Sunday, Jun. 2, 2013

Two years ago when we announced that we would be establishing an elite ski and snowboard academy at the Center of Excellence, that announcement was met with enthusiasm by some and with consternation by others.  Some were concerned that running a school would be a financial drain on other programs.  Some cautioned that the demands of running a school in addition to our elite athlete and high performance programs would be distracting and take focus away from our core mission.  Some believed that we had underestimated how demanding it would be to run a school, and how difficult it is to deliver truly high quality education.  Some worried that the program would be rife with behavioral and athlete management issues.  Some perceived that this program would become a way for athletes to "buy their way in" to the national team system.  And others offered that this would have a severe negative impact on the traditional ski academy community.  These are, of course, all legitimate risks, and painstaking attention was paid to them throughout the planning process and delivery of the program.  And the program was operated with the constant realization that the TEAM Academy would be a disruptive force within the existing system, even though the Academy itself is simply a tool to facilitate high-level elite program participation and is not compulsory for any athlete.

But we felt that the risk was worth taking, and that the addition of the TEAM Academy would become incredibly important to the future success of the USSA, and its athletes.

Over the past several years, the USSA has seen significant growth in the number of high school athletes among its elite team ranks.  Some of this is due to new sports being added to USSA's Olympic program, which tend to be filled with younger athletes.  Some of this is due to the fact that we've deepened our elite athlete pipeline to better identify and train our young talents.  And some of this is due to improved talent identification and selection systems, and a need to expose athletes earlier to elite coaching and high performance systems.  The demands of elite sport have also grown, and the training, competition, and travel commitments of today's elite athletes present a significant barrier to achieving a high-quality high school education.  We recognized this several years ago as we began to place greater and greater emphasis on getting our older elite athletes enrolled in college.  Through the assistance we provide to our elite athletes to enroll them in college, we discovered an unacceptable number of college-aged athletes who did not have a high school diploma, did not have complete transcripts, and who had not studied in many years.

We also recognized that most successful sports, both in the U.S. and internationally, recognize that nothing kills development like talent dispersion.  Talents need to train with talents to maximize their development.  Most of our elite athletes say they want to train with athletes that are better than they are.  Training together with other top talents increases motivation and intensity.  It increases learning and skill development.  It enhances the support that athletes gain through their team.  And from an organizational perspective it enhances the efficiency with which an organization can deliver support to its elite athletes.

Each year when our new elite teams are announced, we run a "Rookie Camp" for all of the athletes joining the elite teams for the first time.  During the Rookie Camp, we also organize a parent orientation to familiarize them with our programs, and the resources available to their athletes.  Invariably, the parents are overwhelmed by the level of support offered to their sons and daughters.  But we also heard a common refrain from the parents of the high-school aged athletes – we're amazed by the opportunity available to our child and we want them to take full advantage of it, but she's still in high school, so what can we do?

The graduation of TEAM Academy's first class is a time to take stock in the program:

  • TEAM Academy was managed to be self-sustaining in its first year, through a mix of tuition, donations, and corporate partnership through DeVry and Sprint.
  • Through fulltime interaction with USSA's elite athlete system, the school was less distraction and more a means to facilitate better, more effective, and more efficient participation in USSA's high performance programs.
  • The students were not only successful athletically, they also achieved academically.  The graduating class achieved a combined GPA of 4.15 thanks to offerings of AP courses, the great work of the TEAM Academy staff, the flexibility and effectiveness that the school's leading-edge "blended model" offered, and of course the dedication of the student-athletes.
  • The athletes were all incredible ambassadors for the USSA and leaders within their teams, and they embodied the USSA Values.  And their local host families provided wonderful support and guidance to the athletes.
  • Although the TEAM Academy is primarily offered only to athletes that qualify for one of USSA's elite teams, a limited number of openings were made to non-team students.  These students attended classes with the elite team athletes, but were not provided with access to the USSA's training facilities or elite athlete programming, so as not to provide an avenue to pay their way into the elite teams – these athletes trained with their local clubs.  But they did bring a diverse and positive element to the classroom, which benefitted all of the students, and this element of the program will continue.
  • The TEAM Academy raised the bar for the local club academies, which focused on improving their own offerings for athletes throughout the development system.

All four TEAM Academy graduates have enrolled in college, taking advantage of the USSA's partnership with Westminster University, and starting to reverse the current norm of leaving college off the table for 8-10 years after high school while in the national team program.

And the athletic performance of the TEAM Academy athletes exceeded even their own expectations.  They achieved a World Championship medal, multiple World Cup victories, Junior World Championship medals, and numerous other international and national-level victories.

At least three other major NGBs are looking at the example of TEAM Academy, and are planning their own schools.

When the parents spoke at today's graduation, they made incredible statements about the program.  About how this program provided much-needed academic support.  About how their child would not have graduated high school without this program.  About how incredible an opportunity it was for their child to be immersed among the other elite athletes.  About the unbelievable athletic progression of their child.  About the incredible levels of funding provided to these athletes through the support offered to them.  And about the pride they have in their children for making the most of this opportunity.

And when the athletes rose to speak, they echoed many of the same sentiments, and also spoke of the support and flexibility offered by the program, the friendships they made and will maintain throughout their time with the national team, and their gratitude for being offered this unique opportunity.  It was certainly a day for us all to be proud.

-Luke Bodensteiner, EVP Athletics

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