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Douglas S. Looney
January 02, 1978
Plus a lot of slalom, "here" being Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy, where the students learn how to be world-class skiers
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January 02, 1978

It's All Downhill From Here

Plus a lot of slalom, "here" being Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy, where the students learn how to be world-class skiers

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Huddled on 29 acres of northern Vermont mountainside and hunkered down against winter's indignities but also perfectly positioned to preside over the glories of the other seasons, is a controversial enterprise of four small structures called Burke Mountain Academy. The buildings are designated as Frazier House, Moulton House, Woods House and The Gym. They might better be called Isolation, Unreality, Impossible Dreams and Nobody Said Life Was Easy. For life is odd at the academy. The nearest town of any size seems several light-years away.

Burke (student body: 55) is a ski academy under fire from some ski experts who sniff at what it is doing and what it achieves. Burke is also a high school and college for students from 14 to 21, and under fire from academicians who consider its credentials suspect. A faculty member, Richard Enemark, admits, "I can understand how people could wonder what goes on up here in two renovated farmhouses, a log cabin that leaks and a weight room that used to be a horse barn and usually smells like it."

What Burke is—stripped of the malarkey—is a school for rich kids who want to be world-class skiers when they grow up. Or sooner. If its physical appearance is modest, its dreams are not. And, surprisingly, the facts are on Burke's side. Since Burke's beginnings in 1971, with two teacher-coaches and five students in a rented farmhouse, it has trained and helped develop 30 boys and girls who have graduated to the U.S. Ski Team. Eleven of them have gone on to rank among the 30 best skiers in the world in at least one event. Seventy students have graduated from Burke's accredited high school and entered colleges such as Dartmouth, Middlebury, Radcliffe, Swarthmore and Williams.

Standing on a mountainside, surveying the academy, a student named Steve Graham says, "Burke is an atmosphere, more than anything. Without that it's just another ski school with studies." Steve, an 18-year-old from York, Pa., is a typical Burkie. Which is to say he fully expects to make it to the U.S. Ski Team, a pinnacle the size of a pinhead. "My dad always told me I was better than the other guys, and I always believed him." says Steve, who, predictably, is known as Cracker.

Headmaster Warren Witherell disputes the "rich" tag (tuition, training and room and board come to $5,400 for nine months). "There is all kinds of money for the poor, the depraved, the deprived, the underachiever," he says. "Programs, too. But for the kid at the top, there is very, very little. The most underprivileged is the gifted. We love gifted youngsters who set high goals." Indeed, that was how Steve Graham got in. "You sense a certain pizzazz in a kid who may be shooting above his league," Witherell says. "I saw that in Steve and he looked like a guy I'd like to have around."

Steve has been around, improving, for four years. Things, of course, were bound to improve for him—the first time he went skiing he was hit by a toboggan. Whether he will continue to improve, indeed whether he will maintain the stomach for it, is the question. "Racing is a frame of mind," he says. "To win you've got to have the ability to scare yourself—and the confidence that you can pull it out. It's a sport where you are always on the edge of disaster."

Steve's last remark qualifies as a thumbnail sketch of Burke Academy. It has always been on the verge of financial disaster, and if it doesn't continue to turn out kids who can ski like blazes, it will most likely collapse. The academy must also endure the sharpshooting of critics who have something against well-to-do students. Counters one parent, "Let's face it, skiing is not a ghetto sport. These are privileged youngsters who feel privileged to be here." Says Graham. "I sure am and I sure do." Or as former student Jeff Darrow likes to say, "This is a paradise."

A paradise does not have to justify itself, although Burke believes it can. That is because the academy thinks it might be a blueprint, or at least a rough sketch, of what the U.S. must do in order to win consistently in various kinds of world athletic competition. Yet, for all the chest-beating by Witherell, U.S. Alpine Team Director Hank Tauber has reservations. "No one creates world-class winners," he says. "All anyone can do is to give them the opportunity to develop their skills. They have to take themselves to a higher level."

Burke provides nine-month, seven-day training with heavy emphasis on conditioning. As one competitive ski season winds down, the Burkies already are thinking about the next one. While others put away their skis and their thoughts of skiing, Burke Mountain students still hike to mountaintops where there is snow. And as for dismissing skiing from their minds—never. Steve Graham, for example, and 20 other Burkies followed the snow to South America last summer. "Right now there are a lot of skiers on my level," he says. "Maybe by going down there, I can get a little ahead."

The academy offers an innovative educational program styled to fit around skiing. Public schools, understandably, can't do this. Finn Gundersen, a U.S. Women's Ski Team coach, says, "It is very difficult to make skiing and a traditional American education compatible. Burke was founded to close the gap."

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