Early Tracks

A youth racing program at Sunday River prepares skiers and snowboarders for competition–and life

Like most ski racers, Ava Hersey started early. She first skied at the age of 2, and by the time she was 5, she was pestering her parents to let her race. “It was, ‘I want to run gates. I want to do that. I want to ski race,’” says her father, Scott. “She kept asking and asking.” When Ava was 7, her parents relented and enrolled her in the Gould Academy Competition Program at Sunday River.

The program teaches young skiers and snowboarders from ages 7 to 19 to compete in alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, or snowboarding. It hosts four race days, called carnivals, each season at Sunday River, and some kids race at other mountains in Maine and around the country through U.S. Ski and Snowboard (USSA).

Lauren Adey, whose three sons are all in the program, says that, although the focus is on preparing kids to compete in races, not everyone cares about winning. “There are some kids that are going on to big places with skiing. Then there are some kids that are just building some confidence to be able to ski well and who never really enjoy the competition,”Adey says. “They support that whole gamut.”

Ava’s parents, Caren and Scott Hersey of Yarmouth, have been skiing at Sunday River for decades. They both grew up in Maine, and in the 1970s Scott took part in various freestyle and alpine programs throughout Maine. But they weren’t sure if they wanted Ava to start the racing program so early. “I remember when she was six and she would watch World Cup skiing with Scott, and she would be like, ‘I want to do that. I want to do that,’” Caren says. “I thought she was too young, that we should wait. If we had waited, though, we would have missed a huge window of opportunity for her to grow as a racer.”

“Six-year-olds can race,” Ava adds.

That following winter Caren and Scott enrolled Ava in the Gould Academy program. Since then, they have witnessed a significant growth in Ava’s skills. Even when they’re skiing as a family, Ava skis hard, making every turn count, Caren says. “What we’ve seen this year especially is her turning that competitive nature inward. She’s always only been competitive with herself,” Caren says. “She wants to do better,” Scott adds. “She wants to do better for herself,” Caren says.

They say the racing program has made Ava more disciplined and independent in other parts of her life, too. She discovered that expectations at school were different from on the mountain. In the ski program, kids are expected to be self-reliant. Before races, the lodge is filled with young participants adjusting their gear and mentally readying themselves. “A big part of being a ski racer is being mentally tough. Some kids get more outward and get very physical, want to listen to their music and get pumped up,” Caren says. “Ava gets very quiet, steps off to the side, goes more internal, works on her breathing, closes her eyes and visualizes the course. And these are huge steps for a young racer. A lot of kids aren’t even thinking about doing that yet.”

Kerriann and Oliver Fremont of Cape Elizabeth have three kids in the competition program. Their 13-year-old daughter, Ainsley, has been in the program for four years, and their 9-year-old twins, Cece and Tobey, started last winter.

The Fremonts have owned a condo at Sunday River for six years, but their history with the mountain goes back two decades. Kerriann and Oliver both snowboard, and had trouble offering skiing advice to their kids. “When they could start skiing independently, it was an amazing improvement,” Kerriann says. Now they all snowboard and ski as a family after the kids are finished with the program for the day. Sometimes they’ll skip the program and spend the day together. “It’s so nice that everyone can just ski,” Kerriann says. “Although these guys now will complain that the trails we want to go on are not difficult enough, so sometimes they don’t want to ski with us.” Oliver adds, “They’ve far surpassed our abilities.”

Lauren Adey says when friends ask her about the Gould Academy Competition Program, she tells them, “There’s just no better way to get these kids to be just amazing, confident skiers who can go anywhere.” Lauren’s husband, Greg, learned to ski later in life and wishes he had started earlier, like their sons. The Falmouth residents own a home near the mountain, and they first enrolled their eldest son, Ben, in the program more than eight years ago. All three children compete in USSA races, along with the program’s carnivals. Ben, now a sophomore at Waynflete School in Portland, started the program at age 8; now, he also races for his high school. His team, which is combined with Falmouth High School, won the state championship this year.

Some skiers have never raced before they join their high school’s team, Lauren says. Ben likes racing in the more competitive contests on the weekends with his friends from Sunday River, but he says he also enjoys the team aspect of high school racing. “It’s fun every week to see how our team does and try to do well for the team instead of just myself,” he says. For skiers like Ben, racing is a significant time commitment. During the winter, he skis six or seven days a week. “It’s helped me, actually, with my time management. So even though it makes it tougher to get my homework done on the weekends, in the long run I feel like it’s actually helped me—because of the less time I’ve had, and I’ve learned to manage that on the weekends.”

For Matt Adey, who has been skiing in the program since he was 7, racing has taught lessons that go beyond the slopes. “There’s a lot of times in ski racing when, if you have a bad first run and you’re all worried about that and you keep your head down, you won’t have a good second run,” says Matt, age 14. “You’ll just be in a bad mood. It’s important to just stay positive.” Jeffrey, the youngest son, age 12, who says he would be bored on the weekends if he weren’t skiing, likes the competitive environment of ski racing. “If you like to be competitive then this is definitely a good sport for you,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m over-competitive, but I mean, competition is fun.”

At the Hersey household, the issue of how long and how competitively Ava wants to race is raised by Caren and Scott each season. Races typically become more and more competitive in the older age groups, and the training and traveling can be a grind, says Scott. “A few times we’ve asked that question, and the response has been, ‘Don’t ask me that again. I’m going to continue to ski race,’” he says. “We’ll continue to support it as long as it’s fun and as long she’s developing and enjoying herself.”

The day after the program ends for the season, Ava and her parents return to the mountain to test new models of skis for next winter. Just as her mother described, Ava skis aggressively through every turn. As she approaches the end of her run, she turns hard, spraying snow toward a photographer capturing skiers near the bottom of the mountain. The photographer snaps a few frames as Ava holds her pose, a ten-year-old racer in a pink racing helmet and a smile.