Hardened Aspen High School graduates receive diplomas, prepare to turn page in life’s story

Pyramid Speaker Ricardo Saucedo takes in the applause after his speech during Aspen High School's graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 3, 2023, inside the Benedict Music Tent.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Simi Hamilton gushed over Aspen. Ricardo Saucedo thanked his parents for their sacrifices. Sarah Strassburger paid tribute to the late Carson Clettenberg.

And then, after many tears had already been wiped away, nearly 130 seniors walked across the stage of the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday morning to officially become part of Aspen High School’s 134th graduating class.

“I’ll tell you, the hard truth. There are people in this world that will judge you when you tell them you grew up in this valley and went to Aspen High School,” said Hamilton, a three-time Olympic cross-country skier who spent more than a decade traveling the world with the U.S. ski team. “Ordinary here is extraordinary everywhere else. And at some point in your next chapter you all are about to start writing, you will realize that.”

If there is a person qualified enough to understand what makes Aspen extraordinary, it’s Hamilton. An Aspen native and 2005 graduate, he raced in nearly two dozen countries over a career that saw him become one of the most accomplished Nordic skiers in U.S. history before retiring after the 2020-21 season and moving to Basalt.

He was chosen as this year’s commencement speaker, delivering a message to the graduating class about using those unique skills that only Aspen can provide and taking them into the world beyond the Elk Mountains. Much as he did during his decorated ski racing career.

“It’s what we choose to do with those opportunities that really counts,” he said. “I’m not here to wish you luck. I genuinely believe that if a little luck lands in your lap, you should take full advantage. But none of you up here on stage today need it as you venture out into a complex world that is waiting for you past these tent walls.”

Like so many of their graduating peers across the country, this year’s senior class battled through a lot to reach Saturday’s ceremony. Notably, their freshman year was cut short because of a pandemic, and their sophomore years were anything but normal as the coronavirus continued to plague the world.

And then, only days before the start of their senior year, they lost one of their classmates. On Aug. 18, Carson Clettenberg, only 17, was killed in an accident. A beloved member of the Skier family and standout multi-sport athlete, he would have walked across the stage on Saturday with his fellow seniors.

Retired Olympic cross-country skier and Aspen native Simi Hamilton gives the commencement address during the Aspen HIgh School graduation ceremony on Saturday inside the Benedict Music Tent.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Peter de Wetter hugs his parents prior to giving his Capitol Speaker address during Aspen High School’s graduation ceremony on Saturday inside the Benedict Music Tent.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
The family of Carson Clettenberg is brought onstage for a special remembrance during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday inside the Benedict Music Tent. Carson, who would have been part of this year’s graduating class, died in an August accident, only days before the start of his senior year.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Not to be forgotten, Strassburger, the school’s principal, paid tribute to Clettenberg during the ceremony, inviting his family on stage to pick up his diploma to a standing ovation from the crowd.

“Carson’s infectious smile had an extraordinary ability to brighten even the darkest of days,” Strassburger said, “because that smile was absolutely genuine, and he had a true desire to make others feel seen, heard, and valued. Carson connected with people from all social groups, embracing differences and celebrating people for exactly who they are.”

New this year was AHS choosing to move away from naming a valedictorian and salutatorian, as had long been custom, and instead gave students the opportunity to graduate with summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude honors, part of an overall effort to raise graduation requirements beginning with next year’s freshman class.

Two students still delivered speeches: Peter de Wetter as the Capitol Speaker, chosen by the staff; and Saucedo as the Pyramid Speaker, chosen by the students.

Saucedo’s speech was especially emotional toward the end, when he thanked his parents, telling a story of them leaving Mexico with “only hope in your car” and how this led to the life he had here in Aspen. He graduated with summa cum laude honors and will attend Dartmouth.

“Because of all you sacrificed, I get to stand up here to honor your efforts,” he said to his parents during his speech. “Our time as students has been difficult. This class has seen adversity.”

Musical performances were delivered by Haver Muss-Nichols, singing “Your Song,” by Elton John, and by Eliza Marolt’s rendition of “Rivers and Roads,” by The Head and The Heart. The Belle Voci and Aspen Voices choirs also performed, along with the school band.

Aspen School Board member Katy Frisch certified the diplomas toward the end of a roughly 1 hour and 40 minute ceremony.

“Seniors, this is it. You have made it,” Strassburger said in her closing speech. “You have worked to uplift and support one another when it really mattered. … The bonds you formed, the friendships you cultivated, the lessons you’ve all learned together, these will serve you.”


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