By Zach Despart
LINCOLN — This time of year, most high school seniors are busy setting goals for the future: what college they hope to attend, which career they hope to pursue, what they want to accomplish before leaving home for good.
Sarah Jane Grundon — known to everyone but her parents as SJ — has a goal more ambitious than most. She wants to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics as a freestyle skier.
Seventeen now, she first clipped into bindings at age eight — much later than most Olympic hopefuls — but has since fallen in love with the sport. She now competes on an international level, and trains 12 months a year.
“At this point I’m competing against the top 20 women in Canada, Japan, Australia and the U.S., and it’s invite-only,” Grundon said. “It’s an honor to be at that level.”
That training, which includes travel, lodging, competition fees, coaches and equipment, can easily top $25,000. So this year, Grundon has created an online fundraising campaign to help cover part the cost.
Grundon has been in quite a few places in her short life. She was born in New York City, then her family moved to Mississippi, then back to New York, and finally to Lincoln nine years ago. She made her first turns at Mad River Glen and then moved to Sugarbush at age 12 when she decided to pursue freestyle.
She said she was drawn to the multidisciplinary aspect of freestyle skiing, which requires skiers to have a diverse set of skills.
Freestyle skiing is a relatively new discipline, which combines moguls, ski cross, half-pipe and slopestyle aerials. It first appeared in the Winter Olympics as a medal event in 1992.
“Racing never appealed to me for some reason,” Grundon said. “I like the jumping and catching air and going big; stuff like that.”
She said freestyle offers the opportunity (well, necessity) to improve in a number of different areas.
“With racing, the only thing you can do is go faster,” she explained. “But with moguls, you can do a higher degree of difficulty or you can go faster or do tricks. Your technique has to look a certain way.”
While many Vermonters would agree that Mad River Glen and Sugarbush are great mountains on which to develop as a skier, students who wish to compete at elite levels must seek training elsewhere.
Grundon’s education has taken her to both sides of the Continental Divide and to Canada.
For the spring semester last year, she attended the Carrabassett Valley Academy, a ski school in Maine. She said she learned a lot there, but it was just too expensive to continue for another year, even with the scholarship she received.
“The school itself costs $45,000 a year to go, so almost as much as college,” she said.
So now, she’s spending the fall semester at Mount Abraham Union High School, where she intends to graduate next June. She also juggles a part-time job at the Bristol Bakery. But from December to March, she’ll train in Squaw Valley, a resort in California near Lake Tahoe.
Grundon won’t be playing hooky though — Mount Abe will send her coursework to complete, just as if she were in school. She praised teachers and administrators for accommodating her travels.
“Mount Abe has been very supportive in helping me bring my schoolwork to Squaw,” she said.
“I was really excited to be back here at Mount Abe this year, graduating with the class I’d been with since 7th grade,” Grundon said, adding that she is glad to be able to attend the prom.
As a senior, Grundon has sent applications to several universities, but she’s unsure how to balance going to college with ski training. She said some of her teammates have suggested taking a gap year before college, but Grundon said she’s leaning toward a schedule that allows her to dedicate winters to skiing.
Just because it only snows six months out of the year doesn’t mean that Grundon’s training is part time.
“Once ski season ends, I’m pretty much straight into the gym every single day,” she said.
She also trains at a special ski center in Waterville, N.H. She likes it there because the facility has a bag jump (that thing stunt doubles fall into on movie sets, she explained) that allows her to practice new tricks without fear of injury.
Grundon has also traveled to Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, to practice. The mountain may sound familiar; it was the ski venue for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in nearby Vancouver.
While the Olympics are her ultimate goal, Grundon said her best shot to make the national team is years away. She’d like to have a shot at the 2018 Games, but more realistically looks toward 2022. That’s because, she said, freestyle skiers don’t typically peak until their late 20s.
So how does a teenager focus on a goal that’s so far in the future? By focusing on small steps that will help her along the way.
“You have small stepping stones to achieve that big goal,” Grundon said. “I might make it, or I may not. I really try to focus on the small goals.”
Each season, Grundon sets new goals for herself, such as to improve her technique or master a new aerial trick.
Some of the stepping stones include U.S. Junior Nationals, U.S. Nationals and NorAms, international ski competitions only open to the top athletes in North America (with some spots reserved for overseas competitors). They are held across the Northern Hemisphere’s ski season, from December to March.
Those big events are held over an entire week, while smaller, regional contests are held on weekends. Competitors collect points at each of the events, which are used to calculate who earns a spot on the U.S. Ski Team (it’s called earning your jacket, Grundon said).
She said competition was fierce between athletes at lower levels, but not so much now that Grundon competes with the cream of the crop.
“With the level I’m at now, there’s a select few of us, so we’re all friends with each other,” Grundon said. “But when we’re at the top, we’re competitive.”
She said in the moments before a competition begins, some skiers try to intimidate each other.
“I’ve had girls growl or bark at me,” Grundon said. “I think that’s the weirdest. Sometimes I’ll hit the gate with my skis to intimidate them a little. But I’ve never barked at anyone.”
Grundon credits her family’s support as invaluable to her success. While it was her idea to pursue skiing competitively, she said her parents, Holly and Bryan, have always backed (and bankrolled) her training.
“My parents have been supportive through the whole process,” she said. “They’ll do anything to help me succeed.”
Her father initially served as her coach, though he stepped away from the role as Grundon rose through the ranks.
She has a younger sister, Carlyle, who is also athletic, but in a different way.
“There are a lot of siblings in the mogul skiing community, but we didn’t want to be doing the same thing,” Grundon said. “She competes in mountain biking.”
But while her parents give her all the support they can, Grundon said this year she needs more help to fund her skiing education.
“In the past my parents have fully funded (training), but this year they just couldn’t because of the cost of school last year,” Grundon said.
So, she created a campaign through the crowdfunding website rallyme.com, a website dedicated to raising money for athletes. She hopes to raise $7,200, and has received almost $2,000 so far, from 12 donors. Both individuals and businesses can sponsor her.
If she succeeds, she’ll be able to train at the top facilities in North America, which will give her the best chance to accomplish her dream of making the national team. Though the prospect is years and thousands of hours of training away, Grundon is excited just talking about it.
Asked what fuels her passion for skiing, Grundon said it is hard to describe because it is so close to her identity as a person.
“I’m in the gate about to compete, and I’m nervous and my heart beats really fast but at the same time it’s relaxing,” Grundon said. “It’s all these emotions at once, but it feels normal to me because I’m so used to it.”
She said there is no better feeling than the satisfaction of completing a perfect run.
“It’s the most amazing feeling of accomplishment ever,” she said. “It just makes me feel happy.”