Wednesday, December 29, 2010

For the love of sport

Sun Valley as training ground for great things to come

Express Staff Writer

The Wood River Valley boasts many elite athletes who are fully committed to their sports and choose to live here to achieve their personal bests.

Three high school students, Nordic skier Max Christman, figure skater Shayna Moellenberg and alpine racer Petra Zeiler fit right into that picture.

New to the valley, each is working to achieve goals to compete on the national stage.

What separates Christman, Moellenberg and Zeiler from the other Type-A masses is that in the pursuit of their dreams, they left behind family, friends and familiar surroundings.

All are living here with host families, attending new schools and training relentlessly while trying to be normal teens.

The three athletes all reached impasses in their sports that forced drastic changes. The turning points for each athlete were different but their destinations ended up the same—Sun Valley, Idaho.

For instance, when 18-year-old Christman found that his closest competition in his hometown of Wenatchee, Wash. was his little brother, he knew he had outgrown his team.

"There wasn't that team atmosphere anymore," he said. "I spent the last year there basically training on my own."

Despite a great coach and close family life, Christman knew he needed to switch things up to compete at the level mandated by his talent.

He moved in with a local family at the end of last summer. Christman enrolled in 12th grade at The Community School and began to train six days a week with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation cross country team, led by 24-year program director and head coach Rick Kapala.

"I had always heard Rick Kapala's name and saw Sun Valley kids on the podium," Christman said. "I knew it was a powerhouse program."

Moellenberg, 16, also knew Sun Valley was a great place to train. She left her home in Phoenix, Ariz. to accomplish specific goals in the Gem State.

"A few years ago she was at the point where she needed her double axel to move into the next competitive level," said coach Lisa-Marie Allen, a former Olympic figure skater and professional choreographer. "She could no longer get what she needed at home."

Moellenberg started commuting to Sun Valley to train with Allen part-time and focus on her jumps. The collaboration proved so successful that family and coach decided the young skater should move here, live with Allen and train with the coach year-round.

Shayna Moellenberg

The move also allowed Moellenberg to enroll as a sophomore at The Community School and enjoy a normal high school experience, something that she had lacked while pursuing on-line studies at home.

Wood River High School junior Zeiler also came to Sun Valley to get what she could no longer get at home—a top-level alpine race program that didn't involve a three-hour commute.

A Santa Fe, N.M. native, Zeiler, 16, outgrew her local program a few years ago. Her only alternative was to ski with the team in Taos on the weekends: not an ideal training schedule for someone with big dreams.

When the opportunity arose to live with a family friend in the Wood River Valley, Zeiler needed some time to warm to the idea. Eventually she came to realize its merits.

"When our friends offered for me to come live with them and train with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation it didn't seem serious," said Zeiler. "But this is a really great program. I knew about it and how they turned out future Olympians."

She decided to try it.

Making the most of talent

No matter the specific reason these young athletes left their families and friends and moved to Sun Valley, they all share a passion, discipline and dedication to their sports.

Max Christman

They have talent.

Christman has been to Junior Nationals three times. His goal is to continue to ski during college, something he would like to attain through a scholarship to a NCAA program.

He also wouldn't turn down an opportunity to ski on a national level. Next week he is competing in Maine at Senior Nationals against all the top 18- and 19-year-old skiers in the country. At stake are berths in the Nordic World Championships and Junior Worlds.

"He's got a chance, he's in the fight," said Kapala of Christman's chances to meet his overall goals. "There's not a lot of margin for error at this level, though."

Moellenberg is the Northwest Regional champion and placed eighth at Sectionals, the competition that determines who will move up to Nationals.

Skating Nationals is Moellenberg's ultimate goal. If that doesn't happen, she would also like to be a show skater before she attends college: something she absolutely plans to do.

For Zeiler, it's still very early in the season, but Ruben Macaya, head of the alpine ski racing program at the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, sees a lot of potential in her.

"She's got all the ingredients," said Macaya. "I knew that with good training and a good racing schedule she would progress fast. She impressed me right off the bat. I saw how coachable she was. She has a good work ethic; she's got what it takes."

All three train up to six days a week, for several hours each day, a task that being in Sun Valley has made far easier than their former programs.


For the skiers, the appeal of having training facilities close to school and close to home just cannot be overstated.

"There is a weight room and lockers and it's so easy," Christman said of the Nordic team's training facility at Lake Creek north of Ketchum. "I can go up there and work out whenever I want."

For Zeiler, having a locker room is also a welcome change.

