World Class 

click to flip through (11) STORY BY DAN FALLOON
  • Story by Dan Falloon

If you went to a big enough high school, you probably had that one kid from English class who went on to claim fame.

Maybe it was someone who achieved lasting celebrity, but more likely, it was a fleeting 15 minutes in the spotlight.

However, the Whistler Secondary School's (WSS) Class of 2010, which numbered roughly 80 students, ended up producing four athletes who have since made it to the pinnacle of their respective sports: Enduro World Series contender Jesse Melamed; big-mountain skier Sean Pettit; halfpipe skier Simon d'Artois; and of course, 2014 Olympic ski-cross gold medallist Marielle Thompson.

Pique caught up with all four to reflect on their careers eight years after graduation, and to compare and contrast their paths to glory.

Going pro

Sean Pettit admittedly had a different high-school experience than the rest of his peers—even those who went on to become Olympians.

Pettit, who twice won Red Bull Cold Rush, once captured Red Bull Linecatcher and is well known for his segments with Matchstick Productions, was a sensation early on, first getting sponsored at age 11. His early deals included major brands like Oakley, K2 and Red Bull.

"That's a shock to a little kid, you know, especially at the time, me, my brother and my mom were all living together in a basement suite," he says. "All of a sudden, we're getting paid to go skiing. It didn't even really make sense. It didn't really set in until I was 14 or 15 years old ... The term 'professional athlete,' I don't even think that was in my vocabulary yet as a little kid."

Pettit's early success came serendipitously, as he didn't send out any videos to potential sponsors or otherwise make any appeal to the big-time. At that time, doing his thing in Whistler was enough to get noticed by the right people, perhaps most notably, Oakley.

"Me and my brother (Callum) were just chasing each other around Blackcomb, and this is when I was 10 years old, probably, and my brother was 12," he says. "We were cute little rugrats chasing each other around and when we got all the way to the bottom at the end of this day, this person comes up huffing and puffing. They were trying to stop us for half an hour or an hour... trying to find out who the hell we were.

"I gave this person my mom's email and sure enough, it was a local rep from Oakley."

Soon after, Pettit was jetsetting around the world, hitting wild lines and living the dream at an age when he still didn't truly appreciate how good he had it.

"My high-school experience was funny. I look back on it now and realize how cool of a school it was, really, to grow up going to, knowing how much freedom we had, and the understanding that teachers and the school had for athletes doing things," Pettit says. "My high-school experience was awesome and I probably didn't spend very much time there—and that's why it was so awesome.

"I managed to do that work that I wanted to do in school, but by the time I was 15, 16, I was fully travelling around the world all year long and the teachers and the school gave me the freedom to do so."

Though he was listed as a grad in the 2010 yearbook, Pettit says he didn't actually complete all his classes. With other students' headshots appearing in their gowns, Pettit's picture has him in plainclothes. His parting quote, appropriately, reads: "Grad write up? Must have been skiing that day."

"Life got in the way kind of early for me, so I was pretty much given a get-out-of-jail-free card of 'You're doing stuff, go ahead and do your thing and we're not going to hold you back," he adds.

'Try everything'

While Pettit was living the life that other little shredders daydream about, some of the classmates he left behind were already forging their own paths to athletic excellence.

Marielle Thompson recalls her father and now-retired WSS teacher Rod—who had a major role aligning WSS as a flexible, athletic-friendly school—encouraging her to gather as many experiences as she could while she had the chance.

Growing up, Thompson juggled figure skating and alpine skiing until Grade 11, when she made the jump to ski-cross. She also represented WSS in soccer and volleyball while also competing in cross-country—in both running and skiing. Not to mention, she somehow found time to serve as co-editor of the school yearbook in Grade 12.

"The teachers were really encouraging and allowed us to get out there and try everything, it seemed like," she says.

Simon d'Artois, who won the superpipe event in 2015 at a little contest called the X Games and was an Olympian alongside Thompson this past February in PyeongChang, South Korea, recalls the tough choices he had to make in his high-school days. Competing in the trio of mountain biking, hockey and skiing, d'Artois decided to drop mountain biking first, as it was too costly to keep taking part in all three sports. From there, he had to decide between a heavy-hitting team sport and, at least when things went wrong, a high-contact individual sport.

