As winter athletes come into Steamboat, homegrown talent goes elsewhere | SummitDaily.com

As winter athletes come into Steamboat, homegrown talent goes elsewhere

John F. Russell
Steamboat Today & Pilot

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.

Difficult choice

Steamboat Springs senior Savannah 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," she 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 pass up."

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.

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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."

"The first thing parents need to do is sit down and have that hard conversation about what the child really wants," she 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."

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.

He 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 he 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," he 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."

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 to 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.

"I would never second guess anyone's decision to move their family or their children for an opportunity of getting to the next level," she 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."

She 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," she 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 here.

Lalive Carmichael's mother still lives in town, and her sister is just down the road in Breckenridge.

Boarding school

College is still a year away for 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," she 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."