"In New Mexico we used to have to get dressed in the local lodge," she said. "Here we have an amazing training facility and locker room—even someone to help wax our skis. It's better than what I'm used to."

Macaya is certain Zeiler landed in the right place.

"In New Mexico she only had 15 starts the whole season. That's not nearly enough if you're serious about ski racing," he said. "The logistics for her were just too hard. Here, kids get out of school to train every single day. It's a very cohesive group, accepting of kids from other places. It's definitely a nice program to fall into."

For Moellenberg, the daily commute to the rink couldn't be easier—it's approximately two minutes from school and five minutes from home.

Aside from the nice facilities, training pluses and the convenience of getting to practices in minutes, each athlete's program is helping them attain their goals. And another big plus is they are contributing to the community.

"There are two things a kid like Max brings to the program," Kapala said. "He's a good athlete so he obviously raises the standard at practice. What's really special about him, as we had suspected, is he's an amazing, genuine and hardworking kid.

Petra Zeiler

"Max has got this steady, quiet work ethic for the sport. Every day what you get is a lot of hard work. He has a great sense of self-assuredness, but isn't at all brash."

Macaya and Allen spoke in similar terms about the work ethic, demeanor and diligence of both Zeiler and Moellenberg. Allen sees the discipline that allows Moellenberg to be such a dedicated skater cross boundaries into the rest of her life.

Allen said, "Once you're a skater, you have a mindset to obtain goals in all arenas."

Athletes this disciplined and motivated also set a great example for other children. All three know that younger athletes look up to them.

"I try to be really respectful on the ice and be as positive as I can," said Moellenberg, "I hope younger skaters get a little more educated on the sport and know what the sport is."

Coach Allen concurred.

"Having Shayna at the rink every afternoon shows other skaters the possibilities of what comes with hard work," Allen said. "It's a glimpse into what being competitive entails."

But it can be challenging—moving into a small town during high school, leaving established friendships and routines and coming to a community where many students have known each other since pre-school.

Christman left a school of 2,400 and plans to graduate next June with a class of 25 at the Sun Valley independent school.

"I was a little worried at first about having to wheedle my way into a small class of kids who have known each other their whole lives," he said.

But The Community School proved welcoming and flexible with his rigorous training schedule. Christman's teachers worked with him to ensure he could manage both his schoolwork and his races.

At home in Arizona, Moellenberg's on-line studies allowed her to skate between five and six hours a day. When she made the decision to come to train in Sun Valley, she wanted a traditional school experience.

"Shayna's parents told us she wanted to go to a real school," said Andy Jones-Wilkins, Head of School of The Community School. "She wanted to go to a prom or to a basketball game."

The school has worked well for her, academically and athletically. In the fall, she left one period early every day to skate, but also made the honor roll.

"The first few weeks of school were a little overwhelming," said Moellenberg with a laugh. "Most of the kids in my class had known each other forever. But I definitely like having real teachers—having that relationship with your teacher. There are lots of opinions in my class. It's great. I was getting worried that I wouldn't have a normal high school experience."

"We've been able to partner directly with the skiing and ice skating staff and coaches," said Jones-Wilkins. "We can communicate directly about exams, schedules, etc. It's a team effort."

According to Jones-Wilkins, it's an effort that is worth it. The Community School is so positive, in fact, about bringing student/athletes to the valley, they have announced a residential high school program, starting in the fall of 2011.

For Zeiler, the adjustment to Wood River High School and life in the valley was also a little overwhelming. She came from a school in Santa Fe with 3,000 kids, so the whole valley, as well as its 800-student high school, seemed small to her.

What made a huge difference for Zeiler, according to Macaya, was starting the school year in Hailey in September just like the other kids—instead of just coming in for ski season.

By the time the skiers were buckling their boots, Zeiler was already part of the team. She trained dryland with them and knew many of her teammates from class. Zeiler said she quickly grew comfortable with the new routine and came to especially love her new schedule that allows her to ski after school every day of the season.

Though all the athletes miss their families, they agree that the experience has been great.

"I've developed a lot more independence," said Moellenberg. "Missing my family was one of the things I was apprehensive about but I've been seeing them quite a bit."

She also calls home every night.

Zeiler especially misses her 13-year-old brother and finds it hard to visit family with her intense training schedule. She only had a four-day window during the holidays to go home before she needed to come back and train. However, she said, the experience is worth it.

Next time you're skate skiing at Lake Creek, carving turns on Baldy or circling the ice rink, you might see some new valley residents and national champs in the making.

As Don Wiseman, executive director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation summed up, "The kids coming in set a standard for our local kids that is unbelievable. It's a win-win for everyone."

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