"Hockey and skiing kind of competed for a bit and I made the decision later in my high-school career to put hockey aside as well and put my energy into skiing," he says. "(Skiing) was a lot more fun. I wasn't really into hockey and skiing was something that I, maybe not saw a path in but saw some opportunity to excel. Hockey was good, but it was a real high-intensity sport."I didn't have the drive to be a hockey player. I wanted to be a skier."

For Jesse Melamed, who won the SRAM Canadian Open Enduro at Crankworx Whistler in 2017 but was sidelined for this Sunday's race after suffering a broken hand after a crash in training, there wasn't a lot of pressure placed on him at a young age. While some might find it hard to believe today, even those few years ago biking didn't hold the same stature in the community as it does now, he explains.

"There weren't many of us who were taking time off of school to do sports," says Melamed, who the yearbook accurately described as 'Most likely to replace the Energizer bunny.' "We didn't have to travel to do what we wanted. We had the best skiing, the best biking. I didn't feel the need to leave and compete anywhere else."

Melamed, echoing his Olympian classmates, recalls a number of contemporaries that had the talent to rise to the same level he did if they had committed to the same path. While those students took other directions, he, d'Artois and Thompson went after their athletic dreams.

"We were all just given a great chance because we were all good at what we did," Melamed says. "There are people who aren't doing their sports anymore, but they're people who didn't have a reason to continue it.

"Like Simon d'Artois, they were all good skiers, but he just wanted to keep doing it and worked hard at it and now he's on the national pipe team. Marielle, she was a great skier and she was the one who chose to continue doing ski-cross and is now the best in the world. Me, I was the one who continued to do biking and I made the jump."

In class

While actually going to school, the athletes enjoyed a fairly wide range of subjects, some of which ended up coming in handy in ways they might not have thought possible at the time.

Looking back, d'Artois appreciated the graphic design class he took that has come in handy throughout his career.

'That program sparked a lot of ideas for what was possible from a marketing perspective," he says. "Whether it's trying to create a logo, doing photo editing or building websites, using Photoshop if I need to.

"It was really handy for the social-media side of things when you've got to create videos and create content. Having that know-how is super useful."

Outside of the tech realm, d'Artois enjoyed the sciences, not unlike Melamed, who eventually graduated with an engineering degree from the University of British Columbia.

"Going to school, for me, was what I had to do," Melamed says. "I'm very thankful for that, because it's taught me a lot about responsibilities and time management, and that's what's important for me.

"Having done that now, I'm very thankful that I pursued that and continued with it while my bike career was growing."

Pettit, while generally less enthusiastic about school, generally skewed to the more creative subjects at WSS—at times, anyways.

"Art class was fun for me. I liked that kind of freedom. You just went to art class and did something and it was good. It was kind of motivating that way, to have no real heavy direction in a class," he says. "I hated English class. I couldn't stand it. It just hurt my brain ... I think I was looking at it too literally."

All the athletes describe an environment where teachers were understanding far beyond the unwritten Whistler rule of turning a blind eye to truancy on a powder day.

"From being little until graduating, the teachers were always encouraging no matter what we were doing, whether it was sports or academics," Thompson says. "The staff were really accommodating of my academics. There aren't many places where you can leave for a couple of weeks and the teachers have everything prepared for you to leave and you can come back completely caught up."

Fostering a love of the outdoors was even built into the curriculum through an outdoor education leadership course headed up by teacher Mitch Sulkers.

Between Sulkers' beloved outdoor ed course, English and physical education, Thompson said the second semester of Grade 12 was one of her favourites.

"Outdoor ed leadership was really enlightening to have avalanche training; when you're in the mountains your whole life, you don't really think about everything until you get that background.

"Not many places in the world would have that opportunity, so we're lucky to have that program."

Whistler remains home

Most 'where are they now?' pieces often need to specify where the subject is based— with a crowd-pleasing quotation about how he or she misses home usually included.

However, all four of our athletes here still call the Sea to Sky home, and there's no other place they'd rather be.

While the small-town bubble can be a pressure many wish to escape at the earliest moment, d'Artois says everything he needs is right here.

"Growing up in Whistler gave me a different mindset for what I wanted to do with my life. My older sister wanted to leave Whistler as soon as she could, and there are a lot of people like that," he says. "I really love Whistler and I wanted to pursue skiing. This was the perfect place to do it."

