On the Slopes at Burke Academy, Headmaster Warren Witherell Preps Skiers for the Next World Class
When a young math teacher interviewed for a job at Burke Mountain Academy a year ago, he came dressed to impress in a silk shirt, Italian tie and imported shoes—and was startled to find the school's headmaster wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. The headmaster, Warren Witherell, casually informed the applicant, "We don't wear ties at Burke."
The dress code isn't the only thing at Burke that's out of the ordinary. The 67-student academy in East Burke, Vt. gives no grades, and teachers and students are on such a first-name basis that, says Witherell, "Half the kids probably can't spell my last name." The coed dorms are lightly supervised, and equality is rigorously demanded; there are no class officers. But Burke is no country club. Every student is a ski racer who spends half of most days on the slopes of 3,267-foot Burke Mountain, training to become world class and dreaming of making the U.S. Olympic team.
In the 13 years since Witherell, 49, founded Burke, the nation's first year-round ski school and probably the most prestigious, the record of his students has been astounding. Diann Roffe, 16 and a junior, won the December leg of the North American championships and has just returned from the World Cup races in Europe. Five Burke students were in the top 10 of the recent Eastern Cup series, and three of 10 Americans in last year's World Cup Juniors were from Burke. Four Burke alums were on the 1976 Olympic team, 90 have represented the U.S. in international competition, and six have ranked among the top 15 skiers in the world.
Ironically, Witherell's success as a teacher has made competition tougher for his students. His 1972 book, How the Racers Ski, is a bible on the ski circuit, and his methods are standard in the U.S. Looking back at Burke's domination of the 1976 Olympic team, Witherell says, "Those numbers will never be duplicated. We were the first game in town then. But now a lot of people have adopted our program." Still, Holly Flanders, Burke 1976, is on this year's U.S. Olympic team.
When Witherell first came to Burke Mountain in 1976, he only meant to run a race-training center for part of the year and to write books the rest of the time. But a 14-year-old named Martha Coughlin, a Massachusetts girl in Witherell's clinic, asked him if he would coach her all winter. Witherell blithely said, "Sure." Three days later Martha arrived with her bags, and six weeks after that Witherell came off the mountain to find a sign she had tacked to his door: "Burke Mountain Academy—for self-motivated students...Warren Witherell, headmaster and janitor." Others soon wanted to follow in Martha's ski tracks and Witherell decided, "If there are kids willing to work hard at being the best, some adult has to provide for that. You can't compete with the Europeans skiing only on weekends." He hired Finn Gundersen (now head ski coach), rented a 100-year-old farmhouse and began the next winter with an enrollment of five. On the school seal, Martha Coughlin still is listed as co-founder.
Today Burke's students and 16 teacher-coaches consider the academy more than a school. The ground rules specify no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes and a tremendous amount of trust and motivation. "Sure, it's competitive here," Witherell admits. "They're all trying to be No. 1. But I tell the kids we are not here to compete with each other but with ourselves. We have a simple saying in skiing: 'You race courses, not people.' "
That sportsmanlike goal, however, entails a lot of work. On arrival students are put through 11 physical tests, ranging from push-ups to a mile run, "and you better pass almost all of them or you're sent back home," Witherell says. In mild weather the kids run three to five miles every morning, and there are gym workouts, weight lifting and speed hikes up mountains. Coach Gundersen likes to tell his pupils, "You have to love the pain."
Witherell, who grew up in Albany, N.Y., is a natural athlete who has never had a drink or smoked. The world trick water-skiing champion at 18, he also played soccer, hockey and baseball at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After graduating in 1956, he taught English and history for 10 years at various schools. Though he didn't ski until he was 21 and never took lessons, "my first instinct was to get the ski to work for me rather than pushing it," Witherell says. His theory turned him into a racer and a coach. His revolutionary approach scraps bodily gyrations in favor of minimal movement. "If you stand on the ski properly," he maintains, "the ski will create the turn." Divorced, Witherell has two daughters, Heidi, 18, and Holly, 20, both Burke graduates.
Witherell constantly battles accusations that Burke, with a tuition of $9,850, is for rich kids, not smart ones. "Forty percent of the students are on some kind of scholarship," he points out, "and a third of the graduates go to Dartmouth, Williams and Middlebury." If anything, says Kathy Gundersen, the head coach's wife and a teacher of American literature, "At times we may ask too much. But kids here talk a lot about standards of excellence. That alone is unique."
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