Olympians’ college quest: It may take 12 years, but they get it done – creatively

Alex Deibold is a 31-year-old college freshman who has spent far more time snowboarding than studying.

But that’s not because he’s a slacker.

Mr. Deibold is an Olympic bronze medalist. And he’s gunning for another Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month.

Like many elite athletes, his intense training schedule makes it difficult to pursue a traditional education. But Deibold and other American Olympians have harnessed the determination, perseverance, and innovation that makes them great at their sports to get an education along the way – it just doesn’t always happen in a classroom. Because of their unique path, they often bring more to their classwork than your average college student.

“I have a 4.0 GPA because I’ve been around the world and I’ve worked crummy jobs,” says Deibold, who worked as a door-to-door roof salesman after he missed the 2010 Olympic team, and experienced homeowners slamming the door in his face or screaming at him to get off their property. “I’m going to dedicate myself to the opportunities that are put in front of me – instead of being like, ‘I gotta go to class, or I don’t want to do that paper’ … now I have this perspective and it’s going to help me grind harder.” 

Traditionally, athletes have competed for one or maybe two Olympic cycles before getting on with “real life.” But as Olympic sporting careers increasingly span three or four or even five Games, athletes and teams are recognizing the value of developing the whole person.

“The shift has been palpable even in the four years I’ve been here,” says Julie Glusker, head of athlete career and education for US Ski & Snowboard in Park City, Utah. Her office overlooks a huge gym where Olympians are working out and abuts a study hall where they can work on academics in-between training sessions. “It went from, ‘Don’t bother the coaches about school’ to now, a coach comes to me and says, ‘Hey, how is so-and-so doing in this class?’ ”

For teams, who invest millions of dollars in developing young athletes, offering education and career advancement opportunities can help them keep medalists and rising stars far longer than they used to. For athletes, academics bring perspective beyond their competition goals, and a springboard for a post-competition career once they retire. 

“I think it’s super intimidating if you’ve been an athlete for awhile and all of a sudden you’re cutting off sport to go to school,” says Ms. Glusker. “I’ve had several say that being able to go to school has made them less concerned about retirement because they know there will be a good place to land.”

A boon for parents

More than five dozen US Ski & Snowboard athletes received tuition reimbursement in the past year, according to Glusker, including nearly half the aerials team and almost a third of the alpine team. Their mean GPA was 3.69. In addition, Westminster College, a liberal arts school in Salt Lake City, provides 600 credit hours – worth roughly $800,000 – free of charge to A and B Team members. Last year, 39 such athletes were enrolled.

For parents of young athletes, such educational opportunities can help ease the decision of forgoing a traditional collegiate experience.

“If mom and dad are making a decision at age 14 – does Johnny go on the college path or the US Ski Team path? – we want them to choose the Ski Team path, and know there’s college with it,” says Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for US Ski & Snowboard.

“The minute I made the team, my mother and father were very excited because it was essentially a college commitment, too,” says freestyle skier Morgan Schild, who notes that the free tuition is available to athletes for a couple of years post-retirement. “I told them I would do at least two years while I was on the team so that by the time I retire I can still finish fully supported by a scholarship.”

As it turned out, Ms. Schild was injured and unable to compete for 22 months, so she actually lived in the dorms freshman year and got a jumpstart on her education. Most of her classmates didn’t even know about her skiing prowess – until they attended a World Cup moguls competition in Deer Valley, Utah, a year ago and saw her win gold. 

“It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I do for a living actually,’ ” she says. “They thought it was the coolest thing in the world.” 

Ashley Caldwell, the 2017 women’s aerials skiing world champion from the United States, soars through the air during jump training in Saas-Fee, Switzerland on Oct. 17, 2017, ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

John Leicester/AP

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Weak Wi-Fi in European hamlets 

When gymnast Ashley Caldwell watched the 2006 Winter Olympics on TV and saw US aerials skier Jeret Peterson land his crazy-hard “Hurricane” jump, she thought, “I can do that.” The only problem: she lived in Virginia.

So at 14, she moved north to train on snow. Working diligently through an online program, including during the summers, she finished high school in two years. Then she did a four-year college degree in three years through New York’s SUNY Empire State College. 

“You know, traveling the world – we do a lot of stuff, but you’re also on the plane for 12 hours at a time. You can get a lot done in 12 hours on a plane,” says Ms. Caldwell. “I just brought my textbooks with me and I made it a priority and I just got it done.”

But as athletes advance and begin spending weeks or months on the road in Europe, often in small alpine towns, finding good internet connections can be hard. 

Erin Hamlin, America’s best-ever female luger, also enrolled in SUNY Empire, earning a two-year online degree after graduating from high school in 2004. But it took a long time to chip away at her bachelor’s degree through DeVry University, an online, for-profit university which has committed to $13.5 million in scholarship support for Team USA through 2020.

A couple of Ms. Hamlin’s teammates were also pursuing an online degree – but their efforts to study were sometimes thwarted by other teammates who would bog down the weak Wi-Fi networks.

“We would get so mad if other teammates were playing games online, or downloading movies, or something,” says Hamlin, a four-time medalist at World Championships, and the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in luge. “We’re like, ‘We just really need to submit a paper here. Can you PLEASE get off the internet?’ ” 

Hamlin, who has ranked in the top-10 on the World Cup luge circuit for nearly a dozen years, persevered and finally got her bachelor’s degree in 2016.

Another kind of education

Having a degree in their pocket when they leave competition helps ease a transition that some athletes find difficult – being the best in the world at something, and then having to start from virtually zero in a new profession. 

But other athletes point out that competing at an Olympic level is an education in itself, from the cultures you encounter to the entrepreneurial skills you acquire as a one-person business. 

“We’re our own brands, we have to get sponsors, we have to work on promoting ourselves,” says Joss Christensen, the reigning Olympic champion in slopestyle skiing, who has taken classes at Westminster. “That’s a huge part – I run two other businesses, I run a website and an app company with my friends…. And it’s just all these experiences that you have to learn hands-on that I don’t think I would have been taught in school.”

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