As the end of the school year draws close, students sigh in relief, and perhaps none more than student-athletes juggling full-time college and athletics. Among them is rising senior Ali Nullmeyer. Canada’s 2022 Olympian had a breakout season, scoring two top 10 finishes, winning a World Cup run, and working her way from 30th on the WCSL to 11th. It’s an impressive record for any athlete, but Nullmeyer did all this while taking on a full academic load at Middlebury College, where she is also on the ski team.
Nullmeyer grew up at Georgian Peaks in Ontario and moved to Vermont to attend GMVS for high school. By the time she graduated from GMVS in 2016, she had already competed in the Youth Winter Olympic Games (silver in slalom) and the World Junior Championships (her first of 3) and was on the Canadian development team. Nevertheless, college was already in her plan. “I knew I wanted to go. I just didn’t know when.”
Nullmeyer made good use of her first gap year, nabbing silver in the 2017 World Junior Championships and finishing 27th in the 2017 World Championships. She also won the NorAm SL and Overall titles, securing World Cup starts for the 2017-18 season.
Everything looked to be on track for Nullmeyer’s transition to the World Cup until, two days before the season opener in Soelden, she crashed, tearing her ACL and lateral meniscus in both knees. Her long comeback started with reconstructive surgery on her right knee and eight weeks later on her left. After one more surgery and eleven months off snow, Nullmeyer began her return to competitive skiing. It was not as smooth as she expected. “I needed a change of pace, something else to look forward to and push me,” Nullmeyer recalls.
She found that needed change at Middlebury College, skiing for the Panthers on the NCAA tour. Laurence St. Germain (UVM), Amelia Smart (DU) and Roni Remme (UU) were already blazing the NCAA/World Cup program with Team Canada.
THE COLLEGE ROUTE
Nullmeyer found some immediate advantages in college racing, chiefly the coed training environment. “ It was an amazing opportunity…training with boys and girls together can push us all to try to improve.” Middlebury coach Stever Bartlett notes that Nullmeyer rolls into the group seamlessly when she is there, bringing a positive attitude and openly sharing what she is working on. “Technically and tactically, her approach is super disciplined,” says Bartlett. “She never skis out.”
Indeed, the college advantage—a toughness built through running courses with men and women, in all weather, on every surface—comes out most when the conditions are the worst in the World Cup. “In college, we’re used to not always having the best conditions,” says Nullmeyer. “When it’s really tough, that’s just another day.” There is also a camaraderie among college skiers in the World Cup circuit, who can relate to everything they’re managing.
Although not on the national team, Nullmeyer pursued a full World Cup schedule in her freshman year. In January, she scored her first World Cup points before heading back across the pond to hit the college carnival and NorAm circuits. Nullmeyer won the SL and GS for the Panthers at the Middlebury Carnival, then secured her All-American status in GS on the first day of the 2020 NCAA championships in Montana. The next day, the world shut down due to Covid.
The EISA canceled its season the following year, taking one thing off Nullmeyer’s plate. Online classes allowed her more flexibility to compete in the World Cup full time, including her second World Championships, in Cortina, and her first World Cup top 15.
That set the stage for this season, where Nullmeyer again planned to race in the World Cup and NCAA tours while making her first Olympic bid. With an Olympic roster spot in reach, she did not ignore her academics. Her GPA (over 3.5) earned her NESCAC All-Academic honors. Nullmeyer explains: “I put in countless hours of work over the fall as it was one of my most demanding semesters yet, taking Econ courses and a full course load while missing multiple weeks of class and fitting in training.”
WORKING IT OUT AND BREAKING THROUGH
Undoubtedly, it is incredibly challenging to manage the highest level of academics and skiing, and Nullmeyer quickly acknowledges that there are many, many people behind her success. “I can’t possibly name them all!” She also utilized a “playbook” of experience developed by Middlebury athletes who have managed to conquer the trifecta of school, NCAA and World Cup skiing. Those include 2014 graduate Hig Roberts and Nullmeyer’s teammates Erik Arvidsson and Justin Alkier. It involves knowing which major courses to take when, and from what professors; how to reach out to professors and set up a schedule that works; and above all, excellent communication.
Getting through Middlebury’s first semester on the academic calendar—where the second semester doesn’t start until mid-February— is as accommodating as it gets for a World Cup slalom skier. Nullmeyer kicked off 2022 with a stunning performance in Zagreb, Croatia, on Jan. 4. After finishing the first run in 17th, she won the second run, moving her to fifth place. A few days later at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, she scored a sixth-place finish. Her hot streak continued in Schladming, Austria where she finished the first run in third, but then failed to finish the second run. Nonetheless, she loved the experience. “The hill was amazing and I learned to be in a position like that and push a hard second run,” says Nullmeyer.
Her plans to hit the NCAA circuit before the Olympics were dashed by weather-related carnival cancellations and tight Covid protocols going into Beijing. Despite Covid restrictions, she thoroughly enjoyed the Olympic experience. “There were definitely some aspects missing, but overall, I loved it.” Once home, it was back to business and juggling. “I got home from Beijing and started school two days later,” says Nullmeyer, describing the first two weeks of that semester as “a bit of a blur.”Nonetheless, after attending some school, she was able to return to Europe for two more slaloms, nabbing 6th in the World Cup Finals.
And then, spring finally came, and with it the chance to be back on campus, where she could just be a college student for a moment.
Nullmeyer plans to do some college races next season, but she admits, “It is definitely a fluid thing.” She plans to ski more GS next season and graduate with an economics major next spring, in four years. In the meantime, Bartlett and her teammates are proud to have her fly the Middlebury flag whenever she joins the team.
Her advice to athletes who want to go to college while also pursuing skiing at the highest level: “It’s doable and manageable.” She notes that it takes more work and that you have to sacrifice what you might envision as the typical college experience. Specifically, you can’t go to every party, and your homework might suffer in order to get a workout in. On the ski side, you need to be flexible in scheduling and make the most of every training opportunity. The tradeoffs, however, allow for a rewarding and expansive experience. Her favorite classes are Game Theory and Economics of Africa. They’re challenging and also expand her area of study.
While some still don’t fully understand how competitive the NCAA can be, Nullmeyer sees that it is changing, especially on the Canadian team where people are more open to seeing the positive aspect and making it work. Nullmeyer notes that having another focus, to take the pressure off by keeping ski racing in perspective, can bring huge benefits: “It can actually accelerate you towards your goals.”