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By Lucy M. Casale
In June 2013, 18-year old Mikaela Shiffrin was preparing to graduate from Burke Mountain Academy. The premier ski racing school in the United States, it’s tucked away on the side of the mountain, in the quiet town of East Burke, Vermont. When a local TV reporter asked her what was next, she replied: “I’ve never done the Olympics before . . . but I’m gonna be back in Europe; I’m gonna be racing in some races.” Shiffrin then squints into the camera, Vermont’s blue-green Willoughby Gap in the backdrop. Sunlight reflects off her long blonde hair. “The biggest unknown is just not having the crazy burden of a ton of deadlines to meet for school!”
Lately, the biggest unknown for Shiffrin was how many medals (one, two, five?) she would take home from the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. At only 22 years old, Shiffrin is considered the best female alpine ski racer in the world.
When the skiing gets underway, Shiffrin will have plenty of company from Burke Mountain Academy. Tommy Biesemeyer (2008), Nolan Kasper (2007), Liz Stephen (2005) and Ida Sargent (2006) will be there, too. Plus, two international “Burkies,” Harry Laidlaw (2014) and Kai Horwitz (2017), will compete in PyeongChang, representing Australia and Chile respectively.
In a lot of ways, the 2018 Winter Olympics will be a debut party not only for some lesser-known U.S athletes, but for Burke Mountain and its skiing academy, as well. It’s a moment the college preparatory school has been building toward since its founding in 1970. Burke Mountain Academy has produced more than 130 National Ski Team members and 33 Olympians, and they got their start riding the same Burke Mountain lifts, and flying down the same trails, that hardcore Vermont skiers today can enjoy.
On first glance, Vermont seems to be an unlikely spot for future Olympic ski racers to train. As any New England-raised skier knows, conditions can be less than ideal. 10 degrees one day. Forty the next. Snowy. Rainy. Patches of green between patches of ice. And Burke Mountain Academy itself could be no more than a collection of red farmhouses to uneducated passersby. But first appearances aren’t always what they seem.
Sitting in northeastern Vermont is one of its greatest advantages. Ski racing in adverse conditions, rather than the puffy powder western slopes boast of, helps students when they travel to Europe to compete where conditions are similarly challenging. And the academy, which has a close relationship with the U.S. Ski Team, is a treasure-trove of cutting-edge facilities. From its U.S. Ski Team’s designated High Performance training center (read: very fancy gym) to Burke Mountain’s challenging ski racing runs like Warren’s Way and the Dippers trails, the academy is widely considered one of the best ski racing training venues in the U.S.
As the profile of Burke Mountain Academy has grown, Burke Mountain itself has benefited from the association with the U.S. Ski Team. The mountain is more than an Olympic training ground — it’s a place where ordinary hardcore skiers can ride a lift and look down and watch as future Olympians whoosh by, and then ride those same trails and understand why they are ideal training conditions (as long as a race or training session isn’t underway). Burke is constantly upgrading its facilities for ordinary skiers, including a recent addition of a state-of-the-art high-speed Lietner-Poma T Bar. A much faster lift than the Poma lift it replaced that dated back more than 50 years, the new T-Bar can carry more skiers at once, and provides easier access to expert and intermediate trails.
Hard work wins
Beneath the shiny amenities is the mentality that has allowed so many Burke alumni to grow during their time at the academy, from grades 8 to 12, and then take off upon graduating. “We have a culture that really celebrates hard work,” says Willy Booker, a 1996 graduate and the academy’s Head of School. “And if you’re going to make it to the Olympic level, you really have to have a great deal of determination, grit and toughness. That’s a huge focus of what we do here.”
Admission to Burke Mountain Academy is based on three traits: ski racing ability, academic potential and strength of character. It also comes with a hefty price tag—$55,134 for boarding school for one year (need-based financial aid is available). Annual enrollment is no more than 70 students, half of whom come from the East Coast, the other half from other U.S. states and foreign countries. But whether they’re from California or Chile, skiers don’t enroll at Burke just for the love of the sport. Visions of gold are already filling their head.
In addition to rigorous academics, students juggle their training and ski racing schedules, even when there’s no snow locally. In the spring and summer, Burke students travel to California for skiing in May, to France in June to ski on glaciers, or to Chile for powder in August and then to ski Colorado or British Columbia in November. Around Thanksgiving, they return to Vermont where snow has hopefully fallen on Burke.
“There’s not a whole lot of free time for these guys,” says Bradley Wall, a 1997 graduate and the academy’s Athletic Director.
In the fall, students are expected to wake up for a 6:30 a.m. workout, and then attend a second workout after school. Once winter arrives, students start their day with an early morning warm-up and head to the mountain to ski until noon. After school in the late afternoon, they’ll attend weight-lifting sessions a few days a week. Dinner is at 6 p.m., study hall at 7 p.m., lights out at 9:30 p.m. And somewhere along the way, between trying to squeeze in a social life, they need to find time to maintain their equipment and prep their skis for the next day—to do it all over again.
“There’s a steep learning curve when a wide-eyed freshman comes in and is trying to learn the ropes,” Wall chuckles. But that is how Olympians, like Mikaela Shiffrin, reach their goals: hard work. Determination. Toughness. And yes, sacrifice.
The week before the start of the Winter Olympics, one of Burke’s famous alumni returned to the hills. Nolan Kaspar stopped by for training runs before his flight to PyeongChang, delighting students and staff and making it onto the @burkemountainacademy Instagram account with the hashtag: “#gonolan.” Some of the best racers even got excused from class for the day to train with him. “He’s been battling injuries and this will be his third Olympics,” says Booker. “He’s had some really amazing comebacks, and we feel his story is particularly inspiring for our students: overcoming adversity.”
It goes without saying how closely all of Burke Mountain Academy will be following the ski events in the Winter Olympics, says Booker. The TV in the student center (one of the school’s few sets) will broadcast the games all month long. And students, staff and alumni will no doubt be cheering their fellow Burkies on.
All eyes will especially be on Shiffrin. “Her odds of winning a medal are very high,” Booker says. “She’s been so dominant this year. She’s so accomplished at such a young age. So, we’re excited to see what she’s gonna do.”
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