Denver, CO,
08:05 AM

Carrying the Torch

DU Grad Preps Olympians, Students for the Big Moments

So much can go wrong in a game of golf. The sand traps, the water hazards, a gust of wind. The slightest, most subtle flaw in technique can send that little dimpled ball astray.

The thing plaguing Stephanie Zavilla’s game was impossible to see. Yet it was impossible for her to ignore.

“I was a head case,” she says, describing her years on the links, first at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch and later at the University of South Dakota. “I was just standing directly in my own way.”

After missing a putt or slicing a tee shot, she would lose focus, trapped in a relentless storm of frustration and self-loathing.

“But instantly everything changed once I met a sports psychologist,” Zavilla recalls. “She took 10 strokes off my game in three months. She revolutionized my game. And I said: ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”

Years later, Zavilla (MS, ’13) makes a living helping athletes control the controllable: building their mental preparation and toughness. For the last five seasons, she’s been at the Competition Center at Winter Park Resort, working as director of sports performance and training more than 1,000 athletes. Many of them are considered elite. Some are bound for the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

When athletes get trapped in self-criticism, Zavilla trains them to visualize better results. If they’re injured in a bad fall, she helps them regroup and return to the mountain. If they stress too much over winning, she helps them relax. Training the brain helps the body.

“It’s prepping day in and day out for that one day [of competition] where it’s all going to matter,” she says. “We’re trying to achieve freedom of movement, freedom to really express yourself through your sport.”

Zavilla, who grew up less than 10 miles from the DU campus, would not be in this position if not for a decision to return home for advanced studies. It was in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology that she gained the hands-on experience that would make all the difference.

“I went into grad school definitely not feeling very confident in my counseling skills and feeling a little overwhelmed,” she says. “Getting that experience and mentorship and supervision helped me really come into who I am as a counselor, who I am as a person and now it’s what I love to do. DU was instrumental in creating this dream life that I have, so I’m forever grateful for that.”

Even years after graduating, Zavilla continues to collaborate with classmates on research. She seeks advice from former professors. She routinely hires DU students as interns, helping them tap into the invaluable firsthand experiences she treasured as an undergraduate.

Although she won’t be in Pyeongchang with the Olympic-and Paralympic-bound athletes she has helped, Zavilla will offer her unwavering support from afar–via phone calls with last-minute pep talks. She’ll nervously cheer them on as she watches on television.

“Watching them grow is already the most rewarding thing,” she says. “It’s really cool to teach athletes to live their life and love their life.”