Introducing Canada's first indoor ski and snowboard progression park, The Axis Freestyle Academy.
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Interview by Josh Bishop
Photos by Darcy Bacha, Anna Borgman & Mike Schneider
After 22 years of operating the premiere snowboard, bmx, skateboard, and freeski camp in North America, Tim Windell has teamed up with Mike Hanely to create Windells Academy. Working with grades 9-12, the academy will utilize online classes through Kaplan University to provide a one of a kind high school experience. Students will live on the Windells campus, have access to Windells cast of all-star coaches, and have the opportunity to ski 355 days per year at Mt. Hood. To top it all off, former US aerialist, Hollywood stunt man, and world-renowned ski coach Mike Hanley will spearhead the project as the President of Windells Academy. Along with his achievements as an athlete and coach, Hanley speaks six different languages, has attended the University of Wales, University of Utah, Instituto Hemingway in Spain, Institut de Touraine in France, L’Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, California. Combining the winning formula of Windells camp with Kaplan’s online curriculum and Hanley’s academic and coaching experience will undoubtedly produce a flawless balance between academics, skiing, and limitless potential. In the words of Mike Hanley, “The ‘Funnest’ Place on Earth is going to be the ‘Smartest” Place on Earth for student athletes.” In this interview, I sat down with Mike Hanely and LJ Strenio to talk about this extraordinary high school experience. – Josh Bishop
What is Windells Academy?
MH: It is high school, a boarding school at Windells that is an online curriculum, so students have assistance in class, they have tutors and specialists, but then they run the classes through Kaplan University. The curriculum is fully accredited and is the same standardized high school curriculum that is set nationally. The students have the opportunity to go at their own pace, so if someone wants the summer and the winter off, they can blast through the classes if they work really hard, which is something you cannot get anywhere else. Windells campus is open year round, we have 355 days of skiing, and the program includes snowboard, bmx, skateboard and freeskiing. I am the President of the academy and I will be overseeing everything and running the ski program. We’re bringing in a head of academics and hiring a top end snowboard coach in addition to having the full staff of top ski professionals such as Wallisch, LJ, and Ahmet and a huge list of snowboarders.
That sounds incredible. How much does the program cost?
MH: The total cost of the program is $35,000 for an academic year and $20,000 for a semester. So it is actually less expensive than any of the other ski academies out there. Since it is the first year, we really wanted to keep tuition low. At Windells Academy, you get so much more for tuition than other ski academies. If you move to the east coast and go to an academy, you have to spend another ten or twenty grand to travel for training. Here, you get a season pass and you can ski year round.
LJ: That’s true. I had the opportunity to attend an academy, which is amazing, but my parents are still paying it off. I went to Waterville Valley Academy for three months, I think it was like $15,000…and that is for three months. It did not have a curriculum or anything, I had tutors that helped me with my schoolwork that I took from my public school back home, but it was such a hassle.
MH: Our program is expensive for the semester, but if you come here in August, you get to ride. There is nowhere else where students can do that.
LJ: I don’t think it’s expensive for a semester. I went to WVA my third quarter, from Christmas break to the fourth quarter and it was $15,000.
Does tuition include traveling?
MH: Traveling we can’t include, because we are not necessarily catering to strictly high-end athletes. There are a couple of academies that say, “We want the best, we don’t care, but at Windells Academy, we will make the best. All it takes is motivation in any of these actions sports. You come out here, and sure, you will start out in regional events and USASA competitions and yeah, if you want to step up with the big boys, we’ll take you out to Aspen Open, Nippon Open, European Open. I’m sure we will have a handful that will be going out for the Dew Tour and hopefully a couple in X. So we can’t set an official travel schedule, because different athletes will go to different events.
So your program caters to the needs each athlete?
LJ: Which is way more personal and more beneficial. You’re not dragging kids to contests that they’re not ready for and you’re not making the super good, up-and-coming athletes attend the smaller regional events.
MH: We go to what’s more beneficial. If I have a kid that is super talented that didn’t do that great at a major event, such as Alex Schlopy, I take him to the Stomp Games where he sweeps everything and walks away with a couple grand. If I know one of the up-and-coming kids is ready to throw down and be a contender at a major event, I take someone like Joss Christensen to the Nippon Open and watch him go toe to toe with everyone in the finals. But then at the same time, there are a lot of kids out there that don’t want to do that. I had one kid last year that told me word for word, “I want to be the best snowboarder at the office I work at.” I had another kid that told me, “I just want to be involved in the ski industry,” so I’m stoked either way. I will take them to the events, meet the right people and have fun.
