Ski Lines: Paul Smith’s combines sports with education

Jeffrey Leopold photoLina Farra, shown competing in the biathlon, is attending Paul Smith's College.

Jeffrey Leopold photo

Lina Farra, shown competing in the biathlon, is attending Paul Smith's College.

We’ve become accustomed to associating top athletes with the colleges they attended.

Now, name the alma maters of ski champions and Olympic gold medalists Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Mikaela Shiffrin and Bill Demong.

OK, you can’t.

None of them ever enrolled.

This is certainly no reflection on their intellect or ability to do the work. It is just a recognition that in some individual winter sports, talented teenagers often must choose between athletic success and educational achievement.

Going for the gold? Forget college.

Paul Smith’s College, outside Saranac Lake, wants to change that, and has just introduced an interesting alternative for at least some athletes: The Center for Sports and Educational Excellence, a combination of college studies and world-class sports training.

Take 19-year-old Lina Farra, for instance. The name may sound familiar. Her grandparents Ron and Jo were teachers in Saratoga Springs and well-known cross country ski advocates whose book “Winter Trails” is an excellent guide to skiing opportunities in our area. Their son John attended the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid and competed for the United States in the 1992 Winter Olympics. He now lives in Heber City, Utah where the 2002 Winter Games cross country events were held.

Lina Farra, a promising biathlon competitor, is his daughter.

Farra was enrolled at the University of Utah at the same time she was emerging from local biathlon competitions to junior world events. She had made the decision to drop out of college and use a gap year to see if she could become competitive internationally.

Her timing and the Paul Smith’s program turned out to be a perfect match. She was one of three students admitted to the college last fall in the first class of high-potential young athletes who would combine an academic program with high-level biathlon training. After finishing her fall semester at the college, she is now in Europe as part of a six-week plan to compete that includes two starts in Biathlon World Cup races. Then, Farra will be back on campus to continue training while enrolled as a full-time student in the spring term.

Paul Smith’s College is widely known for its hospitality management and environmental science programs. While the enrollment is small with about 800 students, the surrounding campus is enormous — approximately 14,000 acres. (By comparison, the University at Albany’s main campus off Washington Ave. is 370 acres.) It is a perfect location for the sprawling needs of Nordic ski training.

And, making it even better, Lake Placid with its array of world-class winter sports facilities is a short drive away.


How’s this for starters: two special 2.5 K FIS-rated biathlon ski loops and an eight-lane shooting range, plus an additional 20K of prepared trails on campus.

Coaches? Matt Dougherty, an experienced competitor, is the college’s head Nordic coach. Living nearby in Lake Placid are biathlon program advisors in world champion Lowell Bailey and world championship silver medalist Tim Burke, both multi-year Olympians now back in their home area after long careers on the world cup circuit. And if the women in the program need a role model, Burke’s wife Andrea Henkel was a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former overall world biathlon champion.

The school’s Olympian Advisory Council is a pretty impressive group of winter athletes, too. Joining Burke, who grew up in Paul Smith’s and is the talent development director for USA Biathlon, are Olympic medalists Andrew Weibrecht from Lake Placid, and Bill Demong, Chris Mazdzer and Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, who all have Saranac Lake roots.

The college program has formal relationships with USA Biathlon and now USA Nordic, the lead organization for Nordic combined and ski jumping that is headed by Demong, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in 2012. Announced last month was an expansion of the college program to Alpine skiing to be coordinated by Weibrecht.

For a program starting out, it would be hard to find a more upbeat young competitor than Farra. She was born in Saranac Lake before growing up in Utah, and is interested in environmental sciences and enthusiastic about the Paul Smith’s program.

“There is nowhere else that offers this kind of training and school combination,” she said recently.

How is she coming along? Like most competitors in the sport, she started out as a competitive skier. She tried Nordic Combined, but found the ski jumping “terrifying.” The switch to biathlon took place a couple years ago, helped along by the facility near her family home that was used in the 2002 Winter Games.

For Farra, the challenge is shooting. No one wins in biathlon if they don’t ski fast. But if you can’t shoot accurately, the penalties for missing targets make it impossible to win. Skiing fast gets the heart rate going and the adrenaline flowing.

But, she has learned, biathlon requires more.

“You have to slow down to shoot,” Farra said. “You have to learn how to relax.”

These new initiatives come at a time when many private schools are cutting back, especially in sports programs being offered. Paul Smith’s is adding sports. Some of them are exotic, like woodsmanship and canoeing. But others are mainstream, like Alpine ski. If the combination of education and athletics are elements of prosperity, it will be hard to match what is found on this campus.


Next on the list of holidays that are popular with skiers is Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, which is Jan. 16-18. COVID-19 protocols remaining in place include occupancy limitations and restrictions on the number of ski tickets for sale. If you are headed to the slopes, check with your destination and make reservations now to avoid disappointment later.


Ryan Cochran-Siegle ‘s World Cup Super G victory in Italy last week was the first U.S. win in that event since Bode Miller in 2006.

Equally noteworthy, his first World Cup win came almost 49 years after his mother Barbara Cochran won an Olympic Gold medal in the slalom event at Sapporo, Japan, in 1972.


Where do old gondola cabins go when new lifts are installed?

The old red ones from Gore can be spotted on lawns throughout the North Creek area. Whiteface replaced its 20-year-old cabins last summer in anticipation of the World University Games in 2023. Two of the gondolas ended up on the patio of the Cottage across from the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid where they have been refitted and are now heated dining pods.

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, College Sports, Sports

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