Champion skiers with local ties reflect on challenges

Claire, Forehand stay grounded despite high-flying feats

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STRATTON — Watching World Cup free skiers Caroline Claire and Mac Forehand interact with each other and with peers, friends and young fans at Stratton Mountain School on Saturday, you might not guess that the past two years have brought them from the relative anonymity of up-and-coming teenagers to global elite status in their sport -- the Olympics for Claire, a World Cup championship for Forehand.

On Saturday, the two athletes were the special guests at Stratton Mountain School, where Forehand is a senior and Claire is an alumna, for a screening of a ski movie in which they appear: "Faction: The Collaborative." The audience of about 100 cheered every time they appeared on screen and completed another series of seemingly impossible jumps with multiple rotations and flips.

But despite their notoriety, there was no superstar attitude to be detected from either athlete. Before the screening, they happily exchanged hugs and high fives with current or former classmates, faculty members and coaches. And despite a long line afterward for autographed posters from the pair, they made plenty of time for young fans, engaging them as they signed personalized messages.

"It's really cool to see both of them make it to such a high level in the sport and be able to come back and show up at an event like this," said SMS free skiing director Jesse Mallis. "They're both really humble, hard-working people, and they're both really fun-loving, hard-working, amazing athletes."

Free skiing is a lot like snowboarding, except on skis. Athletes are judged on technical merit and degree of difficulty as they soar off jumps and turn and twist through the air, so there's a constant "can you top this" pushing of the envelope.

Firsts for SMS

Claire, who graduated from SMS in 2018 and previously lived in Manchester, represented Team USA at the PyeongChang, South Korea Winter Games the same year, at age 18. Forehand, a Winhall resident and senior at SMS, is the defending World Cup champion in slopestyle free skiing, when he was 17. They're the first SMS students to achieve these feats while still enrolled at the independent school.

In an interview, Claire and Forehand talked about what they've learned from their experiences, how SMS prepared them for the challenges of high-level winter sports, and the future challenges ahead.

For Forehand, the obstacles are more immediate. He tore knee ligaments in a fall during a practice run at a competition in Atlanta on December 21, and his 2019-20 ski season is over. It will take six to nine months of rehab to get back to competition.

"I'm more determined to work out more. Hopefully I'll be able to get stronger," Forehand said of the challenge. "Six [months] would be ideal, but that's kind of pushing it."

"I hear a lot of people say an injury is a way to restart and figure out what you want to do," he added. "I get to finish out my senior year of high school now ... I'll have my diploma in my hand when I'm leaving."

Claire has deferred enrollment at Colorado College while continuing to compete on the World Cup circuit. A Manchester resident while she was an SMS student, she's moved to Park City, Utah where the U.S. Ski Team has its "center of excellence," so she can focus on the technique and training it will take to make Team USA for the Beijing Winter Games in 2022. Both credit the experience they gained at SMS for giving them the tools — especially time management skills — to handle the multiple responsibilities and demands that come with being a high-profile athlete. The school is understanding of the demands the sport places on its top athletes, they said, but it also treats them like every other student when they return to campus between meets.

Not every high school student has to handle international airport terminals and security on a regular basis, or the disconnection from family, friends and class that comes from living out of a suitcase for weeks at a time on the World Cup circuit.

"It prepares you for traveling," Forehand said. "You start out with three-to-four places a year, and it gets you ready. You're with the team, but you're by yourself ... organized like a responsible person."

"There are so many life skills I have developed here," he added. "If I was still a kid in Connecticut, I'd never know how to travel."

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Claire, who graduated SMS at the top of her class in 2018, said the school's academic demands helped her develop time management skills.

"We are pushed to be our best academically just as much as athletically," she said. "I pushed myself really hard in the classroom because I knew my time there was really limited. I never really set crazy athletic goals ... my goals were getting into a good college, deferring from a college for a year and being able to ski at the highest level, which I'm doing now."

Time flies

It's been a year and a half since Claire realized her Olympic dream. In 12th place entering the last qualifying event before the PyeongChang Winter Games, at California's Mammoth Mountain, Claire finished third and shot all the way to second place, earning her a spot on the team. A return trip to SMS for a celebration and her 18th birthday both went by in a blur, she said.

"Going [to the Olympics] was a whirlwind," she said. "It was a really good experience. It was good to get my feet under me. Going into 2022 [in Beijing] I have a a better idea what it's like."

A year later, Forehand also used a first-place finish at Mammoth Mountain as a springboard to success, leading to a win in the final World Cup event in Silvaplana, Switzerland and the first Crystal Globe of his career.

Months later, Forehand remains surprised by how fleeting the experience was. "I really enjoyed it but it went by really quickly," he said.

Claire feels the same way about her Olympic experience — and also found that it wasn't quite what she expected.

"You think about the Olympics your whole life and then you get there and it's something completely different," she said. "It was my childhood dream, it's everything I did envision, but at the same time it's not — there's lots of press, lots of schedules, lots of sponsor stuff — and very little actual time to do the skiing. Our competition came and went — I fell, it is what it is — but it was a really good experience. I don't really regret any part

of it."

Mallis said both skiers are "pushing the boundaries of the sport," as shown by their achievements the past two years.

"Mac has just an amazing natural ability to put tricks together, He's really calculated and on another level," Mallis said. "When he wants to do a trick he knows all the progressions and how to make it happen."

Claire, he said, "has a really clean style. She grabs really well. Her tricks are really clean in the air."

Specifically, he cited one of Claire's jumps called a "switch dub 900." She approaches the ramp backwards on skis, and rotates two and a half times through the air while grabbing her skis. She makes it look easy.

"I'm really proud of both of them," he added.

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