Not just for jocks: Regina's Martin Academy looks to balance sports training with academics

For the past five years, Martin Collegiate's Academy program in Regina has attracted elite athletes looking to better balance their sport with academics. It’s the only program of its kind in Saskatchewan and rare in it being attached to a public institution.

5 years in, sports focused high school program is seeing international success

Alyssa Clairmont is graduating this year from Martin Collegiate's Academy program, where she focused on diving. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

It's six a.m. on a Saturday. While most high school seniors are still in bed, Alyssa Clairmont is at the place she loves the most, the pool.

The Lawson Aquatic Centre in Regina is eerily quiet. Typically, children screaming and splashing around, and classes being taught in all corners of the pool echo off the walls. This time of the morning is for the truly committed.

Clairmont's diving practice begins with a warmup that is as rigorous as most people's daily workout routine. After some stretching, gymnastics and trampoline work, it's finally time to hit the diving board.

The 18-year-old is a national ⁠— burgeoning on international ⁠— level diver, and diving coach. She won a bronze medal in the one-metre at the Canadian Senior National Diving Championships, becoming the first Regina Diving Club member to ever medal there ⁠— and did that all while maintaining honour roll status at school.

Alyssa Clairmont will be attending Texas A&M University this fall on a diving scholarship. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Clairmont is one of about 300 students who study in Martin Collegiate's Academy program in Regina. The program was launched as a partnership between the Regina Public School Board and Martin Collegiate high school in the fall of 2014.

It has three pillars — hockey, baseball and softball — as well as the premier program, which accepts elite-level athletes from various sports.

That premier program means Clairmont can attend school earlier than most students, gain credit for her training, and give her prime practice time early in the afternoon.

It also gives the teen an opportunity to attend large meets around the world without missing any school work.

"It's weird to me because then I get excited to go back to school because I know if I miss anything I have the chance to catch up while I was gone," Clairmont said. "And then I don't fall behind in everything. I don't feel lost when I get back and everyone's always willing to help out."

Martin Academy is the only program of its kind in Saskatchewan and rare in it being attached to a public institution. Most sports academies in Canada are private, meaning tuition can cost upwards of $20,000 a year. For the Academy program, parents pay a minimal fee.

With the addition of the Academy program, Martin Collegiate has been able to expand and improve their facilities. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Premier program leader Kim Perepeluk said the program's relationship with the public school system also helps its students succeed because of the buy-in from the staff. The teachers understand the pressure elite athletes have balancing a heavy practice and competition schedule with studying.

"I think when we look at a lot of our athletes and the amount of school they miss — their elaborate schedules and training schedules and travel experiences — I think not only are we aware of those who travel but we're able to support them physically and support them academically," said Perepeluk.

The experience the Clairmont family has had with Martin Collegiate is so positive, a second Clairmont is attending the school. Alyssa's younger sister, Kelsey, is in Grade 9 there training as a diver as well.

"We just saw how well Alyssa flourished in that environment and was hoping it would work out for Kelsey," their mother, Trina Clairmont, said.

"The pool is all we know," she added.

Along with being a national level athlete and an honour roll student, Alyssa Clairmont finds time to fit in coaching and a part-time job. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

School is done for the week, homework is finished and practice is in the books but Alyssa is on to another responsibility: a part-time job.

After drying off from a morning in the pool, she heads to Soles and Suits Athletic Apparel, where the next few hours are spent helping customers find the right bathing suit or dancewear.

All of this is done without having a large impact on Clairmont's family due to the balance the Martin Academy provides.

"It helps the family because it makes everything more efficient, with me being able to be home at night and spend time with my family rather than being in school and having to train in those nights," Alyssa said.

And a happy kid means a happy parent.

"Like any parent, we stress when our children are stressed out and knowing that she can manage her training schedule and her work schedule alleviates that stress from us," said Trina. "You know over the years we've given her a bit more responsibility each year to manage her own schedule.

Raine Eberl and his partner Caidence Derenisky practise the death spiral. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Raine Eberl knows what it's like managing a grueling schedule at a young age.

Eberl attended Grades 9 and 10 at a traditional high school in Moose Jaw, Sask., before transferring to Martin Collegiate to take advantage of the Academy. That meant he had to find a billet family in Regina.

"I was responsible to get up get to school on my own — no one was there to make me go. I had to do that on myself, and after school I had to make sure I got my homework done because no one was pushing me to do that," Eberl said. "I found that it really helped me organize my life a little bit more."

After graduating from Martin Collegiate last spring, Eberl can focus solely on skating, which is good since the 'season' seemingly never ends. With winter over, Eberl and his doubles partner, Caidence Derenisky, are still on the ice five days a week.

Practices are long and arduous. Eberl and Derenisky perform a maneuver then return to their coach, David Schultz, they then go out to the ice to do it again. This is repeated dozens of times as the three of them put together a new routine.

Raine Eberl and partner Caidence Derenisky won a silver medal in novice pairs figure skating at the Canada Winter Games. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Their hard work paid off in February when the pair won a silver medal at the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta.

The success of its athletes is attracting elite coaches, like Schultz, to the Academy.

"To be honest, this was a huge reason why my wife and I moved our business here," Schultz said. "Being able to come out of school and still keep your academics up, so you graduate with the requirements you need to go to university or college but also have access in this afternoon program where you can work on your sport — it's massive."

Alyssa Clairmont won a bronze medal in the one-metre springboard at the 2019 Speedo Summer Nationals in May. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

In the fall, Alyssa will be attending Texas A&M University on a full diving scholarship, majoring in biomedical sciences.

Sports is serious business in Texas. On autumn Saturdays, the equivalent of half the population of Regina packs Kyle Field to watch the university's football team. This fevered pitch carries over to all 20 varsity sports at Texas A&M, including its diving team. Athletes are recruited from all over the world to dive for the Aggies.

But Alyssa has her eyes on something even bigger in the sports world.

"I think university is going to be an amazing, amazing experience and definitely going to Senior Nationals, I could qualify for Olympic trials," she said. "So, that's always a goal but I like to take it step by step first."


Dan Plaster is a video producer at CBC Saskatchewan. He has almost 25 years of experience in TV, radio and digital media.