Making sure that each boot is carefully buckled, she pushes herself into the start gate. Looking down the bleak mountainside, sprinkled only with tiny poles, she visualizes her course and how she will precisely maneuver each fleeting turn. Tapping her ski poles together, it’s go time. “Racer ready,” the intercom bounces, starting a series of stinging beeps. “Three, two, one,” the red headed racer is off.
“Skiing is as much of a mental sport as it is physical,” the fifteen-year-old said. “If I have a negative mindset or angry, that’s when I don’t ski as well,” she revealed, wisdom that she’s learned especially over the most recent trying year.
“We were training GS [Giant Slolum] the day before the first race,” she remembered from last year’s season. “My coach asked me if I wanted to take another run,” and she said, “Yeah of course I want to take another run!” Making her way down the hill, “one of the coaches said he saw my ski catch.”
“All I heard was it sounded like a rubber band being stretched down a hallway and snapped,” she said. “It sounded like a firework.”
Medal podiums were replaced with hospital visits. “You don’t have an ACL anymore. It’s gone. Completely,” her doctor said, sending her in for surgery. The ligament that once kept her knee from twisting was gone, just like her entire ski competition season.
Prior to her injury, Stearns came to Denver Online High School as a freshman after taking a good look at her passion and what it would take to follow her dream of skiing. “My friends, especially in middle school, didn’t understand how much time I spent skiing and how much more time I wanted to spend doing it,” she said.
The online option fit perfectly with the student athlete’s schedule. The school’s flexibility not only allowed her to pursue skiing, it also provided her an opportunity to continue to play competitive soccer. She has been a part of multiple competitive soccer teams, including the Colorado Rapids, Battle Mountain, and now Vail Valley Soccer Club. Her schedule is rigorous, skiing six days a week and playing soccer up to six days a week, depending on the season.
However, while Stearns was out for the count competitively last year because of her injury, she used her time wisely, both in the gym and in academics. She channeled her energy into something positive, she said, “by not looking back. Not thinking of all the things I could have been doing, but looking at all the things I will be doing.”
“It gave me a different experience for a year,” she said. While all of her friends were at their races, she applied herself fully to physical training instead. She also spent a lot of her time supporting her soccer team, helping with gear and timing at games. Whenever she felt like the road back to recovery was too hard, her teammates were there to keep her on the climb, saying, “They were there to help remind me that I could do this and it’s what I wanted.”
Also, instead of having to fit online courses around her competition schedule, she instead took advantage of Denver Online’s concurrent enrollment program that allowed her to take tuition-free college courses. Diving fully into concurrent enrollment, she will have completed forty-six college credits by the end of this school year and will graduate high school with her college associate’s degree.
“It was kind of cool when they found out I was fifteen,” she said about attending classes at the community college. “It’s challenging,” she said, “I’ll be debating with people who are in much different stages of life.” The young college goer even earned her way into Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, an organization similar to National Honor Society (NHS) in high school. Stearns currently participates in Denver Online’s NHS chapter where she helped put on a school winter holiday party. She has also represented Denver Online at school information fairs and at Children’s Hospital Colorado where she created art kit bags for patients and made crafts with the kids.
“Online is the perfect combination of everything. It’s the best of both worlds,” she described, being able to ski as much as she desires and choose the soccer team she would like to play for, all while earning high school credits and tuition-free college credits simultaneously through Denver Online’s concurrent enrollment program.
“Overall, having that [her injury] happen was a good thing because it gave me time to think,” Stearns acknowledged about her time off the field and slopes. It gave her a chance to process, organize, and set goals. It also provided time to try her hand at coaching. “It was a lot of fun seeing them improve and trying to help them,” she said about working with a soccer team of fourth graders she led.
While she’s interested in writing and psychology, she summarized her future career aspirations by saying, “I want to be able to help people and the world, even if it’s in a small way. It doesn’t have to be big, as long as I can make a difference.” The junior has visited the east coast, saying that Dartmouth and Middlebury College are among her top two current favorites. For good reason, she also has her eyes set on doing sports in college, explaining that the university she chooses, “has to have snow and some kind of soccer.”
Looking back at this last year, Stearns said that it feels surreal that she’ll be hitting the start gates again. “I’m in a whole new level of mental and physical strength,” she said.
While some people may think that skiing down a hill seems easy, Stearns knows that to be great, it requires changing, “miniscule things to make you that much faster.” It’s not a race to complete high school. However, Denver Online knows that some students yearn for the fast-track, a way to make it through both high school and college as efficiently as possible while making the most of every opportunity available. Sometimes all it takes is changing “miniscule” things in a student’s academic plan to allow them to fly towards that finish line.
So “Student ready,” the start gate is set. “Three, two, one,” go for it student racer, Denver Online is ready for you.