Lessons on the Slopes With the Sun Valley Ski Academy

Photo Credit: Caroline Woodham Photography

Snowsport athletes know this competitive season is going to look and feel a bit different, but they're ready to take on the challenge. Student athletes at SVSA (Sun Valley Community School’s partnership with Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) are nimble. Adapting to change (changes in snow conditions, changes in terrain, changes in weather, changes in equipment) is an essential skill for all snowsport competitors around the globe. And, as in all things in this COVID world, the exact nature of the changes that SVSA is facing for this season are still unknown. Instead of expressing fear or worry, SVSA Program Director and two-time Olympian, Jonna Mendes expressed her willingness and enthusiasm to adapt.

Jonna recognizes that there are sure to be cancellations and disappointment in the upcoming season, but said that the program is proactively working to mitigate risk for student-athletes. By staggering team practice start times and moving the normal indoor conditioning to outdoors, Jonna and her team are doing their best to make SVSA gatherings as COVID-smart as possible. 

Jonna knows that SVSA participants will respond well to anything that this unique season throws at them. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, our student-athletes have been incredibly resilient and flexible. And they are also grateful to be back in school.” Jonna says. That attitude translates to the ski hill, too. While students know and acknowledge that school and sports are different this year, they continue to express gratitude for every opportunity for in-person activities. Jonna adds that the pandemic and our need to evolve our responses to it is a constant learning opportunity. “The realities of this pandemic require us to be more flexible than we ever have been before,” she says.  

Minea Hamalainen, an alpine skier with Sun Valley Ski Academy (SVSA) and new student at Sun Valley Community School, echoes Jonna’s sentiment. “The pandemic has affected training this season, but I have been just trying to focus on what I can do and get the most out of the training we have.” When asked about her favorite part of SVSA, Minea remains positive, saying, “My favorite part is definitely that I get out of school by noon (because my classes are schedule for the morning) during the season and the sun is shining and I know I’ll be on the mountain skiing in great conditions in half an hour.” At the end of the day, Minea and her teammates just look forward to spending time on the mountain and becoming better skiers.

Now is the time for optimism and flexibility, which is just what SVSA and other Community School sports’ teams instill in their participants. The lessons learned on the mountain, on the field, or on the court can all be applied to daily life during the pandemic. Even in the past few months, Sun Valley Community School students have displayed incredible resilience in the face of challenges and uncertainty. Jonna sees it too. “I’m already incredibly proud of how we have all adapted [... and] what we’ve been able to do so far.” 

Ridge Dirksmeier, a freeskier on the team, reflected on his personal challenges during this time and the changes that the school successfully implemented. He wasn’t able to train in a gym or with friends like usual, but he did adopt a dog, take lots of runs and bike rides, and think about his accomplishments over the off-season. “The pandemic has definitely made this year a weird one so far, but I'm just thankful for everything that the school has done to make this year work as well as it has. All of the faculty have put so much work and time into making this year normal for us. I really can't thank them enough for their efforts.” Those efforts paid off, as Ridge, Minea, and other SVSA skiers are already off to a great season with the strong support of the SVCS community.

With cautious optimism, Jonna says, “I’m actually looking forward to the unknown ahead of us and how we can work together and ensure that our student athletes are getting the best possible opportunities, academically and athletically, even in these trying times.”