AP Photo/Sean Kilpatrick
Shaun White, former homeschooler, celebrates his gold medal in the men's snowboard halfpipe in
Vancouver, B.C., at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

Olympic Student-Athletes: Balancing School and Sport

February 22, 2010 07:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
As you watch Olympians excel in Vancouver this winter, what you don’t see are the countless hours they spend training for their sports, and the struggle many undergo to balance Olympic dreams with their educations.

Technology, Parents Help Aspiring Olympians Train for School and Sport

For the Olympians in Vancouver, competing in the 2010 games is the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. 

Often when a parent or a coach recognizes rare Olympic-level talent in a child, extraordinary measures are taken to ensure that the child gets proper training to condition them for world-class competition. But a rigorous training schedule does not come without sacrifice, and for the majority of athletes it means forgoing traditional schooling methods to make more time for sports.

It is possible for some Olympians to complete high school among their peers, although even attending regular school is anything but ordinary for an elite athlete. Take U.S. figure skater Evan Lysacek. The 2010 gold medal winner managed to train for the Olympics and graduate from Neuqua Valley High School in Illinois, but he wasn’t exactly your average student. A 10-year-old profile of Lysacek from the Daily Herald noted that the then 14-year-old would attend regular classes in the morning, but leave school midday so that he could be at the skating rink by about 1:30 p.m. After practice he headed to more workouts, then back home for dinner and homework. Lysacek was quoted as saying then that school was “the only time in my life I have to be normal.”

For an elite skater, Lysacek’s schedule was not considered normal. Many exceptional young athletes train and school at special facilities or at home, and many do not live with their parents after a certain point so that they can get specialized training.

One such facility is the National Sports Academy (NSA) in Lake Placid, N.Y., a school and sports training facility that focuses on winter sports training. In 2009 Ceri Turner of Upper Arlington High School interviewed Mallory Fredericks, a student at the NSA, to get a feel for what schooling was like for a student in the Junior National Development Luge Team.  Fredericks explained that although most of her schoolwork at the NSA is done online, there are actual teachers and students taking classes from about 1 to 6 in the afternoon, but that the students’ primary focus is on training. Because the students must travel often for training and competition, teachers at the NSA use IM, podcasts and e-mail to keep the students on track academically.
While some students at elite prep schools or in special training programs are given scholarships for their tuition, it can get really expensive to have a child pursue Olympic dreams. Fredericks estimated that the tuition at the NSA was almost $30,000 annually for a live-in student. In a recent article, Tom Van Riper of Forbes estimated the costs of raising a winter Olympian as ranging from a few hundred dollars a year for curling training, to tens of thousands of dollars for students to attend sport-specific academies.

And homeschooling is an option for many kids with demanding training schedules and a dedicated parent or tutor. USA Today reported in 2005 on the growing trend to homeschool elite athletes, with reporter Sal Ruibal noting that athletes who are homeschooled have the flexibility to get adequate workout time, nutrition and rest—something a traditional school would not afford. Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff and 2010 snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White are among the Olympians who were homeschooled.

College and The Olympics: How Elite Athletes Pursue Higher Ed

For some Olympians, education does not stop once they’ve finished high school, despite extremely busy schedules. Westminster College in Salt Lake City pays for the schooling of 41 members of the U.S. ski and snowboard team, and this year 14 of them are competing in the winter Olympics, including freestyle mogul bronze medal winner Bryon Wilson, aerialist Lacy Schnoor, and aerialist Ryan St. Onge.

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