Ross Baker isn't a typical high school junior. The Afton teen doesn't sleep until noon on weekends and you won't hear him complain when homework forces him to stay in on a Friday night. His goal: to make it to the medal podium at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's (USSA) J2 nationals.

Most winter weeknights, Baker can be found practicing with the Afton Alps Ski Team. On weekends, he's competing nationwide. While he's on the road to a race, he often reads his chemistry or history textbooks to make up for missing classes at St. Paul Academy.

"It's physically tiring, extremely mentally tiring and it's a juggling act between managing the schoolwork, staying well rested for the races and doing that all at the same time," Baker said. "There's a lot more that comes out of the intensity of [skiing]. ... There's a lot of skills that I'll use the rest of my life."

Baker's dedication is mirrored in the hundreds of young USSA skiers and snowboarders from Minnesota who are tearing up the slopes at a national level. They sacrifice relationships and weekends, and eschew traditional teen pursuits to join the ranks of elite athletes now displaying their skills at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

This year, the Rocky Central Region, which includes Minnesota, produced about a quarter of the boys and girls who will compete in the association's J2 nationals in Sugarloaf, Maine. The best crop of those skiers nationwide -- born in 1993 and 1994 -- will square off in March.

Teams at Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in Bloomington, Buck Hill in Burnsville and Afton Alps in Hastings are "the big three" in Minnesota, said USSA Central competition and development manager Brewster McVicker, and produce some of the nation's J2 competitors.

"The bottom line is that they've got a passion for ski racing," McVicker said. "They love to do it, they have fun out here, and they're willing to make those commitments."

No tight suits for her

Kids and teenagers mill around a group of tables in the Hyland Chalet, sending up peals of laughter. Snowboarders continually cycle in and out of the building, adding to the din. This is the G-Team, one of the few nationally competitive snowboard teams in Minnesota.

Dylan Herman of Minnetonka crossed over to "the dark side" (snowboarding) after her family started her skiing at an early age.

"As soon as someone told me, 'You should probably get one of those tight suits,' I was like, 'Nope, I'm going to start snowboarding now,'" joked Herman, 17 and a student at Hopkins High School.

The national veteran has competed on Hyland's G-Team for about four years, typically practicing or competing at least four days a week. She also teaches younger children the basics of snowboarding.

In April, Herman will compete in the United States of America Snowboard Association National Competition at Colorado's Copper Mountain, where in 2007 she placed in the top 10 for her age group.

Nationals bring out Herman's competitive side, but also inspire a passion that seems universal among her peers. "When I go to nationals, it's just a sense of community and I feel like I belong," she said.

Future Olympian?

It's snowing mightily as Herman's teammate, three-time national competitor Jack Taylor of Medina, takes his first alpine run of the day at Hyland. He cruises through a course of gates, but isn't quite happy with his performance. On his second run, it's obvious he's just getting warmed up.

The 14-year-old Blake School student typically practices or competes six days a week. Injuries forced the aspiring boarder to curtail or cancel previous competitions, but even a broken collarbone didn't stop him from nabbing third in two of his races last year in the 12- to 13-year-old age group.

Taylor also has suffered arm fractures and seriously hurt his back. Herman has endured fractures in both feet and recently recovered from a concussion. But the injuries only spur them and their peers on and add to the intense competitive spirit.

"It just kind of makes you want it even more the next year," Taylor said. "It's just like, 'Oh, man, I was so close and I could've done so well.'"

Team director Jessica Zalusky, who holds national titles and has coached the likes of snowboarding legend Shaun White, said she can imagine Taylor competing in the 2014 Olympics.

Although Zalusky acknowledged that every kid can't expect to be an Olympian, she offered some common-sense, yet comprehensive advice: Set realistic short-term and long-term goals, join a team and practice seriously four to five days a week, choose your coach carefully and keep competing. She said parents should support their children, but emphasize a balance between school and sport.

Lee Baker, Ross' mom, said that the long drives, cost and intense scheduling required to take part in alpine sports are worth it. She said she has learned much about self-sacrifice from her teenage son.

"You get to really stay connected with your kids in ways that wouldn't happen otherwise," she said. "I wouldn't trade it."

James Nord is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.