With all the riding excitement of the Burton Global Open Series, we at MINI Space got to asking ourselves: What does it really take to go pro? Then, realizing rather quickly that no one on the team has ever actually attempted a Cab 720 in a superpipe, we thought it might be better to go straight to the source for that kind of question. To kick off our on-the-ground coverage of the Burton European Open in Laax, Switzerland, we put the question to Burton Rider, Olympic Gold Medalist, and MINI Countryman driver Kelly Clark, along with some folks from her unique alma mater — Mount Snow Academy — located in the quaint New England village of Dover, Vermont.
For most of us, “High School” means clanging metal lockers, noxious fumes drifting from the cafeteria, and the droning lectures of an anemic economics teacher.
But not everyone trudges through these same four years. The classroom of superstar athelete Kelly Clark involved zipping into snow gear, listening to the steady whir of a chairlift, and relishing in the blissful silence and fleeting weightlessness of catching big air. The only similarity most of us probably share with the kids at her primary proving ground — Mount Snow Academy — is the eternal wish for a snow day. At this tiny school, tucked away in quiet hills, several generations of students have honed their strengths on and off the slope over the past several decades — with proven results.
One might assume that having an Olympic Gold Medal in your box of bling might inflate your ego, but Kelly is super chill and very down to earth. She attributes much of her focus to the rigorous training at Mount Snow Academy, but also says the small town virtues and family-based atmosphere gave her a lot of great support and encouragement.
“For me the best thing about MSA was the one-on-one teaching,” Kelly told us. “It suited my learning style and really helped me accomplish my academics so I could pour everything I had into my snowboarding.” In the words of the Mount Snow Academy director Lynne Sullivan, “It’s a real community. We’re in the business of raising the whole person, not just athletes.”
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Mount Snow students in action.
Lynne is the educational director every parent dreams of. She’s been the captain of the MSA ship for the past 30 years, beginning shortly after the school’s founding in 1978. In addition to Kelly Clark, several other MSA alums are getting serious attention right now, including freeskiiers Devin Logan and Parker White, and riders Dillon Wilson and DJ Torroni — some of whom are also looking for a berth in the 2014 Olympics. As if this all-star roster of former students weren't impressive enough, Lynne has also raised eight kids — seven of them boys. And yet, when asked what her greatest victory is, she said without a moment’s hesitation, “Well I don’t mean to sound ‘schmutzy,’ but honestly? Every single student is a victory for me. We’ve produced some wonderful riders, but at MSA we feel it’s our job to raise the whole person. Some of our students become doctors or lawyers. Some go pro on the mountain. We make it a point to teach our kids how to become the best ‘you’ above anything else. And if the Olympic podium is your goal, we can help you get there, too.”
Head Snowboarding Coach Steve Kwasniewski ("Kwas")
And when Lynne mentions her school’s dedication to subject matter beyond the slopes, she isn’t kidding around. MSA employs top-notch teachers, most coming from Ivy League schools, highly involved in their fields.
The notion of developing the whole person is a philosophy practiced by the teachers, students, alums, and coaches. Kelly's old coach Steve Kwasniewski — or ‘Kwas' as they call him on the mountain — definitely confirmed this feeling, saying, "Believe it or not, it's really not so important that a kid arrives at MSA with a lot of skill. My ideal student isn't necessarily the best rider. A kid needs to be coachable and eager to learn more than anything. They need to be stoked that they're here and they need to want to get up early and work hard all day. Developing skills comes after that."
Kelly explained to us that what you do with that skill and ambition and how you define your victories is ultimately up to you. "When I saw the ‘98 Olympics I decided that this was for me. I watched it at MSA on a VHS tape and at that moment I thought to myself — That is what I want to do." Her career has been filled with achievements ever since. Over the past year and a half alone she's racked up a whopping 15 titles around the globe and most notably in 2002 climbed to the top of an Olympic podium — a moment she said was, "extremely hard to describe... just overwhelming." Yet when asked directly what her greatest victory was, she gave a surprising answer:
"I have had many different victories during my career. I think the two Olympic medals have meant the most to me... But the (Bronze) in Vancouver I am particularly proud of, as it took a lot of courage to pursue my Olympic dreams again after a 4th place finish in ‘06. I often find value for things based on how much they cost me."
An outlook Kwas and Lynne would certainly admire. We may not have have learned how to do a McTwist from our investigation into what it takes to make it in the big leagues on the mountain, but it was a bit humbling to learn that a lot of the things that go into making a successful rider are the same attributes of dedication and focus that we all strive toward in any of our chosen professions.
We're super stoked to be reporting live from LAAX, Switzerland at the Burton European Open in the presence of so much amazing talent and we'll be keeping you up to date on the latest and greatest accomplishments of these superpipe and slopestyle masters. To send you all off on good vibes, we'll leave you with some Olympic inspiration from Kelly:
Kelly Clark, 1st Place at the Burton European Open in 2011
"Keep it fun. Figure out who you are — apart from what you do. If you get your self-worth and identity from one thing you will have many ups and downs. How you perform will determine how you feel. Worry too much and you'll lose the fun in things.
Find out what you value. Determine first who your are as a person. Then apply that to your passion."
Clearly, Kelly took the Mount Snow Academy spirit to heart. Those are some words we can definitely throw our support behind, and we'll be reporting on Kelly and the whole Burton European Open in the days to come.