A rigorous training schedule comes with many sacrifices, and for many athletes this means forgoing either traditional post-secondary education or the pursuit of skiing. While there is increasing pressure on athletes to choose between the dual paths of higher education and HP skiing, education for the HP athlete does not have to stop after high school, however choosing both requires an adequate supportive network, a conscious decision by the athlete to find balance between the dual paths and sound self-discipline.
There are various approaches to these choices which vary with each individual athlete. This commentary profiles two women who placed a close fourth and fifth in the rankings at the U23 Championships trials in January 2015: Alannah MacLean and Kendra Murray. Both women are in their fourth year of full time studies at university. Both women have demonstrated high levels of motivation, commitment, resiliency, responsibility and passion for the sport in their pursuit of athletic and educational excellence.
Alannah MacLean is a fourth year honours student with a major in psychology and a minor in biology at Lakehead University. Alannah has been a member of the Thunder Bay NDC during this entire period. Upon leaving high school four years ago, Alannah described her choices between skiing and education, “Not going to school after high school was a very scary thought.” She decided to push through the apparent obstacles with the ambition of combining full-time post-secondary education and skiing.
Obstacle number one was that Alannah would have to give up academic scholarships and would not be able to access RESPs if she only went to school part-time. The second obstacle was for the NDC to accept her as a full-time student. In both Lakehead and the Thunder-Bay NDC, Alannah found the support systems she needed. Lakehead was very flexible with considerable experience in varsity programs and were familiar with the skiing requirements and associated lifestyle. They were open to flexibility to accommodate travel schedules and working with proctors within the sport for writing exams on the road. The Thunder Bay NDC decided to broaden its flexibility to allow Alannah to study full-time. The NDC created a Board Liaison with the University – a proponent for the athletes who wrote letters for each athlete to the professors outlining each individual athlete’s training and race schedule needs. The Board allowed the Head Coach to take time during trips to proctor exams, a significant commitment which could be up from 9-15 hours in a given race week.
Alannah’s decision to pursue full-time education and skiing has been anchored in exceptional self-discipline and time management. Alannah lives close to the University which givens her quick access to her studies. For the most part, she has chosen her classes so that she can train with the NDC in the mornings. She works part-time and has taken some courses in the summer. It is normal for her to do 75% of her course load in a hotel or coffee shop.
Kendra Murray is a fourth year honours student with a major in law and legal studies at Carleton University. After high school, when faced with the decision between skiing and education, Kendra explained, “I couldn’t imagine one without the other.” Kendra has a unique perspective on finding the balance between skiing and education; she describes the two pursuits as complementing each other. Kendra feels that these two quests provide a significant amount of needed structure in this period of her life, while providing significant purpose and order to what she is doing. Kendra does highlight that the first year at university is somewhat more daunting in this respect until you get settled into the routines of university life, however the support of older athletes that had gone through the same transition was more than enough to aid the adjustment to university and skiing life.
Kendra’s support systems include the Carleton varsity ski team, the Whitehorse ski club/Yukon ski team, Carleton University and some personal coaching. The Carleton varsity ski team is a network of skiers from various clubs with the local clubs of Nakkertok and XC Ottawa being the prime contributors. The varsity program supports three race events per year with a highlight over the last couple of years being able to race in NCAA races in Maine. Additionally the varsity program awards athletic bursaries and provides athletic therapy. The Carleton Ski Team also is a key part of social connections in Kendra’s university life. For other races such as National Championships, Kendra relies on the Whitehorse/Yukon ski Team for support. Along with support from the Whitehorse/Yukon Ski Team, Pavlina Sudrich has been writing Kendra’s training plan this year; this has been done in collaboration with the Carleton training schedule. Kendra returns to work and train in Whitehorse in the summers.
Kendra attributes the Whitehorse club with instilling a lot of self-discipline in making choices about personal investment in skiing. Kendra skis because she loves it, and is therefore willing to invest in the time required to be a HP skier.
Kendra biggest obstacle has been the difficulty in being able to participate in more high level races. Kendra has witnessed a growth in university level skiing over the last four years; this level of growth would be enhanced by increasing flexibility to write exams at different times and locations while travelling enabling greater participation in high level races. Carleton is currently changing their process for athletes requiring flexibility in meeting excellence in sport; however, certain professors can still be quite challenging to deal with when requiring special circumstances
Both women plan on continuing to ski race next year with the goal of qualifying for Canada’s Under 23 World Championship team. Both women are advocates for seeking to improve athlete retention in our sport through increased access to flexible support systems that help skiers graduating from high school to find the balance they need in negotiating these dual paths.