Becoming the program director of the Sun Valley Ski Academy (SVSA) makes sense on several levels for Jonna Mendes.
Two-time U.S. Olympic alpine ski racer Mendes, 34, was named SVSA program director Dec. 5 after bringing the fledging program through two years of growth as its director of recruitment, a position she accepted in Oct. 2011.
First and foremost, Mendes loves skiing and wants her three-year-old son Declan to have some of the same opportunities she had while growing up. “I can’t imagine a better place to have a childhood than here,” said Mendes recently.
Secondly, Mendes is a strong proponent of education simply because of her background being deprived of it.
Plucked out of high school for the U.S. Ski Team at the age of 16, Mendes said she understands the importance of secondary and college education because her rise in ski racing precluded those kinds of opportunities for her.
She said, “I had a pretty miserable academic experience.
“At South Tahoe High School with its 1,200 students, I was one of only a handful of skiers competing at such a high level. I made the national team at the end of my sophomore year in high school. Basically I put all my eggs in one basket and luckily it worked out.
“I’ve been through the challenges of school and being a teen all while being on a ski team. For kids to come here and get a great education and have a semi-normal high school experience, it’s huge. Teenagers here in general don’t know how good they have it. But I do.”
The snow sport academy is a partnership between the independent Community School of Sun Valley and the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). To be a member of the Ski Academy, you have to be a Community School student.
This winter, there are 50 students in the Ski Academy—seven in the 12th grade, 15 juniors, 18 sophomores and 10 freshmen. Eleven of them are boarding students. Another three relocated from other Western cities.
In the past two years, 23 students have moved to the valley to attend Sun Valley Ski Academy and to take advantage of the boarding program, the school said in its recent announcement of Mendes’ promotion.
Mendes in her new role is expanding her academic and college placement support for current students in addition to recruiting new students for the program. She said her goal is to help SVSA students enjoy a rich, full high school experience while competing at a very high level.
“Even athletes racing at the highest level can have a well-rounded extracurricular life at SVSA,” Mendes said. “There is nothing more rewarding to me than spending time with student athletes, and my new role allows me to support them while bringing SVSA the national attention it deserves.”
Mendes, a Santa Cruz, Ca. native who began skiing at age four when her family moved to Tahoe, understands that very few athletes come close to the national team level. Talent, timing, desire and good fortune all play a part.
In her case, she was an 18-year-old national teamer at Lake Louise, Canada, apparently headed for lower-level Nor-Am competition that winter, when she proclaimed a desire to race on the World Cup in Europe. A coach challenged her to go out and get a good result in a super giant slalom. She nailed her first World Cup points, won two Nor-Am SGs the next day and two months later in 1998, competed in her first Olympics.
She became a two-time Olympian (Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake City 2002). Mendes won the World Championship bronze medal in super giant slalom at St. Moritz, Switz. in 2003. She captured four U.S. national championship titles—two in downhill and two in giant slalom.
Mendes retired in 2006 and didn’t look back as a competitor. While living in New York City with her husband Will O’Toole, she attended community college in Manhattan. She also worked with the U.S. Ski Team national alpine development system prior to coming to Sun Valley in 2011.
At every juncture in her post-competitive life, she has expressed a desire to give back to a sport she’s passionate about.
She will help SVSA student-athletes discern three levels of post-high school activities—racing at the NCAA Division 1 level, going to the USCSA college level, or retiring from the competition while keeping skiing as part of their lives.
In her new position, Mendes has traveled to meet with college ski coaches at Brown and Harvard University and Boston College. She hopes to visit 25 to 30 schools across the country, establishing connections. “Coaches look forward to meeting with someone who understands their world,” she said.
She enjoys working closely with Community School College Counseling Director Bags Brokaw. “We try to find schools that are academically right and good fits,” she said.
Residential Hall Coordinator Sarah Higgins works closely with Mendes, as does Todd Ormiston, the school’s Director of Institutional Advancement who is helping launch a new SVSA Web site. She and SVSA tutor Caitlin Skufca keep in constant touch with student-athletes.
“Most of our students have attended summer school, which enables them to take two or three classes, maximum, in the winter when they compete,” said Mendes.
“There are so many exciting things going on. People in general don’t realize how much the school has done and how much the program has grown,” she added.
Mendes hadn’t spent much time in Sun Valley, in fact, when she took the recruiting position, she said she hadn’t been here since she was 16 years old. She has come to appreciate the town and the skiing challenges of Baldy.
“This community is a real community. People know each other and stand by each other in so many ways. What I’ve found is everyone here has a passion. I haven’t met anyone who isn’t crazy about something,” she said.
As for the skiing, take it from an expert.
Mendes said, “I love skiing Baldy—the hard, consistent snow coupled with some of the best grooming anywhere just makes for such great turns. I can spend all day in the Bowls. And I really like Seattle Ridge. I kind of like all of it. I’m even skiing the bumps now.
“I’ll be on the hill right away. I like the snow in the morning and I like having the hills to myself. I’ll do the wide groomers in the morning.
“My goal is to have as many consistent turns as possible. You have to control yourself and control your turns. The pitches are so consistent—you can get going faster, faster and faster. So I spend a lot of time thinking about skiing, controlling my body and my turns, because this hill is pretty rugged—it demands you do just that.
“Sun Valley is just a fun place to be an alpine skier.”
“Picabo Street told us that Jonna was her best teammate during her many years on the national team,” said Community School Head of School David Holmes. “Jonna understands what it takes to be a successful winter sport athlete as well as a successful student.”
Here is this year’s SVSA roster:
Alpine—Taylor Adler, Jordan Fitzgerald, Marc Leroux (boarding student from Vancouver, Canada),
Cross country—Katie Feldman, Nate Nasvik, Nate Thomas and Sarah Williams.
Alpine—Payton Anderson (boarding student from Boise), Trenor Gould, Will Harder, Tanner Josey, Madison Milgard, Kyla Miller (boarding student from Lake Stevens, Wa.), Patrick Riedinger and Gavin Shipley.
Cross country—Hannah Cobb (boarding student from San Francisco, Ca.) and Sophia DeKlotz,
Freestyle—Perry Boyle (boarding student from Darien, Conn.), River Curtis, Hayes Gilman, Cutter Grathwohl and Claire Siderman.
Alpine—Samantha Busby, Griffin Curtis, Kristian DeWolfe, Jay Fitzgerald, John Garrett (relocated from Jackson Hole, Wyo.), Hunter Kern (boarding student from Portland, Ore.), Montana Kurahara (boarding student from Hood River, Ore.), Ava Mazzoni (family relocated from McCall), Tanner Riedel (boarding student from Salt Lake City, Utah) and Will Snyder.
Cross country—Lukas DeWolfe, Tom Gillespie, Annika Landis, Emily Siegel and Max Tanous.
Freestyle—Noa Hecht (relocated from Ashland, Ore.) and Gil Viesturs.
Alpine—John Blackburn, Cooper Dart, Blake Dielke (boarding student from Whidbey Island, Wa.), Carolina Mahedy, Sebastian Mastor (boarding student from Taos, N.M.) and Katelyn Rathfon.
Cross country—Kiran Merchant, Keene Morawitz and Peter Wolter.
Snowboard—Jack Harris and JD Stark (boarding student from Palo Alto, Ca.)