April 1, 2008 — Coming from the Southeast, University of Virginia skiers and snowboarders are perceived as underdogs in most major competitions — a position they relish.
"We always get to surprise people who don't think we can compete," said fourth-year student Alli Fogle.
If the team's success continues as it has recently, that underdog status won't last long.
The University of Virginia Alpine Ski and Snowboard Team surprised a lot of folks at this year's United States Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Association National Championships. Held March 6-8 at Sunday River resort in Maine, the championships featured the best collegiate skiers and snowboarders in America — and a number of them came from U.Va.
Even as a club team competing against mostly varsity programs from other schools, the U.Va. men's snowboard team finished the weekend in third place, and the women's snowboard team in eighth. Five individuals finished in the top 20 in their events: third-years Mike Leighton and Aaron Smith and fourth-year Will Bodmer for the men, and fourth-year Danie Brown and Fogle, a skier, for the women.
"Skiing is a much more competitive sport. It's much harder to go to nationals as a skier right now," said snowboarding captain Smith. "Snowboarding isn't as big yet, and our snowboarding team has been really good."
Two other teams from the mid-Atlantic region made strong showings at Sunday River. Appalachian State and Eastern Carolina finished ninth and 10th in the men's snowboarding, and ECU also finished in sixth place in the women's combined snowboarding.
This was U.Va's second year taking a full team to the national championships. Last year, sickness and injury plagued Leighton, a strong snowboarding competitor, and Bodmer, a national champion in 2006. This year brought better health and better results. In the three major snowboarding events — giant slalom, boardercross and slopestyle — U.Va competitors finished second, third and sixth, respectively. Wes Young, Matt Waugh and Stephen Levin also provided strong performances all weekend.
The U.Va. women also performed well, with Fogle finishing third overall in the first-ever women's freestyle skiing competition, and Brown taking third overall in the women's individual snowboarding standings.
At the end of the competition, six U.Va. participants were named to All-America teams. Leighton and Smith earned first-team honors in boardercross, and Bodmer, Smith and Leighton earned second-team honors in giant slalom. Brown earned first-team honors in the giant slalom. Fogle also received first-team skiing honors in both slopestyle and skiercross.
Brown was named to the overall All-America first team and Leighton and Smith were named to the overall All-America second team. Brown, Smith and Levin were all named to the Academic All-America Team.
Some of the U.Va. competitors hope to make the leap from the college ranks to professional careers. After final exams are over in May, Leighton will head for Los Angeles and nearby Mammoth Mountain — which he called "the terrain park mecca of the world" — to snowboard and make snowboarding videos.
Those dreams are not unrealistic; U.Va. is quickly becoming a major player on the scene of collegiate skiing and snowboarding. The East Coast is not a popular place for snow sports, and many of the top schools come from nearer the West Coast. Other Southeastern teams provide most of the competition for Virginia's team, but the real test comes at the national championships. U.Va.'s success surprised many schools, particularly those better situated for snow sports. Speaking of one perennial Western powerhouse, Leighton joked, "We get mad when the conditions are bad and we can't go. They get mad when they have to get off the mountain to go to class."
Founded in 1983, the Virginia Alpine Ski and Snowboard Team claims to be U.Va.'s largest club, with more than 270 current members. Many are recreational skiers, just out to enjoy the slopes. At least 60, though, according to Fogle, are "dedicated to racing with the team, and come race with us all the time."
Land practices, which include everything from running to playing Ultimate Frisbee, run through the fall, but real practice begins every year the first week of the spring semester. The team carpools to Wintergreen Mountain, where some just ski and board on the mountain while others train on giant slalom and slalom courses set up for the team at practice. Though the team practices as a whole just twice a week, "some of us go a lot more," Leighton said. "It seems like I'm there just about every day, all semester."
Virginia competes mostly in the Southeastern Conference, made up of U.Va, Virginia Tech, James Madison University, Duke, East Carolina University and Appalachian State University. The conference holds about four competitions per year at resorts in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Some people are initially intimidated by the idea of racing, said Fogle, but seem to get excited about it as time goes on. "A lot of people come out to just have fun and go to Wintergreen, and then end up getting really serious about it and racing really well," she said, citing Bodmer as an example. He never raced his first year, but won the national championship the very next year.
The future looks bright for the team, as the club continues to grow both in numbers and in recognition. The racing team is looking for a new core of strong talent, as a large portion of the racers this year were third- and fourth-years, Leighton said.
The club is in the midst of a major push for sponsors to help with the high costs of the sport itself, as well as expenses like transportation and lodging. "We've gotten a bunch of sponsors," including Brown Subaru and Harris Teeter, as well as local ski shop Freestyle. All returning members of the club get season passes to Wintergreen as part of their club dues, and new members get discounted rates for practices. "We always tell people we're a club for everybody," Fogle said. "It's just a lot of fun."