Canada’s teenaged athletes go to high school in an Olympic setting

CALGARY – School is in and some of Canada’s future Olympians have a new schoolhouse. The National Sport School produced Olympic champion gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, hockey players Jennifer Botterill and Carla MacLeod, and bobsleigh driver Kaillie Humphries. Twenty-one current or former students competed at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

After years of sharing accommodation with traditional high schools in the city, NSS students now have their own dedicated space at Canada’s first sport institute nearing completion at Canada Olympic Park.

Ski jumper and Grade 12 student Charlotte Mitchell can now attend social class and be at the top of the ski jumps at COP within minutes. “It’s pretty much essential to be here,” Mitchell said on the first day of classes Tuesday. “I don’t have to drive three hours every day to get to training and school. “We can focus and train and it’s a few steps a way to come to school, so it’s really helpful.”
The school caters to the training and travel schedules of its 150 students from Grades 9 to 12. They’re often not in class for weeks at a time because of competitions and training camps.

The students must achieve provincial standards to graduate like any other high school student. That’s a challenge when they are on the road and often physically exhausted.

The NSS was established in 1994 by the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Olympic Development Association, now WinSport Canada. A study conducted then showed that almost 50 per cent of athletically-gifted teens either dropped out of school or quit their sport.

NSS teachers work with students online while they’re away. The instructors put in one-one-time with the athletes when they return to get them caught up academically. “Our teachers were hired here because they’re flexible instructors and they’re able to personalize learning for students,” acting principal Joanne Adomeit said. “Many families bring their students here because they’re having trouble combining school and sport.”

Most of the students are from Alberta with a few from out of the province. An athlete who wants to attend the NSS applies to WinSport, which in turn gets approval from the athlete’s provincial or national sport federation. The school’s annual fee is $4,000 per student and WinSport offers scholarships to help pay for it.

The teenagers at NSS are driven for success in sport and also tend to be high achievers academically. Despite their untraditional learning environment, Adomeit says almost all students graduate and their grades are higher than the provincial average.

Shewfelt won the Grade 10 English award, but didn’t graduate from high school until he was 22. He took a year and a half off from school to devote more time to training. Shewfelt won gold with his floor routine at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. “The school allowed me to take that time,” Shewfelt said. “I wouldn’t have been able to survive the high school experience if I was in a normal school environment. “I feel there wouldn’t have been enough support for me and my athletic dream. Most schools wouldn’t have been there for me the way the sports school was.”

The National Sport School is on the first floor of an office tower at COP and consists of a common area surrounded by classrooms. Large murals on the wall depicting former students in their Olympic glory indicate the student body is unique. The new Hockey Canada headquarters will be installed on the second floor above the school next month.

The location of the new school is what will impact its students the most. The sports institute under construction at COP is the first of its kind in Canada. There are currently seven sport centres across the country. The centres administrate programs and services to athletes, but they don’t provide a single, physical place for them to ply their trade.

The Canadian Sport Institute is a three-phase, $220-million sports hub for both Olympians and the public. Canada’s institute is designed to resemble the United States Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.

The first phase is three NHL-sized rinks which have been operating since last December. The second phase, which is the office tower and a 3,500-seat, Olympic-sized arena, will be operational in the next few weeks. The tower will also house Alpine Canada, as well as medical and sport science personnel.

The third and final phase is a high performance and public training centre that will include a running track, skating simulator, shooting galleries, lounges, kitchen and conference space. The third phase’s exterior is up, but the interior has yet to be installed. The official opening of Phase 3 is scheduled for December, 2012.

The federal and provincial governments and the City of Calgary are providing $130 million towards the institute. WinSport Canada, which oversees the legacy and investments from the 1988 Olympics, is contributing more than $60 million and raising $30 million from the corporate community.

WinSport is about to launch a “Find Your Seat” campaign, in which individuals and companies can sponsor a seat — have their name on it — in the Olympic-sized arena for five years for $5,000. Money raised will go towards completing the third phase.

The sport institute will work in concert with other existing facilities at COP, many of them built for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The ice house where sliders practice their starts in summer was built after those Games and is situated next to the shell of the high performance and public training centre. Across the parking lot from the office tower is the new Canadian Sports Hall of Fame which opened in June.

The sliding track, ski hill and ski jumps were all Olympic venues in 1988 are used heavily by the skiers, sliders and snowboarders who attend the National Sport School. The Bob Niven Training Centre across the parking lot from the institute is currently where many of them do their dryland training and receive physiotherapy and massage. “I already spend an obscene amount of time here at COP,” luger Laura Glover said. “The fact that NSS is here at COP, for me will help me immensely. The fact I can go to chemistry and walk over to Bob Niven will be unbelievable.”