MH: Yeah, totally. This sport is not gymnastics, I don’t want to be the US breeding ground for cookie-cutter athletes, I would much rather have kids that are motivated. I have seen so much more come out of kids who were motivated than kids that were talented. Gus Kenworthy is a perfect example. Gus was always that freckled faced kid that was really intimidated by everything. One day, he just decided he wanted to do it. It’s not any raw talent, he just put a lot of effort and motivation into skiing and he’s slaying everything now.
Where do you see the future of Windells Academy?
MH: This first year, we want to keep it relatively small. But I have moved 12 times in the past ten years, so I’m done moving. I am sick of it. I want to spend the next 40 or 50 years in Oregon, raising my family. I’m having my first kid in August.
That’s huge! Congratulations.
MH: I’m freaking out. I’m literally betting my kid’s life on this project. But that’s the kind of faith that I have it in. Windells has always been the “funnest” place on earth, but now it’s going to be the “smartest” place on earth. And I really do see that happening. Not smartest in the sense that if you attend Windells Academy, you’re going to Harvard, but smartest in the sense that this is the best decision you can make as an action sports student athlete. No career is going to last forever in this sport, our knees are fragile, collar bones take seven pounds of pressure to break in half, elbows are even less than that, you’re going to get concussed, your knees are going to get shredded to pieces. What are you going to do when you blow your knee the first week before X Games? It’s hard to catch up, so you must have education to fall back on. It’s just a reality of life. So, what we’re going to try and do here is push both. It’s not that one is better than the other, they both benefit eachother. If you work hard on the mountain, you work hard in class, and you work hard with everything in your life. It’s just good work ethic, it’s growing up. Yeah, it would be great if we have guys winning X Games. I’ve taken guys to X Games, I’ve taken guys to World Cups, I’ve taken guys to everything, it’s great. However, I am equally stoked to see my guys go to college, to get academic scholarships to college, In the long run, that’s going to do a lot more for you. If you have the balance, I think it’s ideal. But that is one of the reasons why I love working with guys like LJ Strenio, like Giray Dadali, and Tom (Wallisch), because they’re still student athletes. They’ve taken it to the next level. They’re carrying it over to all aspects of their life. They’re top-level students and top-level athletes. Life is about balance, and that is what I’m trying to achieve with Windells academy.
LJ, How was your ski academy experience? Did you find it difficult to keep up with academics and traveling?
LJ: Yeah, I think it would be nice to have a solid home base and not have to travel for competitions. The big thing I have always said is, you should not have to choose between education and skiing. I want to take full advantage of my life. I feel like a lot of people say, I’m going to dedicate my life to skiing and spend every minute, every day, every waking hour trying to become a pro skier. You know what, if you really want to make it happen, you can go to school and ski just as much as those people, they have more downtime than you think. You’re not young forever, and we have to take advantage of the time we have. Yeah it is going to be hard work and yeah you have to be motivated, but you’re going to have a great time doing it and you should just take advantage of every minute, every hour, and every second you have. Like Hanley was saying, stuff does happen, you get lucky in a lot of situations, but injuries happen and it’s great to have something to fall back on. With the academy, you don’t have to choose between getting a good education and having great opportunities within the ski industry, regardless of your goals. You can be a pro skier, you can aspire to be the best skier in your office. No matter what it is, Windells has an option for you. I think it’s sick that you can take both opportunities of school and skiing, and not make a life altering decision to focus on one. All you have to do is work hard and stay motivated.
MH: I think that’s a big thing with our travel program. You’re going to travel, you have to travel once you reach a certain level. But that’s a nice part about the online aspect of the academy. You don’t need a classroom. Your laptop is your classroom, your cell phone is your classroom. You have a doctoral candidate with a Masters degree that speaks six languages on the road with you if you need help.
Hanley, you speak six languages?
MH: English, Spanish, French, Basque, Latin, and Welch.
LJ: Hanley is the man dude. If there were anyone I would trust my future in, it is Mike Hanley. I’ve learned through all my experience with him that he’s a good guy and he knows his stuff.
You’re clearly a well-traveled, well-educated individual. How did you get involved in academics?
