At Westminster, students can cheer on their classmates as they watch the Olympics. From left: Matt Shaffer, Alyson Vander Steen, Adrienne Shaw, Brady Arnold and Martin Alder.
At Westminster, students can cheer on their classmates as they watch the Olympics. From left: Matt Shaffer, Alyson Vander Steen, Adrienne Shaw, Brady Arnold and Martin Alder. Jenny Brundin/KUER
At Westminster College in Salt Lake City, the Winter Olympics are more than just an evening's TV entertainment. The school has 14 students competing in Vancouver in events like freestyle aerials, skeleton and cross-country skiing.
Halfway through the games, the school has seen one of its athletes, Bryon Wilson, take a bronze medal in freestyle moguls and another medal is possible in aerials next week.
But why Westminster? For one thing, it's a school with a serious winter sports culture.
Scheduling Classes Around Skiing
On a recent Friday morning, snow is falling lightly on the Westminster College campus. Inside the student union cafeteria, a group of guys hurriedly slurps up the last of their breakfast cereal. Skis and snowboards are strewn about.
Within minutes, chemistry major Nick Consiglio and his friends are off to some of the best skiing in the world — just half an hour away.
Consiglio hails from Vermont, and his friends are also serious skiers from out of state. Brody Levin says he came to this small liberal arts college for a unique combination.
"You're able to get challenged academically, and head out to the mountain five days a week still," Levin says.
Many of the about 2,600 students on campus structure their classes to maximize their snow time. And professors understand that. A lot of them ski, too.
Love For The Olympians
That kind of fervor for the outdoors attracts snow athletes at the elite level as well. So far, Westminster is footing the bill to put 41 U.S. ski and snowboard team members through college, including more than a dozen on this year's Olympic team. That's not small change at a school where tuition runs $25,000 a year.
"It's a good opportunity for Westminster because we become really well known across the country, as opposed to just within Salt Lake," says Deb Vickery, who directs Westminster's academic advising center. "So, it kind of goes both ways."
Vickery has been called the athletes' mother hen. She works with them on everything from class schedules to counseling. She'll even text them when she learns they've won a race, or achieved a personal best.
Westminster students Greg Peterson (left) and Nick Consiglio grab a bite in the cafeteria before hitting the slopes.
Westminster students Greg Peterson (left) and Nick Consiglio grab a bite in the cafeteria before hitting the slopes. Jenny Brundin/KUER
Just before she headed up to Vancouver, Olympic aerialist and Westminster student Lacy Schnoor — blond braids flapping in the wind — got in a few jumps at a practice event, just half an hour away in Park City.
Athletes are drawn here because the 2002 Olympic practice site is also home to a $25 million training and sports science center. But Olympians like Schnoor say it's Westminster's flexibility that makes college — and training — possible.
"I'm a junior in college, and I've been a junior for about four years!" she says, laughing.
Like her Olympic colleagues, Schnoor, 24, basically goes to school when she's injured.
"You know, chipping away at that school. Slowly but surely I'll get there," Schnoor says.
If students need to miss a class, sometimes for six to eight weeks at a time, professors work with them. But there's no slacking: Athletes must keep up with reading and work, though most take classes only in summer and fall. Vickery says these athletes are a boon to the school; they're role models for other students — highly disciplined at balancing their sports careers and school. The Olympians' cumulative GPA is 3.63 and many have a 4.0.
"They don't settle for just being in class and just learning and listening," Vickery says. "They go beyond that and push themselves to do better."
Academic And Athletic Excellence
That attitude defines aerialist Ryan St. Onge. On the practice hill, it's dark now and most of the other skiers have left. But St. Onge stares at an iced ramp that shoots vertically into the night sky. The medals contender fiddles with the snow, pacing.
The minutia of aerial skiing can turn into an obsession. After a poor showing at the 2006 Winter Olympics, St. Onge enrolled in Westminster College as a way to free his mind.
"I felt I actually needed something to take my attention from freestyle," St. Onge says. "I eat, breathe and sleep freestyle skiing. You know last night while I was asleep, the only thing I was dreaming about was my landings."
When he can, St. Onge takes the fullest academic load possible, nailing a 4.0 average. Now, St. Onge is going for perfection again — this time for the gold. He competes in freestyle aerials on Monday.