The ski school churning out champions

The ski school churning out champions
Photo: Skigymnasium Stams
Many of the world's top skiers have walked its halls and at this year's Olympics, its alumni swept 12 medals - for nearly half a century the ski school in Stams, Austria has been producing champions like a factory.

The tiny village, set in a green Tyrolean valley below snowy peaks, launched the careers of top skiing names from Stephan Eberharter to Anita Wachter or Toni Innauer and more recently Gregor Schlierenzauer, Marlies Schild and Felix Gottwald.

Not just alpine skiers but budding ski jumpers, snowboarders, biathletes and cross country skiers now come here in the hope of emulating their idols.

But the road to glory is a tough one. Six-day weeks from the age of 14, a tough entrance exam and a tight schedule with six hours of class every morning followed by afternoon training – in the gym or on the slope – and more studying in the evening and weekend races. Attending this school is no walk in the park.

But for hungry youngsters dreaming of world titles and Olympic gold, it's nevertheless worth it.

"I'd rather train than go to school, that's why I'm here… It's a bit stressful sometimes, but it's part of it," ski jumper Johanna Haselwanter, 15, told AFP.

Stams also prepares them for the pressure they'll face later on. "(The level) is very high. You always have to give everything in races and in training, because there are so many who are just as strong as you," said alpine skier Pascal Fritz, 17, who hopes to make the Austrian ski team after he graduates this year.

"A lot is expected of these students. They have a really tight schedule, they have little free time when they're in school. But they learn to deal with it," said snowboarding coach Martin Krätschmer.

Photo: APA/Gindl

School vs. slope

In the dorm rooms – four boys or two girls to a room – boot bags and sports holdalls are piled high on top of cupboards and race suits hang from every available hook.

About 60 teachers and 27 trainers – many with links to the Austrian ski team – cater to the 170-180 students who spend four or five years here depending on whether they do a high school diploma or choose the business college (Handelsschule) option.

Stams is just one of five specialised ski schools in Austria, but it is one of the most successful.

"I think the recipe for our success is our consistency. The whole team is behind the programme, from the academic side and the sports side," said men's alpine ski coach Thomas Reiter, himself a former pupil.

In the winter, when students are busy training and racing – some already compete at FIS (International Ski Federation) or Europa Cup level – there are no school tests. Teachers then catch up at the end of the season, when competitions wind down.

Powerhouse of skiing

These days the school draws not just Austrians, but students from Italy, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, including in recent years World Cup skiers Sandro Viletta and Tina Weirather.

"They enrich the programme… we do look during the selection that they push our Austrian students and compete at the same level as them. They spur each other on," said Reiter.

Keegan Sharp, 17, chose Stams over the many top ski academies in North America, hoping to build on his skills with a stint in the "powerhouse nation of skiing", despite already finishing high school in Canada and now facing classes in German.

"Clearly, this school has been doing something right for a number of years… with all the great racers it's produced," said the Banff, Alberta native.

Enrolling here doesn't come cheap at €8,150 ($6,600) per year on top of pricey equipment – Sharp said he brought 10 pairs of skis with him along with boots, poles and race suits.

But it's still much less than it would be in other countries and many students have sponsors who provide equipment.

After all this, only one in ten graduates will become a competitive athlete. But it won't stop them from trying.

"It's a long road (to Olympic gold) but I have dreams, I have a goal, and I'm working hard," said Fritz. "If I don't get injured, it can definitely happen."

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