As Liberty University students roamed campus the past two weeks, they may not have realized a tall, long blonde-haired man blending in with the student body at the dining hall or during convocation. They may have glanced right at 2010 U.S. Ski team member Jay Panther and assumed he was just another student.
However, the 27-year-old from Louisville, Ky., is not here for classes, but for training at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. He arrived Oct. 20 after a three-week training session in Zermatt, Switzerland. He hopes to make the 2011 U.S. Ski team again in December and also become an Olympic athlete in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. He will be in Lynchburg until Nov. 8.
Panther has spent much of his time at Liberty working out with the club ski and snowboarding team and training on the slopes, but he is also enjoying interacting with students. On Wednesday, he spoke briefly to the student body at convocation, offering to give free ski lessons to anyone who signed up.
“I’ve had new expectations because of what I’m able to accomplish here continually exceeds what I have ever hoped,” said Panther. “At this point, as far as skiing goes, the big dream is the Olympics and getting back on the U.S. Ski team, winning World Cups … this place is something that’s definitely going to feed that.”
But a just a few months ago, Panther had never heard of Snowflex – or Liberty University.
At his church in Kentucky this summer, Panther met Liberty’s Department of Youth Ministry’s chairman Jonathan Geukgeuzian, who told him about the school and the ski slope.
“When I was leaving high school, if I would have known about Liberty, I would have been here as a student,” he said this week. “ … Obviously all things happen in (God’s) time. … But I would have loved, if I could have been here earlier, I would.”
Panther, along with his brother and mother, made the eight-hour drive to Lynchburg. After trying out the center and getting a taste of the school’s atmosphere, he decided it was definitely a place he needed to be.
“I think that part of the reason that God has me here is to give this place the national and international exposure it deserves, and you know, I travel all over the world. … I’m in love with this place, I feel the love that everyone on this campus has, I feed off that, I’m falling in love with it myself,” he said.
Panther has truly embraced the college atmosphere, attending activities, meeting students and giving away “swag” from his sponsors.
Ask Panther a year ago what he would be doing now, and the thought of addressing students at a chapel service would have never crossed his mind. This past spring, Panther said he rededicated his life to the Lord and his career as a professional athlete took on a whole new purpose.
“I had no doubt that … (God) had me flourish and do well in the ski world; I had no doubt that I needed to be a light in the ski world … those words were something in my head. Then when I was speaking to (Geukgeuzian) at church, he was like, ‘They built this place to be a light in the ski world,’ and I was like ‘my goodness,’” said Panther.
Panther skied competitively from ages 4-12, but after moving from Lake Tahoe, Nev., he took seven years off. He attended Vanderbilt University to play baseball. After taking a week-long ski trip with his father as a freshman in college, he decided to quit baseball and work hard to return to his talent of competitive skiing.
“It was like riding a bike, like I never left. I fell right back in love with it. It was abundantly clear that was what I needed to do, and then the ways the doors just opened and everything fell into place, from there it was just completely God’s plan for me to be back on the snow,” he said.
His continued passion for the sport is evident from his eagerness to recruit students to train and his constant presence on the slopes.
Although he skis moguls in competitions, he said he’s been able to work on his jumps at Liberty.
“I can get more jumps in an hour here than I can anywhere else,” he said. “The surface is more forgiving than even actual snow. And the facilities here at Liberty are amazing.”
The Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre has two slopes, three kickers with a 90-foot long landing ramp, and an 11-foot quarter pipe and wall ride.
Panther isn’t stopping at the winter sports, though. He also hopes to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team, with a goal of becoming a summer and winter Olympian.
Panther also has another goal -- to return to the school he has so quickly become connected to. He has hopes of returning to Liberty to finish his finance degree.