Each month in celebration of BMA’s 50th anniversary, we present to you a fellow academy alumnus/alumna. Join us as we look “Inside the Den”, learn about how the academy has evolved over time, and gain new insight on how the school shaped these Burkie Bears’ lives in ski racing and in life.
Since its inception in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,193 students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA has always embraced a progressive educational model that focuses on engendering creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving in all of its graduates.
This month, we present you Vania Grandi. Vania just concluded three years as the first female President and CEO for Alpine Canada, Canada’s governing body for the Canadian Alpine, Para-Alpine, and Ski Cross teams, as well as ski racing in Canada. Vania attended Burke with her sister Astrid and brother Thomas. Thomas remains Canada’s first and only ski racer to have won a World Cup technical event with wins in GS at Alta Badia and Flachau in 2004.
When did you first learn about BMA and why did you choose to attend the academy?
My sister was the one who decided she wanted to go to a ski school so my parents started researching and chose Burke. There were no ski academies in Canada at the time and Burke had an excellent reputation.
How was the adjustment to leaving home in Banff, Alberta, and attending BMA? What was it like to attend the academy as an international student in those days?
It was a big adjustment to be away from home. We were so used to having our parents at training and ski races and it was good and bad not to have them around while we were at Burke. When we did well we would have liked them there, of course, but when we didn’t achieve our goals, we were happy my dad wasn’t around to get mad! 🙂
We came from Banff, which was a small town, and I didn’t think there could possibly be any smaller towns – then we moved to Burke! I still remember when the teachers told us we were going to St. Johnsbury to go shopping and I imagined a big city … not quite! I loved Burke though and quickly adjusted to being so secluded. I don’t think I ever thought of myself as an “international” student because everyone was so accepting and friendly.
What were your ski racing aspirations when you arrived at BMA and how did those evolve over your years as a Burkie?
I was already on the Canadian National Development Team and was aiming to go to the World Cup and Olympics. I also knew I wanted to excel academically and have a successful career one day. My aspirations evolved in that I learned about the NCAA circuit and realized that I could continue to race and study through university so that’s the path I chose.
What memories stand out the most from your Burke days?
The early morning runs followed by a rush to breakfast. I also remember trying to fit in a shower when there were more than a dozen girls using the same bathroom. I remember lots of hard work and lots of laughs too! Most of all I remember and stay in touch with some super good friends I made while at Burke.
One night that really stands out is when I was a senior and volunteered to make gnocchi for the whole school. I had seen my mom make it many times and thought it was relatively easy. I asked her for the recipe – adjusted for 60 people – and got to work. It took forever to boil the massive amount of potatoes, peel them and then roll them out into individual gnocchi. As the afternoon progressed I started to panic because I knew it would never be ready for 6 pm dinner so I recruited my brother and sister first to help me roll out the gnocchi, then one friend, then two … by the end I had a whole crew helping me roll out and boil gnocchi and we were still late in serving! I’ll never do that again! 🙂
What were your ski racing highlights as an athlete?
Perhaps what I’m most proud of is how well I did when I was a teenager, like winning the Canadian Juvenile Championships by several seconds and beating the guys! I was, and think I still am, the youngest ever to make the national squad at age 14. I also loved racing for Dartmouth College and being an All American a few times.
Can you share your academic journey after graduating from BMA?
After BMA, I took one year off to continue to race but realized I missed school. I had deferred from Dartmouth so I went the following year. After I graduated, I moved to Italy to work as a reporter for the Associated Press, and later, in 2005, I got an MBA from Westminster College in Utah.
What professional opportunities did you pursue after your studies?
My first “love” academically was writing and reading so I decided to take up journalism. I moved to Rome, where I had relatives, and worked for the Associated Press for eight years. The AP then moved me to Utah so I could cover the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Following those Games, that’s when I went back to school to get my MBA and made a career pivot into mining. I worked for Rio Tinto for 12 years and then made another pivot and went back to my passion of ski racing to lead the Canadian ski federation.
How did the experiences and skills acquired at BMA help you beyond the academy?
The skills and experience I acquired at BMA were critical for my development and have been a part of who I am ever since. I learned to be extremely independent and solution-oriented. Of course, we all learned to be disciplined and hardworking – although most of us were probably that way beforehand because you wouldn’t choose Burke if you weren’t! I learned to be resilient because there are so many uncertainties in ski racing, and there is only one winner for every race so you have to learn to lose, get over it and keep pushing yourself to improve. Perhaps most important, I learned that you have to take some risks to achieve your goals and while it doesn’t always work out, you never want to have regrets in life!
You were recently at the head of Alpine Canada. Can you share your thoughts on the state of ski racing in Canada? What are the key challenges and opportunities for the sport in the short and long terms?
Sport is so important for our individual health and the well being of the whole community! I think it teaches us so much and creates friendships that we keep for a lifetime. Ski racing is facing many challenges that many of us are trying to help solve, but it is not easy. The most obvious is the cost of skiing and ski racing. Families struggle to pay for the coaching and equipment their kids need to become ski racers. Even at the National level, access to public and private funding is shrinking, while costs are continually increasing.
In addition to the financial challenges, there are also many others related to the structure of the sport system in Canada, the USA, and worldwide. We have an international federation and then each country has its own federation and their own Olympic Committee, and then there are provincial or regional teams and then hundreds of clubs. It’s incredibly difficult to align all these stakeholders around a common strategy and then, together, execute on that strategy. There are inherently a lot of passionate people involved in ski racing who want to make a contribution. And that is both the upside and downside!
Beyond your recent work in ski racing, what is your current relationship to skiing?
Mostly, I love to ski! I alpine ski, backcountry and cross country. My brother has a backcountry lodge called Talus and that’s one of my favorite places to ski.
On the professional side, I was selected by the snow sports in Canada to run for the FIS council and will pursue that depending on the timing of the election, which is on hold due to COVID.
What other personal projects and passions keep you busy now?
I am doing a lot of road biking and projects in the yard. It’s a special time to road bike in Banff because they closed a major highway and it’s only open to bikes. Last weekend we saw a grizzly bear, a black bear, a coyote, and a few Bighorn sheep.
Is there a good book, podcast or blog you recently enjoyed and would like to share with fellow Burkies?
A book I enjoyed reading is called “Drive” by Daniel Pink. As for podcasts, I love to listen to “Hidden Brain” by NPR.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you tell your 15 years old self?
Don’t rush through life from one goal to another! Enjoy the journey and take time to get off the beaten path and explore new activities, meet new people, and reflect on what you have learned.
Do you plan to attend the 50th anniversary hopefully in 2021?
Final parting comments you’d like to share?
Thank you Burke! I am super grateful for having had the opportunity to attend, to have learned so many new skills, and to meet so many talented and kind people. One of the people I really enjoyed meeting is M&H Thibeault (BMA ‘97), who attended Burke almost a decade after me, but when we met in 2018 we connected right away due to our shared experience. We ended up working together at Alpine Canada, and now, here she is interviewing me for the alumni magazine! Enjoy these special relationships!