Westminster aids Olympic hopefuls
It's a program that is almost too good to be true.
Westminster College offers any current member of the A, B or C U.S. Ski or Snowboard teams a free education. Anyone who skis or snowboards, and can keep a respectable grade-point average, is in.
More than 30 athletes participate in the USSA Tuition Grant Program. Full-time undergraduate tuition fees at Westminster equal nearly $25,000.
The future and current Olympians, including aerialist Lacy Schnoor, have taken advantage of the school's altruistic nature to fit schooling and athletics together. It's the only program like it in the nation.
"We like the idea of someone in a U.S. Ski team T-shirt who kicks ass in school," said United States Ski and Snowboard Association director of athlete services Dion Agee.
So, Westminster, which gives more than $40 million in financial aid each year, gets something, too.
"There are other Westminsters around the country," said academic adviser Deb Vickery, director of Westminster's START Center. "Really, what this has given us is a lot of exposure around the country. We can actually broaden our student population, and that has occurred."
Westminster has not sacrificed its educational standards. The 37 grant students, including more than a third of the freestyle ski team, have a collective GPA of 3.648. Vickery has never had to remind an athlete about his or her studies.
"We have a couple 4.0's," Vickery said. "It's a big expense, but we think it is worthwhile. We realize these athletes are very structured. As a small school, we're able to work with the students. They are not lost in the system."
Flexibility is important. Athletes, such as mogul skier Jay Bowman-Kirigin, study during the summer, spring and fall. Once the snow flies, many of Westminster's 37 world-class winter athletes head to all areas of the global map.
While competing in Chile, Bowman-Kirigin contacted a Westminster professor through an online phone service.
"Training camps usually interfere with the first week of school," he said. "I had to ask what I needed to do to be caught up."
Bowman-Kirigin, a mogul competitor, is one of a handful of athletes who have retired or are out of action due to injury. Bowman-Kirigin, who had four top-15 finishes in the World Cup in 2007, suffered a severe concussion. He remains on the program.
The former East High School athlete's father brought Westminster to his attention.
"I hadn't considered Westminster because of the price," he said. "My dad knew I was heading in the direction of the U.S. Ski team."
Bowman-Kirigin is nearly done with his chemistry major, but is also working toward a degree in physics. The grant helps.
The program also has benefitted Avery Ardovino, a ski jumper nursing a knee injury. The freshman from Park City was used to studying away from school.
"All through three years of high school, I was there in class maybe a year and a half," she said. "The rest of the time I was e-mailing teachers and taking online courses."
Agee agrees that the partnership is almost too good to be true. But Agee also understands how the business of marketing can coexist with educational vision.
"We find that people who truly believe in educating our youth are generous," he said. "The benefit to us is to offer academic solutions for athletes."
» Westminster College in Salt Lake City offers full-tuition scholarships to U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association athletes.
» The school's tuition is about $25,000 a year; books, other materials aren't covered.
» Thirty-seven current and former members of the U.S. Ski team participate in the grant program.