Few schools in the world can match Aiglon’s calibre in ski racing, or the number of its alumni who have achieved success in national and international competition.
However, the toughest challenge facing students who hope to join this elite is that technique and ability are not enough. They must also be prepared to stick to a punishing physical training regime – and it’s a year-round commitment.
Roberto (Alpina, Year 11) says: “Out of the ski season, I do dry-land training for 15 hours a week or more. This includes gym, where we do muscle reinforcement, co-ordination, balance exercises and flexibility, plus lots of stretching, which is important. “I start work on my endurance as well, and often go trail running. During summer, it’s essential to keep practising to improve our level and technique. This year I should do at least 50 days of glacier skiing.”
Training up on the hill is every bit as onerous, and setbacks sometimes occur. Nanoha (Clairmont, Year 11) says: “At least three times a week, I go up to do three to four hours of ski training – either giant slalom or slalom. However, when I pulled a knee ligament a while ago, I wasn’t allowed to ski for a month.”
Aiglon ski race team manager Mr David Mansfield (Belvedere, 1982) believes the physical demands of ski racing have changed significantly since he was a student at the school. “The requirements have increased,” he says. “The snow is harder than it was in the old days, and that requires more strength. Not just in the legs, but in the back, neck, shoulders – the whole lot.”
In tandem with this, Mr Mansfield has seen the sport become “a lot more professional at a younger age”. Meeting this challenge, and maintaining Aiglon’s position as the school of choice for talented young racers, has meant investing in new equipment and ensuring that a structured development pathway is in place.
He says: “What we’re trying to do now is keep up with developments in the sport, and provide something for young people who are interested in going as far as they can with skiing. For example, we now have a squad of students who have been selected to concentrate on racing, and they have their own programme. “Already in the autumn term, they were on the snow in Zermatt every other weekend. We also got in one of the top mental coaches who works with the Swiss team. He came and gave a presentation on what it takes. We want to provide a structure that can set them up so they can go further in the future, beyond Aiglon – maybe in a national team.”
Those who achieve this goal will be following in the tracks of some distinguished Aiglonians. Bill Koch (Belvedere, 1973) won a silver medal at the 1976 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck – not in any alpine discipline, but in cross-country skiing. His achievement in the 30km made him the first American to reach the Olympic podium in any cross-country event (ski de fond). On arrival in Villars, Bill was not unduly bothered to discover he was the only student with an interest in ski de fond. He says: “I grew up in a town where I was the only cross-country skier, and I was the only one to ski to school and back every day. So I was the black sheep even before I came to Aiglon.”
Training was a problem, but two figures at the school helped him to develop his talent. “There was Mr Derek Berry (1962-1974), who was director of the mountaineering and outdoor programme,” says Bill. “The other was a very kind local person who was associated with the school, Mr Jacques Stump. He was the one who helped me to get to races in Switzerland, and he actually got me into the Swiss Junior Championships.”
Mr Stump went on to become a teacher at Aiglon, as his daughter Line Stump (Exeter and Clairmont, 1976), who attended Aiglon with her siblings Jacky and Alain, recalls. “When my dad saw how talented Bill was, he asked permission to train him – in fact, he asked the school for special leave so he could attend all Bill’s races,” she says. (Indeed, Mr Stump went on to found the École de Ski Moderne – now the Villars Ski School.)
Bill would train by skiing up the regular alpine pistes, sometimes coming back down on the ski lifts (“I might have done that just to be tongue-in-cheek: if I’m going to do something backwards I might as well do the whole thing backwards!”). However, the demands of the school timetable in the early 1970s meant he had to take more serious measures to fit in enough endurance training.
He says: “I would get up really early in the morning, sneak out of the dorm and do my training before the cold showers. Another way was to get in trouble and do the punishment run. Most people hated that run, but for me it was a chance to do some training.” Nikolai Hentsch (Belvedere, 2001) twice represented Brazil at the Winter Olympics. He competed in the giant slalom at the 2002 Salt Lake games, adding the downhill and super-G at Turin four years later. At the 2006 games, he notched up a 30th place in the giant slalom and was chosen to carry his nation’s flag in the closing ceremony. Throughout this time, his personal coach was a familiar figure: Mr Mansfield.
He says: “Going to Aiglon was a great opportunity to ski every day, which was my passion. And when I got there, my roommate was Brazilian and was a very good snowboarder. He told me, ‘There’s a Brazilian skiing and snowboarding federation, and you’d clearly be a massive asset. Let me introduce you to its president.’”
Nikolai realised that this represented a golden opportunity. “My father is Swiss and my mother is Brazilian. I grew up in Verbier and had been skiing since the age of four – I was always racing. But I was never going to make it in the Swiss system. To do that, you have to dedicate yourself to skiing alone. That was never on the cards for me. I wasn’t good enough, and my parents didn’t want me to drop my academic progression.”
He was accepted by the Brazilian Ski Federation, granting him the FIS licence to start racing internationally. This made his final two years at Aiglon somewhat hectic. “I took ski time on the hill with Mr Mansfield and the team very, very seriously, because I knew there was a prospect of going to the Olympics a few years later. I started with a nutritionist and a weight trainer. At Aiglon, I basically started the long two-year preparation process of trying to qualify for the Olympics – which I did!”
After success in the traditional alpine disciplines while at Aiglon, Liz Stevenson (Clairmont, 2008) made the switch to freestyle, and now represents Great Britain in ski cross. She finished 19th in the 2015 World Cup rankings and 34th in the most recent season. Her time at Aiglon was one of change in the racing programme – undertaken, ironically for Liz, to attract students back from freestyle.
She says: “When I was in the Lower Sixth, we asked the Head Master if we could change some things with the racing team. We wanted to entice people to come and join us, rather than going off and doing freestyle. We asked if we could have different jackets from the other students, with a racing-team emblem. We also requested team gym sessions, and special dispensation to have lunch up the hill when we were training.”
The requests were granted, and Liz believes the changes played a big role in motivating younger students to get involved in racing. Shortly afterwards, she encountered one of the most important milestones in her own development. “When I was 17, Mr Mansfield took me to an FIS race for the first time,” she says. “It was a total disaster for everyone who competed, but it was a great learning experience. It just opened our eyes to the fact that there was a pathway to go internationally.
“Then, in my Upper Sixth year, we went to the British National Championships and I came second in the adult downhill. That was a fairly big deal. I thought, ‘I’m going to take a gap year, and I might as well try for national selection’ – which I then achieved.”
Today’s students access training aids that would have sounded like science fiction to their predecessors. Among the most useful is an online platform called Sprongo. When racers are off the hill, they can log on to a computer in their own time and play back film footage of their ski performances. It allows the students and coaching staff to analyse technique in minute detail, and pinpoint any areas of weakness that need to be addressed.
Mr Mansfield says: “We try to film everybody each week. We then upload the videos so that the students can log in and watch them. We can add comments next to each clip, and we can see how many times they view it, so we know who’s looking at the videos and who’s not.
“This technology makes our race programme all the more serious and professional, and I think it’s in keeping with Aiglon and what we’re trying to do.”
The hard work paid off for Roberto in the 2016/17 season. After winning the under-16 slalom and giant slalom at the British Schoolboys’ International Races in Wengen, he skied into third place in slalom at the Interschool Ski Championships in Pila, Italy. It’s all invaluable experience for the coming years, when the intensity of training will be ratcheted up even further. “I’ll have to make big jumps in my technique,” he says. “Next year we’ll start FIS competition and slowly I hope I will build up my points. I really want to go as far as I can with it.”
Now recovered from her injury, Nanoha has enjoyed returning to competition. She says: “I don’t plan to do any ski races after I graduate, so I want to do as much as I can during Aiglon life. I want to push myself, take each race seriously and become one of the best at the school.”
And that’s because competitive skiing at Aiglon is about more than simply producing Olympians-inwaiting. It teaches discipline, rewards determination and fosters intense camaraderie as well as friendly rivalry. But ultimately, it’s also a great deal of fun.
According to Mr Mansfield: “It’s a fantastic thing to do, with all of the opportunity to travel, the people you meet and all the wonderful experiences you have. What I would hope is that the students get as much enjoyment out of it as I did.”