at Copper, and all the areas around here, allowed me to become the skier, allowed me to be in that athletic development," she said. "There's lots of terrain, it's an outdoor community. That's a big thing that has contributed to my passion."
It also helped (or hurt?) that she underwent 10 surgeries in 10 years following one big accident at Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort. It had snowed, then a layer of rain-turned-ice coated the race course. On one GS turn, one leg got stuck in the berm and the other remained in the surface. It put her on the road to sports science and sports medicine. Before that, she was an everyday coach.
Growing up in a city and still being an elite skiing coach?
No way, Stielow said.
Between exposure and parental support, there's no way she would have had the same opportunities or drive in the elite skiing direction.