Melamed, meanwhile, says while he's able to ride some of the world's best trails here in some of the world's fastest times, he's also able to slide back into just being one of the guys with his friends, who don't follow his career with the eagle eye that other mountain biking enthusiasts do.

"It's easy for them to not realize I'm one of the best in the world," he said. "To them, I'm just Jesse. I'm short and I smile a lot.

"It keeps me humble."

Pettit, meanwhile, acknowledges that there are any number of riders who would love to be in his position, to pursue their dream career at such a high level from their respective home bases. While he admittedly wouldn't turn down the chance to headquarter at certain European resorts, Pettit stays focused on appreciating the blessings he's been given.

"It is actually really unique and it says a lot about Whistler," he says. "It's a snow-industry hub without any brands actually being located here.

"A lot of other athletes in the industry always seem like they have to leave home and a lot of times, it's actually moving to Whistler.

"For a professional skier or snowboarder, where else are you going to live and be close to the mountains and not be in the bush?"

The Games factor

Even before d'Artois and Thompson became Olympians and Melamed started ripping summer terrain, 2010 was always going to hold a special place in local lore.

Thompson in particular describes the inspiration that having the Games in her backyard gave her, as local kids were given ample opportunity to soak in that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Our breaks were all pushed into that February block, so we didn't have any school for the entire Olympics. It was a pretty cool time where you could go skiing, watch events, go to the park to watch the ceremonies in the evening and really take part in everything it had to offer," she says. "It really helped us to experience the scale of the Olympics, even just to experience it as a spectator, you see how much bigger it is than any other event."

Thompson went up to the Whistler Sliding Centre to watch bobsleigh and down to Cypress Mountain to catch some men's ski-cross. At the time, she wasn't thinking about lining up at—let alone winning—the next Games.

"I don't know if I thought it was attainable to go to the next one because four years is such a long time in sport. It was definitely inspiring watching the level of competition across the board in multiple sports."

Life lessons

With the overwhelming amount of talent being incubated here in Whistler, it should come as a shock to few if a class just as strong—or perhaps, stronger still—will fill WSS classrooms this fall.

Though it may seem like it all came together quickly for the Class of 2010, its members maintain that during high school, the focus should remain on having fun and growing your skills.

"Don't get distracted. You have to do school and at that age, there's no rushing it," Melamed says. "We were all at school during the day and then after school, during the weekends, that's when you'd do your stuff."

Hand in hand with that, according to Melamed, is to savour the time with friends, especially as life can get in the way pretty quickly following graduating day.

"Enjoy the social aspect of school. One thing I really missed, what I didn't enjoy about university is missing the social aspect. Sometimes sports can be quite lonely because you're training and you have to get a lot of sleep and you don't get much of a social life sometimes."

Meanwhile, d'Artois advises athletes to diversify their interests, especially at that age.

"Always be open to learning and to keep experiencing new things. Never close a door on anything," he says.

Thompson, meanwhile, reminds students to appreciate those leading the way in the all-important formative years, especially given the unique opportunities at WSS.

"Listen to your teachers, especially having such encouraging and open-minded teachers who allow us to go away for weeks on end. Make sure you keep up your end of the bargain, because they help a lot," she says.

While things worked out for him, Pettit says it wasn't easy to pick up practical life skills on the road instead of through the formalized structure of a classroom, and he advises against following his path.

"Don't try to leave school early like I did. I wouldn't try to put that upon any kid. Just staying focused is really important in not letting yourself get sidetracked by too many things. If you have a vision for an athletic future, you have to make sure you stick with it," he says. "You've got to push through ups and downs and if you focus on something hard enough, nine times out of 10, you're going to be successful."

Most likely to...

When finishing up their school careers, Thompson and Melamed couldn't have dreamed where their careers would have taken them less than a decade later.

Their yearbook superlatives were humourous and exaggerated comments, like they were for most members of a class, but the write-up for d'Artois actually ended up being fairly prescient: "Grad most likely to win gold while wearing board shorts." Sure enough, as predicted, d'Artois was donning a pair when he topped the men's superpipe podium at the X Games in 2015.

"That's one of my most likely things checked off the list, so I'm going to have to hunt another one down," he says.

In the year where all four athletes will turn 26, there's still plenty of time left to build their legends.

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