MH: Pretty much injuries. I’ve been injured, a lot. I was US Aerials in high school, made the D team when I was 17. I was getting ready for Nor-Ams my senior year and I was doing a show at the Utah Olympic Park, when I proceeded to put my head into the double. So that winter, I couldn’t ski, but the doctors for some reason said I could dive. So I dove, then got offered some scholarships to attend the University of Utah and because I smacked my head, I was enrolled in a handful of AP classes my senior year as I was pushing to go to a major university, but I couldn’t read, I lost my short term memory for six months. So I basically had to take underwater basket weaving. I took three PE classes, freshman geography, and drama. Because of that, I got a scholarship to the American Society of Dramatic Arts in LA, gave the acting thing a try, but it really wasn’t for me, so I dove at the University of Utah instead. D1 diving, at a major conference school, is a little different than 3A diving in Utah. It was intense. We had three practices a day, for 2 to 3 hours each day, didn’t have time to ski, didn’t have time to date, didn’t have time to do anything. I went to class and I dove. Finally, I got a day off, and I was stoked. I went skiing with a couple friends. Broke my leg. There goes the scholarship, and there goes everything with it. And of course, as always, how did I break it? Doing a 360 or some stupid little thing. I’ve done triples before. I was comfortable with doubles, and I broke my leg on a 360. So, there goes the scholarship. So I basically waited for that to get better, and when I came back, the whole new school skiing thing was really getting big in the late 90’s. By that point, a few of my buddies were skiing well, Tanner had just won X Games and I decided to try it out. I did okay, got some skis, got some money, got some clothes. I wasn’t getting rich, but I could afford to do it, which was nice. Then I got back into the acting thing. I still had an agent down in LA, so I tried out for a movie that wanted skiers. So I auditioned for it and got the call back. I was stoked. I was supposed to play the bad guy skier against the good, humble snowboarders. So I got the second callback after that where I got to read with the directors and producers. Turns out of course, they go with the other guy. But, they’re going over my resume and see that I was an aerialist and skier, and they invited me to stunt auditions that weekend. All the other people could barely put skis on, and they had a park there, so I did a backy, cork 7, and some random little stuff. I get to the bottom and they had a contract waiting for me. This is the worst part…they cast me as the stunt double for the part they didn’t give me. The movie was Johnny Tsunami, filmed at Brighton. They cast me as his stand in, and his stunt double. I had to work with this guy that they were paying five times as much as me who could barely click into a pair of skis, knowing that it would cost them two separate checks. I get a day off mid-way through shooting the movie and I head up to the Canyons with a few friends, build a little booter off a cornice, do a three, and POP…snapped my leg in half, again. The other leg, on another 360. I was so pissed off I refused to get surgery. At that point, I was so over the Hollywood gig and the ski industry, I decided to move to Switzerland and take history classes in French. After a little more school, ended up with degrees in French and history. After I completed my degrees, I obtained an internship working for the Basque tourist board in Spain, right across the boarder from France, and came back to the US and got an offer to coach in Squaw Valley. I was stoked to be back in California. I broke my femur out there, but got asked to coach the US team a couple times, went over to Europe, coached those guys, directed camps in Whistler, Utah, and Mt. Hood. I had a real estate investment at the time, and I told the girl that I was dating if the place sold, I would marry her and go to grad school. The crazy part was, it sold in a little under a week. The University of Whales gave me a scholarship, so I moved to the UK and enrolled. We got married that September, flew down to LA to get her visa with her new name, flew to Mallorca for the honeymoon, then straight to Whales. Got the degree, then came back. Started getting offers for academies in Crested Butte and Park City. Got into the dissertation phase in my doctorate and got the offer for Windells Academy. There are few times in life you can utilize not just not one but all of your skills in a job, so I had to jump at it.
Was Windells Academy your idea, or did Tim Windell approach you?
MH: Tim has been here for 22 years at camp and it has always been his dream to have an academy at Windells.
When the academy is in session, will students be living on campus?
MH: There are gaps between class, and during that time, they’re in BOB. They’re skating the outdoor parks, they live at Windells, they have skate, snowboard, ski videos to review tricks, they work with different physical and psychological trainers, and then we’re on snow 355 days a year at Timberline.
Other than having a mountain open year round, what are the benefits of going to Windells academy that you cannot have at a traditional ski academy?
MH: The Windells campus. You get to wake up and ride everyday. You don’t want to go ski or snowboard? That’s fine, there’s a dirt track. You don’t want to hit the dirt track, you go to the skate park, you don’t want to skate outside, you go to BOB, you don’t want to hit that, you hit the foam pit and the trampoline. The possibilities are endless. We have a major, international airport forty minutes from Windells. We can go anywhere on the planet and it is a half hour drive. The Pacific Ocean with limitless potential for surfing and recreation is two hours away. Our school curriculum travels with us. You don’t need a classroom, but we have classrooms on campus, and when you go there you have specialists that will help you in anything. If you need assistance, it’s at your fingertips. But that same program travels the world. The world is basically our classroom.
