Cutthroat Q&A: Ben Kanellitsas '13

Ben Kanellitsas ’13 joined Community School in kindergarten—the same time he started alpine skiing.  From that point on, he says, skiing was his focus. “I can’t remember a day that wasn’t completely consumed by ski racing or training. Pretty much everything I did was to get better at skiing—from biking in the off-season to playing soccer for Community School.”

In Middle School, Ben’s competitive life as a skier really escalated. He was training and competing at a high level and attending elite camps, with his sights set on making the US Ski Team or skiing for a NCAA D1 team. As an Upper School student at Community School, Ben was a member of Sun Valley Ski Academy, benefitting from academic support and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) programming. Here, Ben, now in his final year at University of Denver, describes his competitive journey and where his love for skiing has led him.

Q.  As a high school athlete, what did you most enjoy about skiing, competing, and the community of the SVSA program?

A. Now, almost four years removed from FIS racing and my time at SVSA and Community School, its tough to pinpoint exactly what I enjoyed most. The relationships I created with my teachers and my coaches over the years were incredibly impactful and unique; the discipline I learned as I balanced the rigors of school with the intense training program that SVSEF offered was also indispensable for my development. However, one thing that I miss the most—and what I probably will always remember as a highlight—is the network of friends and family I was able to create not only in the Wood River Valley, but across the nation and within the skiing community as a whole.

Waking up at 5 a.m. almost every day, putting on spandex, and skiing in subzero temps builds a communal and unbreakable bond between athletes. The friendships I built through my career as a racer are unparalleled. I can sit down with one of my FIS buddies today, four years removed, and start in right where we left off. Though the competition aspect of skiing is very individual, my drive was also fueled by those around me. I wanted to be a great skier not only because I was personally invested in it, but also because my best friends were on the same path. Too be honest, I took that for granted, and I only realized how lucky I was once I came to understand that it's not a common experience.

Q. What, if any, were the challenges you experienced as you managed competitive skiing and your academic load in high school?

A. Everyday was a challenge. I was committed to doing well in school because I knew that if I didn’t I couldn’t ski; maintaining grades was essential to keeping my place on the team. My teachers and coaches were incredibly understanding of that fact, and they provided support wherever they could. English teacher Phil Huss was especially supportive; he knew that I was determined to be a ski racer, and he went out of his way to make sure that I could succeed in both athletics and academics. Pilar Lindahl and Scott Runkel also both made it their priority to help me succeed. I still remember the day when Scott and I were biking to school from Hailey—it must have been in sixth or seventh grade—and discussing how I could compete at the highest level of skiing while also managing to achieve my academic goals. Without the understanding those faculty members provided, I would have been completely lost.

One unique aspect of SVSA that really came into play in my experience is the fact that, unlike other ski academies, Community School students participate in a full high school experience—challenging academics, extra curricular activities, team athletics, student government—at the same time as they engage in ski racing. When I sustained an injury and found myself unable to ski for a period of time, I served on the Student Senate and was involved in other activities.

I was actually plagued by several significant injuries in my racing career during my FIS years; so, after a relatively successful four years (despite injuries), I ultimately called it a career and enrolled at the University of Denver.

Q. What does your skiing life look like in college?

A. Here at DU, I have kept my racing passion alive and currently run and coach the university’s club alpine race team. This has been a blessing in disguise. Though I thrived off the competitiveness of elite FIS racing, being able to take a step back and spread my passion for the sport across a fun and less competitive landscape has been a highlight of my college career. I hope other young racers will understand that the NCAA D1 or the US Ski Team route aren’t the only avenue to continue racing post high school. The club team has been a great way to spread that mentality. At the end of the day, skiing is a lifelong journey that, for me, is far from over; I look forward to where it may take me in the future.

Q. What do you feel the lasting lessons of your SVSA experience will be for you?

A. I have always likened my skiing career to that of an entrepreneur. There isn’t a set path to success, and it takes a ton of creativity to pivot around the obstacles you’ll encounter. Every skier has their own goals and aspirations, and, because of that, each individual athlete needs to understand that their path to success will be riddled with continued triumphs and failures. Though I may not have understood this at the time, the SVSA experience gave me the ability to battle through adversity that many of my peers today just didn’t have. Learning how to be accountable was another important lesson I learned through SVSA. Being a person who a friend, a family member, a teacher, or a future employer can count on is something I take to heart. In order to be successful, whether its in school, skiing, or in my future career, I believe that it is absolutely essential to be accountable—both when I make mistakes and accountable when I succeed.

Learn more about Sun Valley Ski Academy here.

Photo: Ben, right, with fellow Community School alum Christopher Nalen.