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Top competitors balance education and sport at Canada's only ski academy

The National Ski Academy is home to student athletes who balance demanding physical schedules with busy academic calendars to become national competitiors

It’s no secret that Collingwood is known as a ski destination, thanks to Blue Mountain and lake-effect flurries.

But a lesser-known fact is that Collingwood is also home to Canada’s only ski academy.

Established in 1986, the National Ski Academy (NSA) was founded by Jurg Gfeller with a dream of creating a facility that provides the necessary tools for young athletes to pursue their ski racing dreams. 

The NSA became an Ontario Ministry of Education inspected private school in 2009 and is now a registered charity and home to 25 student athletes from Ontario, Quebec, Europe and Asia, as well as a number of local day students who attend classes and dryland training at the academy.

“They stay here, learn here, eat here and train here,” said Tobin Walsh, head of school for the NSA. Walsh is a recreational skier, and is responsible for everything related to the facility, academics, kitchen, and maintenance, among others, at the academy.

The co-ed high school builds its curriculum around the athletes’ ski schedule, allowing them to get the majority of their credits during the spring and fall so they can focus on training and competing during the winter months. Instead of semesters, the school year is split into four “quads,” and only one subject is completed during quad three – the ski season. 

“Our kids spend 120 days on snow, but they miss zero classes,” said Walsh. “The whole academic timetable is arranged according to their athletic timetable.”

Tuition isn’t cheap — running between $45,000-$50,000 a year — but Walsh said it’s more than worth it.

The students spend the first six weeks of the school year training at their “home away from home” in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. They also participate in multiple training camps and competitions in Quebec and Maine, among others. The NSA also boasts its own Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Zak Bensdira, who cooks breakfast and dinner for boarders and a big lunch for the athletes, teachers, staff and coaches to share on weekdays.

While alpine ski racing is obviously a priority, the NSA doesn’t take education lightly. The academy prides itself on its personalized programs and solid post-secondary planning.

“The student athletes who really thrive here are interested in both high-performance athletics — alpine skiing, specifically — but are also focused on rigorous academics,” said Walsh.

For Walsh, becoming the head of school for the NSA was a bit of a dream job. She previously worked for Alpine Ski Club’s race crew for almost 17 years and was a teacher for almost 20.

“It’s a blending of two things I’m really passionate about, education and skiing,” she said.   

According to Walsh, balancing the two is no easy task. 

“The kids all work so hard,” said Walsh. “Our student athletes need to have executive functioning skills to be successful. Things like organization, time management, self-regulation, the ability to work independently. All of these things make for successful students but they also make for successful athletes.”

“Skiing becomes your life so you need to be passionate and you need to be committed,” continued Walsh. “It can be tough sometimes. But then there is a breakthrough moment when the kids do really well or secure a spot on the podium and it makes it all worthwhile. It’s being able to navigate those bad days and get past them that makes athletes successful.”

The school year is concluded with a big graduation and awards ceremony on the front lawn of the NSA building, where families, student athletes, coaches and teachers can all celebrate the year’s accomplishments.

And the Academy boasts some successful accomplishments itself. NSA alumni have gone on to become members of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team (CAST), sports journalists and olympians, with alumnis Roni Remme, Dave Duncan and Rudolpho Dickson (for Mexico) all competing in the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games.

And more than just a history of successful athletes, the NSA holds significant town history as well.

As you walk through the richly decorated halls, you can marvel at the extremely ornate woodwork and numerous fireplaces with carved mantels and ceramic tiles, feeling the history embedded in the walls.

Known as Tornaveen, the building dates back to 1892, when Frank Telfer built the building with the intention of creating the largest and tallest home in Collingwood.

Telfer was elected the youngest mayor of Collingwood in 1891 and served three terms. In 1924, the building was sold to the Gowan’s Home for Missionaries’ Children and remained as such until 1965. After remaining vacant for several years, Tornaveen was privately purchased and, following further renovations, was leased to Gfeller to create the NSA. The Academy officially bought the building in 1992.

Walsh also admires the noteble connection between Gfeller’s initial entrepreneurial spirit when he founded the academy 34 years ago, and the fact that Collingwood was recently named one of the top entrepreneurial cities in Canada.

Gfeller remains on staff as the U16 head coach.

“Collingwood is a great town, it offers so much for these students. They can walk to Georgian Bay in the spring and jump off the pier. Skiing on those crazy winter days when it's a snow or ice storm. That’s all the stuff that memories are made of when you’re an adolescent,” said Walsh.

Walsh, who’s held her position as the head of school for two years now, has plans to continue restoring the Tornaveen building in ways that will benefit both the preservation of Tornaveen’s history, as well as meet the academy’s needs. For now, she is happy to work in a community that offers so much for the student athletes it serves.

“It’s an incredible place, it really is,” says Walsh. “It’s so full of rich history and student athletes who are committed and hardworking. It’s exciting to see them achieve success in both academics and athletics.”

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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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