As far as helping kids get set up with curriculums, how does that process work?
MH: I work hand in hand with Kaplan. We have a great working relationship with them. One of the programs we offer is the strictly tutorial program where students can take classes from their high school with the supervision of our staff. I am here to make sure everyone ends up graduating and getting the most out of their academic experience.
How many classes will students take each semester?
MH: Most of the students will be taking two classes per block, which lasts half of a semester. So they’re going to take four classes per semester. With each class, the students can call, email, or chat with their teaches if they have any questions on assignments, regardless of where they are on the planet. When they get back to camp, if you need a reading specialist, we have that for you too. This is not Phillips-Exeter, we’re not striving for the most prestigious academic crowd. There are a lot of people out there that are very driven and have learning disabilities. At Windells Academy, we know and understand that and acknowledge that many people within action sports have learning disabilities. We have specialists that come in and provide extra help when the athletes are here. It’s a program to get the most out of everyone individual.
When did you go public with the idea?
MH: We went public with the project about three days ago and got our first registration within about ten seconds after my first press release.
I saw LJ post half a sentence in a forum about Windells Academy. It has over 3000 views and 80 responses, what’s your reaction to that?
MH: Wow! That’s awesome. I’m so glad. I think it’s incredible.
LJ, as a ski academy graduate, do you have any recommendations about how Windells Academy can maximize efficiency and create a better program for each student?
LJ: The biggest thing that affected me was going off my public school curriculum, because it made it really difficult to travel. As many teachers as I had, they weren’t my actual teachers, they were there to help me, but they merely provided an interpretation of what my teachers wanted in each assignment. The thing that Windells is doing differently that I would have really liked is having your teachers directly available to you whenever you need it. They’re literally a phone call away. I didn’t have that. I had a few very good tutors that had a roundabout idea of what I should do on each assignment. Given that Windells administers their classes online and has all their work and questions generated through the teachers that are actually teaching the class, I think it is far more beneficial than the alternative. Also, I feel like a lot of those other academies have dealt with so many issues that it built a solid foundation for Windells. Certain mistakes have already been made that Windells can look to and alter to create a better program for their athletes.
Do you see the receding snow pack on Mt. Hood as a potential detriment to the future of Windells Academy?
MH: One thing Windells has shown in the last 22 years is that we’re very capable of adapting. Initially, there was a huge push to exclude skiers from terrain parks. Tim Windell is one of five voting members of the USASA board. He is the champion of skiing. He has both the skiing and the snowboarding background and is incredibly progressive when it comes to looking towards the future. If the future is rollerblading, we’re going to have rollerblading. If the future is riding a scooter, if the future is riding a unicycle, we’re going to get scooters and unicycles. We can adapt. That’s one thing that Windells has always been able to do.
When it comes to living on campus, will the students be supervised?
MH: Just like camp, they’re going to have roommates there as well as a resident advisor. It’s going to follow the college model in the sense that the RA will act as someone that will provide the students with supervision and oversee any other needs that we can attend to. During the summertime, Windells has a staff of 150 people and it’s very impressive. Tim Windell expects the best of everything and he accepts nothing less, which is hard to find and is a big reason of why he is the staple of the action sports community. We’re going to offer that same level of service at the academy level.
Will you bring in lecturers to speak with the students or is it strictly online?
MH: Definitely. We bring in guest speakers and I lecture as well. I’ve lectured internationally at college colloquiums, but more than anything it is a discussion-driven academy. Instead of the straightforward lecture model, where someone prepares a lecture and gives a presentation each day, it’s a discussion group where you learn the facts, develop opinions, and process analytical thought. And then, we transfer that on to the mountain. You have to have the fundamentals of how to ski and ride, and then develop your own personality with that. You take this analytical model and develop your own personality, your own argument.
Any closing remarks?
MH: The “Funnest” Place on Earth is going to be the “Smartest” Place on Earth for student-athletes. I want to sweep the X Games and put another three kids in the Ivy Leagues. And I think that is within the realm of possibility. It would be ever better if we put twenty kids in both.
LJ: It’s literally every kids dream. All the issues I’ve had with trying to juggle school and skiing, Windells is saying: don’t worry about those, you ski…and we’ll take care of the rest.
For additional information regarding Windell’s Academy be sure to check out: www.windellsacademy.com
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