Aspen a training ground for Naval Cadet Megan Hanson | AspenTimes.com

Aspen a training ground for Naval Cadet Megan Hanson

Megan Hanson is not your stereotypical college freshman. There are no late-night frat parties, freewheelin' days of just a few academic classes or weekends spent road-tripping to music festivals or back home to Mom's house to do laundry.

But Hanson is more than happy with her life at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland — and she said growing up in Aspen has a lot to do with it.

"I am very aware how different my college education is from most people's, and I definitely think the things I chose to do in high school are helping me out today," Hanson said by phone during a few spare minutes in her tightly scheduled day. "And really, just growing up in Aspen — the athletic focus, the love of the outdoors — those things are ideal and really translate to what the Naval Academy is all about."

Hanson, the child of two Aspen educators, did not set out to attend the Naval Academy. In fact, as high school graduation neared and college acceptance deadlines loomed, she was divided between attending Princeton and the Naval Academy.

Now that Hanson has been at the school for several months, she knows she made the right choice.

"So far, so good — really, it's going great," she said. "There are only 160 kids in my company, and that's like your family. And that's also like Aspen — the small community."

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Hanson's life outside the classroom in Aspen also has played a role in her smooth transition to cadet. At Aspen High School, Hanson was on the cross country, track and basketball teams. She also was in "about a million clubs" during her high school years and served as class president her freshman year and vice president her senior year.

At the academy, she is part of the crew team.

"I never assumed I would be a Division I varsity athlete, but here I am," she said, even as she was headed to an MRI appointment for an injured hip.

Her mother agrees that Aspen was a good training ground for her tenure at the academy.

"Aspen schools prepared her in many ways. She loves physical challenges, and all of her outdoor ed and experiential-ed opportunities put her into some tough environments," said Caroline Hanson, who heads the talented-and-gifted program at Aspen Middle School and is known for her work in robotics (Megan's father, Peter, is a middle school science teacher). "Megan has always possessed a sense of being in charge of her own achievement, so she has been willing to work hard to reach her goals. I think that work ethic is serving her well now. She also has had great support and advice from coaches, teachers and community members like Jim DeFrancia, a (Naval Academy) graduate. I don't think she would be where she is without those people encouraging her."

But as the first Aspen High School graduate ever to be appointed to the academy (and her research indicates that she is the first appointed from Colorado's Western Slope), Hanson recognizes the weight of her decision.

But she also makes light of it.

"Well, I have a little bit of tunnel vision on just surviving the day sometimes, but I know I will succeed. It's rigorous, but I can handle it."

Rigorous indeed: A typical day at the academy begins at 5 a.m. with a company workout or crew practice, followed by a quick turnaround to get dressed into uniform, learn the meals of the day and report for duty (she is charged with "shouting calls" before formation). Formation is at 7 a.m., breakfast right after, and then classes and trainings from 7:55 to 3:20 p.m. From there, it's athletic practice till 6:30 p.m., dinner and extracurriculars. Study period is from 8 to 11 p.m. (though sometimes a student needs to request an extension on lights out just to get the work done.)

"I did a lot through high school, so I was used to being crazy busy," Megan said. "But I am having to get used to getting less sleep and just the structure of it all."

Still, she thinks other Aspen students would be similarly satisfied with a choice such as the Naval Academy.

"I think other kids would definitely excel in this environment," she said. "There's a certain personality and life experiences — especially in kids from Aspen — that make this a good fit.

"It's not for everyone, that's for sure. But I like the challenge; I don't think I would be happy doing it another way."

Of course, none of this surprises Caroline Hanson.

"We are so proud of Megan for making a very tough choice and taking on the challenge. She is giving up a traditional college experience for something much different. Rewarding, but different. And we are happy to see that she can laugh at some of her adversity," she said. "I cannot believe the level of discipline and effort expected of her every day. We went to see the morning workout, or PT, when we saw her for parent weekend, and the marine leading the exercises shouted, 'Today is a great day to get better!' I think that sentiment suits her perfectly."

Still, Megan remains an Aspenite — and college kid — at heart. Asked what she misses most about her days at home, she jokes, "Ink! Coffee, Peach's, … I miss the people, … I miss sleeping in my own bed — it's a big bed, with really nice sheets. On the Fourth of July, when I saw all my friends post pictures at the parade and barbecues, and I was doing a million pushups, well, I missed that."

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com