The Wall Street Journal

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -- Like several of his classmates, Zeppelin Zeerip, a lanky, soft-spoken 14-year-old, sports a stocking cap, sagging jeans and a broken bone. He fractured his collarbone when he fell in practice, and before that he broke his arm.

Sitting a few desks away in history class are teenagers with arms in slings. In the cafeteria, crutches lean against round tables. At times, as many as a fourth of the 67 students at Crested Butte Academy are nursing sprains and breaks. Here, in this picturesque mountain town of about 1,500, a cast or knee brace is often a sign of daring, not failure.

"Injury is a big part of the culture," says John Chorlton, the snowboarding program director at Crested Butte Academy, who recruited Zep from Sparta, Mich., and offered him a partial scholarship.

Snowboarding has become a mainstream winter sport, its estimated six million riders rivaling the number of skiers. As the sport has grown, it has created an academic niche: private high schools for snowboarders. Parents pay annual tuitions of upward of about $30,000, hoping their kids will refine their skills at a dozen or more schools, including Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine, the Okemo Mountain School in Ludlow, Vt., and Stratton Mountain School, also in Vermont. Alumni include Olympic medalists and pro snowboarders.

Snowboard stars, like Olympic gold medalist Shaun White -- who earns about $6 million a year in salary from sponsors, contest prize money and appearance fees -- are courted by companies selling cellphones, sneakers and snowboards. The stars inspire legions of other young athletes, but only a few hundred of them make a living from snowboarding.

Zeppelin Zeerip shows his snowboarding style with ramps, rails and jumps.

One of the Best

While Zep is one of the best at the academy, according to his coaches, he has a long way to go. Last year, he won a few regional contests, placed 10th in one national competition and 41st in another, but in the spirit of the sport, he remains undaunted. "I'd love to get sponsored by Burton Snowboards," says Zep, a freshman who has an arrangement to receive free gear from Nike 6.0, a division of Nike that makes and markets products for extreme-sports athletes. "I want to be able to live off it."

Zep, named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who designed the rigid airships used in World War II, began snowboarding at the age of six. He distinguished himself back home in Sparta at the age of 8 by winning a "Phat Air Friday" trick contest at a local ski resort.

In the following years, the shaggy-haired, sandy blond began building ramps and rails in his backyard, honing his skills on his own, with advice from fellow boarders. He collected snowboard equipment and winter clothing, along with trophies and ribbons at local and regional competitions.

Usually, most snowboard enthusiasts stop there. Zep began researching private high schools for snowboarders, though tuitions were too steep for his single mother, Marialyce, an assistant elementary-school principal in Sparta.

'Team Mom, Team Granny'

After seeing him compete at a national event, officials at Crested Butte offered a partial scholarship of about $16,000. Adding to that, Ms. Zeerip took all the money from her son's college fund, pooled it with his earnings from a summer job at an apple orchard, and $2,000 from his 83-year-old grandmother, who is one of his biggest fans. Zep lists his sponsors at competitions as "Crested Butte Academy, Team Mom, Team Granny."

Brendan Girard of Cleveland, Ohio, a classmate of Zeppelin Zeerip, practices a trick with the Crested Butte Academy snowboard team in Crested Butte, Colo. PAUL GLADER

His grandparents, Marge and Jerry Sytsma, often drive him to major competitions. "We stand at the bottom and take a few pictures and drink hot chocolate," says Mr. Sytsma. "Marge is saying a prayer that, when he is in the air doing these circles, he is going to land."

The family's contributions still weren't enough to keep Zep, nicknamed "Zip-Lock" by his coaches, at the academy year-round. So Zep attends Crested Butte only from Thanksgiving to mid-April, during the peak of the competition season, at a cost of $22,000. He starts and ends the year at his Michigan high school.

"Zep has an inordinate amount of personal discipline and drive," says Ms. Zeerip. "I guess I'm inclined to acknowledge that and kind of reward that," she says, noting that the sport is motivating him to continue getting good grades, to learn about an industry and to be disciplined about reaching his goals, including riding in the X-Games and competing in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Crested Butte is decidedly rustic, with slate floors and walls adorned with ski and snowboard pictures. Founded in 1993, the academy nearly went out of business three years ago. Some parents and board members chipped in $650,000 to get the school back on its feet during the Christmas break of 2003, and it recruited Graham Freyfrom an exclusive prep school in Cleveland to be its new headmaster. It is now drawing students from as far away as Europe and Bermuda, who, among other things, like its "powder policy." Students, with a headmaster signing off, can call a powder day three times a year where the entire student body and faculty, many of them former professional athletes, skip school and head to the mountain when conditions are prime.

Rigorous Routine

"The advantage our kids have is that if they are good at what they do, they are a better catch for a college," says Leon Harris, the academic director and English teacher at Crested Butte. Administrators at the half dozen or so snowboarding and skiing high schools claim that, although some students become mountain town ski-lift operators, others do go to good colleges.

Several snowboarders and skiers at the school read sections from Plato's Republic during a Western civilization class. 

The Crested Butte routine is rigorous. Students living on campus rise at dawn for either indoor or outdoor workouts and head to the mountain for a few hours to take turns making runs, doing jumps, spins and board grabs as they ride down a massive half-pipe ramp. On another part of the slope, jumps launch them 20 feet in the air into more flips, spins and grabs, all filmed by coaches.

The school suffered a tragedy just last month when Asher Crank, one of Crested Butte Academy's top free-ride skiers, had a wreck during practice and died of brain injuries. It shook up the school and community, and at least one student then quit competing. The school held a big memorial service for Mr. Crank, whose parents are competitive skiers. The school displays pictures of Mr. Crank in the student commons area, and his helmet rests on a peg in the snowboarding office.

Although Zep is missing regional competitions because of injuries, his coaches have been petitioning authorities to let him compete in national-level events, noting his past performance, including his 10th-place finish among amateurs in the nation last year for slope-style -- essentially tricks on jumps, rails and other apparatus. "He still has a shot at it for sure," says Christian Robertson, one of the snowboarding coaches. Being young, "he'll probably heal quickly."

After a lunch of pasta, broccoli and Gatorade in the noisy school cafeteria, he and other students headed to their assigned chores, including washing dishes, taking out garbage and cleaning vans. Afterward, a snowball fight erupted in the courtyard, with students pelting each other and dodging behind ramps, rails and jumps.


  • Other members of the Crested Butte Academy snowboard team strut their stuff on the slope.

Hearing the commotion, Mr. Chorlton ran to the door and yelled outside at Zep to stop throwing snowballs. "If he re-breaks that, he'll have hell to pay," he yells at the other students. Later, one of the teachers got into a snowball fight with the students and broke a window in Mr. Chorlton's office.

Zep's afternoons are devoted to classes and evenings to finishing homework in his small room, with its unmade bed and music posters on the wall. Zep has a straight-A average. During Western civilization class, he slouched in his chair, doodled in his yellow notebook and appeared to be daydreaming until the teacher, Mr. Harris, began to relate ideas in Plato's Republic to snowboarding.

"Do you ever administer a perfect 720 maneuver? Can it be perfect?" asked Mr. Harris.

"According to Plato, nothing can be perfect," said Zep from a back corner of the room.

If his dreams of snowboarding professionally do not work out, he says he might consider a college major in resort management.