Earlier this year, then-15-year-old snowboarder and Charlottesville native Ward Saunders traveled to Copper Mountain, Colorado, to compete in the U.S.A. Snowboard Association’s national championships. Described by the event website as “the largest snowboard and free skiing event on earth,” the national championships invite top regional winter sport athletes from around the country to compete by age bracket for a shot at a spot in the U.S.A. snowboard team development camp, a training ground for future Olympic hopefuls.
Saunders excels at boardercross, an untimed elimination heat in which a group of four snowboarders race down a narrow, serpentine incline, around and over jumps, drops, and speed bump-like “rollers.”
“Each event has several races. On average I have three or four, but they can get up to seven or eight, and it’s exhausting,” Saunders said. “You take one run at the beginning, then they put you in brackets based on your time. You have to get top two to advance, and then you’re against the top two from another bracket. You’re racing for the top eight. ”
He placed first or second in his first five races on Copper Mountain, which gave him the edge to move on to the championship’s single heat consolation run—his last chance to make the top eight. Saunders described that final race as one of his best moments in his career on the slopes.
His invitation to the U.S.A. snowboard team camp followed. “The day after school ended, I flew out to Oregon to ride with the U.S. snowboard team at Mount Hood for 10 days,” he said. “That was really surreal. I was racing for fun against guys I’ve only seen on TV. I was able to ride the chairlift with Nick Baumgartner [a member of the 2014 Winter Olympic team], who I’ve looked up to since I’ve done boardercross.”
Now 16, Saunders began skiing when he was about 5 years old, but at age 8, he discovered the snowboard during a family trip to Telluride, Colorado.
Since then, he’s honed his snowboarding skills at Wintergreen Resort, which “was really small after going to a bunch of different mountains, but it was a great place to learn,” Saunders said. “At first it was just about balance and keeping the fundamentals of your board flat on the snow and learning how to stop.”
Saunders entered his first competition, a boardercross and skiercross event held at Wintergreen, at age 12. He eventually joined the resort’s snowboarding team, where he heard about Gould Academy, a small private prep school in the ski resort town of Bethel, Maine, that focuses on training its students to become better winter sport athletes.
“My family members have gone to boarding school, so that was an option for me,” Saunders said. “The ski program at Wintergreen was started by the ski coach at Gould, so we checked it out.”
Now he lives in Bethel, where the majority of students spend six days a week on the snow. Classes alternate in length throughout the year to maximize training time, and Saunders and his peers spend about four hours a day “riding around, carving drills, messing around in the terrain park, and going off jumps,” he said. The school offers competitive snowboarding and skiing, and students who don’t join the competition program can spend time alpine skiing, working ski patrol, or teaching local middle school students how to ski.
It’s a major change from Charlottesville. “Up here, it’s normal for kids to be skiing and snowboarding,” Saunders said. “I’m around kids who have the same interests I have and do the same sports that I do. We usually talk about professional snowboarders or which competitions we’re doing and how last year went.”
Since his time with the U.S. snowboard team, Saunders has been invited to train with more Olympic hopefuls at a U.S. gold conditioning camp in Utah. At school, he focuses specifically on boardercross, an idea encouraged during his time with Baumgartner. “Nick told me that he was 15 when he started snowboarding and that he worked his ass off to get where he is today. He realized strength and condition were a big factor to getting him there, so I thought about that and now I go to the gym much more.”
That routine includes weight lifting and high-intensity cardio with a coach five days a week, as well as agility training to improve balance and coordination. “You have to have a lot of intensity to compete with kids your age,” he said. “I had a huge growth spurt the summer between freshman and soph-
omore year. I came in a lot taller and had a good season. This year I’ll be travelling a lot, going out West five or six times. In the higher end competitions like in California and Canada, you have to get in the top 10 or top five a few times to be able to qualify.”
He hopes to achieve just that at Owl’s Head, a ski resort near Quebec, where he’ll compete for a spot at the U.S. Snowboarding Junior World Champi-
onships in China. “That’s like the best riders my age competing against riders from different countries,” he said.
Beyond the snow, Saunders has two long-term goals: to get into a college where he can compete during the winter and still go to class, and find a way to play baseball, too. “I played in the McIntire Little League in Charlottesville, then at Lane Babe Ruth, and now I’m playing center field at Gould,” he said. “Baseball and snowboarding don’t compare. Snowboarding is hurry up and wait, and baseball is a pretty slow sport. But,” he added, “it’s much more relaxing.”