AFTER THE WHISTLE

Making the right choice

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— When I was a kid, growing up in Denver, I never even stopped to question the plan that was laid out in front of me.

I went to school every day and worked hard to get good grades. It was all a part of the master plan I didn't know it at the time, but it would result in a good job writing columns for a local newspaper in the future.

My parents didn't have to tell me I needed to go to college the pressure was all around me. I always knew that when I graduated from high school I would be expected to find my way to college and hopefully that would lead to a solid job.

I think the message is the same for many high school students here in Steamboat Springs as well.

But in a town built on a tradition of skiing excellence and making it to the Olympic Games, it would seem like the plan isn't so clear, or as simple, as it was to me. I never had the U.S. Ski Team banging on my door.

In much the same way I dreamed of making it to a great college when I graduated, young skiers in Steamboat dream of making it to the Olympics.

The problem, it would seem, is that many of them also realize that skiing is only going to last so long. After the glory of racing down a slope, soaring through the air off a ski jump or flipping high above a halfpipe is gone, these young folks are going to have to make their way through a world that has come to demand a college education. Unfortunately, getting that education normally conflicts with meeting the demands of the World Cup schedule.

Former Nordic Combined skier Ryan Heckman left the American team when he was just 21 far short of the peak age in his sport where 26-year-olds normally dominate to pursue an education at the University of Colorado.

Today, Heckman has moved on with his life working for skiing entrepreneur and businessman George Gillette in Atlanta, Ga.

"It was the hardest choice I ever had to make," Heckman said of leaving the U.S. Team. "But I had been on the national team since I was 14 and I went to the Olympics in 1992 and 1994."

Heckman said that in his case walking away from the U.S. Team was the right choice.

"I really felt like I was defining my forever," Heckman said. "I felt like if I didn't make this move now I wouldn't be able to do other things in the future."

But it wasn't an easy choice.

Heckman loved what he was doing and loved being a member of the Nordic Combined team. There is little doubt that at his young age he could make it back to the Olympics, and there was little doubt that he was just going to get better with time.

Heckman made a choice that is rare in the sport of skiing and it was right for him. He admits, however, that it may not be right for everyone.

"It's a very personally decision, and only the person who makes it knows if it was right for them," Heckman said.

The fact is that most successful skiers will be faced with this same decision and it is also true that every life plan is not laid out in front of us to follow like a road map.

We must make some tough choices in our journey though life.

Heckman traded his life as a top American skier for a college education and a good job. But even he admits that there were some tradeoffs. He said he still looks back sometimes and wonders what if?

I think the U.S. Ski team is just starting to figure out that this is a problem with its young skiers. In the future I think the American team will make strides in helping young skiers attain their college education while pursuing success on the ski slopes. But only time will tell.

Until then, skiers will continue to have to choose between a gold and a degree.

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