OSTERSUND, Sweden (Reuters) - Next month’s Winter Olympics is the immediate focus for Sweden but the country is already training its next generation of winter sports athletes in special high school programs that combine sports and education for ambitious teenagers.
At the Jamtlands Gymnasium high school in Ostersund, some 550 kilometres north of Stockholm, promising young skiers and biathletes are put through their paces four mornings a week by highly-qualified coaches at a local ski stadium.
They return to school at lunchtime, piling their plates high with pasta and salad in the cafeteria before heading to the classroom to catch up on their studies.
And when they are done in the classroom, they head back to the gym to work on their strength and conditioning before finishing their homework and heading for bed at the end of a long day.
It sounds like a gruelling schedule, but for those taking part it is a dream way to spend their school years.
“It’s very important, it feels like this is my life,” Julia Albertsson, a budding cross-country skier, told Reuters after strapping on her skis for her morning training session.
“You feel like you’re not just a person, you’re a cross-country skier. Right now it’s the most important thing,” she said before setting off at a blistering pace under the watchful eyes of coach David Engstrom.
“Eventually, we want them to reach the elite. It’s a very long way, and this is just the start of that long road,” Engstrom said as the skiers raced away.
”We’ve just completed an application period, and I’d say we take in around eight (athletes) every year. It’s up to themselves how good they can be.
“They decide the level of ambition, and how much time they put into training and everything else they need to become really good.”
Albertsson and the cross-country students train alongside the school’s biathletes, who are coached by Jean-Marc Chabloz, a four-time Olympian from Switzerland who has made his home in the area.
“We have good clubs in the area who work with young people, so we have them served up to us on a silver platter,” Chabloz said as he gave the teenagers shooting tips.
Despite his own Olympic history, where he took part in the Games in Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano and Salt Lake City, the 50-year-old said it was not essential for him that the athletes go on to compete at the Games, or in the World Cup.
“I wouldn’t say that’s what drives me as a coach, it’s more about creating a platform so that they can move on in their sporting lives, or in something else. But obviously it’s great when they succeed in sport,” he explained.
School sporting director Michael Soderkvist and his team of teachers and coaches look after the student athletes, making sure they stay focussed on their studies as well as their dreams of representing Sweden at a future Olympics.
“The goal is to give students a chance to get an education, and in combination to see how far you can get with your sporting talent,” Soderkvist said.
Back in the classroom, some of the student athletes wrestle with mathematics while those with no lessons scheduled sit on sofas in common areas, catching up on schoolwork or talking through the competitions they took part in at the weekend.
Aside from winter sports, the school offers a number of other pursuits such as soccer, basketball and fencing.
The local soccer club in Ostersund, which the school is in regular contact with, is set to meet Premier League giants Arsenal in the last 32 of the Europa League in February.
For Soderkvist, Sweden’s long-held tradition of making both sport and education accessible to all is the secret behind the success of the programs offered by similar schools, where there are no tuition or coaching fees.
“If we compare it to the States, where most of the sports are in college or schools or the private market, it’s very much different here. Because of this culture with no-profit clubs, many people can afford to do sport,” Soderkvist said.
The school is one of many with such programs all over Sweden, and every year dozens of athletes from the age of 16 and upwards apply to attend.
The handful of chosen athletes aim to follow in the footsteps of Charlotte Kalla, who had a similar high school education before going on to win multiple Olympic gold medals, and will head to Pyeongchang as one of the country’s brightest medal hopes.
Julia Albertsson is typical of the well-mannered, conscientious teenagers attending the school, and though she could never be described as cocky or arrogant, the 17-year-old is crystal clear about her burning ambition to emulate Kalla.
“You work successively, year after year, to be better, and in the end you want to get to the Olympics,” she said.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly