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Vermont Visionaries: Ski Instructor Santi Fernandez 

click to enlarge Santiago "Santi" Fernandez - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • Santiago "Santi" Fernandez

Twenty-year-old Santiago "Santi" Fernandez has been working as a ski instructor at the Middlebury Snow Bowl since he was 15. The Weybridge native graduated from Vermont Technical College last May with a degree in landscape design, with plans to continue teaching the sport he loves for years to come at the Snow Bowl, which he calls his home away from home.

Fernandez started skiing in his backyard at age 4. By 5, he was following his father's tracks at the Snow Bowl. It's a bit ironic, he said, that he's now teaching others to ski, since he's never taken a formal lesson.

"I didn't understand the ropes of ski instructing at all before I walked into it," he said.

On his passion for skiing:

Skiing has been everything for me. I shaped my life around it. I decided to be a part-time seasonal worker that works landscaping in the summers and skiing in the winters, because all I want to do is ski. It is the ultimate relaxation and stress relief.

What he's learned from teaching:

Initially I thought, I can make money while I ski. [But] I realized it wasn't really about the money with ski instructing, but more about the relationships and teaching something I love. We have a saying in the instructors' room: "To teach is to learn twice." I had to go back to that foundation and learn from scratch, essentially. I had to be a beginner again, and that was eye-opening. My 15-year-old attitude had to go out the window because I had to start dealing with 5- and 6-year-olds who really don't know what you're talking about. It's taught me. I enjoy it just as much as the kids enjoy it.

On the tricks of the trade:

Every kid is different, and that's what I love — getting to know students and dissecting where they have weaknesses and where they have strengths. Sometimes you're putting kids on snow for the first time. Sometimes you're putting kids in a group for the first time. You're opening their eyes.

There's so much to unpack when you're bringing them up to a mountain that looks so steep and so tall and trying to bring their fear level down. Some kids are afraid of heights, and so the chairlift can be especially difficult. You've really got to connect with your student. If somebody is a musician, they might work on rhythm a little bit better, so you can talk about their feet working in synchronicity. Or if they like playing certain sports, you can implement different movements.

Getting to know your student is crucial. If you can build trust with your student, the fear drops right away, and you can get them to do pretty much anything.

The bright side of teaching during COVID-19:

We can't be within six feet of [students], so those independent struggles that they have to go through happen a lot quicker. When a student falls, it can be tough to teach them how to get back up. But, ultimately, these challenges that kids are going through are only going to help them. If they can get up by themselves quicker and understand it easier down the road, then they're going to have no problem. Once they get it at a beginner stage, they're going to have that for the rest of their skiing life.

On what makes the Middlebury Snow Bowl special:

You can come up to the Snow Bowl and have your parents drop you off in the parking lot at 7 years old and ski with your friends the whole day for Snow School lessons or with the Middlebury Ski Club. You can have that independence up here and explore all these trails with your friends. It's a really unique place. I think the ski industry can be a little bit intimidating, but here it is more of a family environment that is very open to beginners and young families.

Visit middleburysnowbowl.com to learn more.

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