EAST BURKE, Vt. — After nearly 50 years of training and educating promising ski racers, Burke Mountain Academy has its first students from China.
“We have two this year, but I think we could easily fill half our school with Chinese students right now,” said Willy Booker, the academy’s head of school.
The explanation for the surge in interest? Mikaela Shiffrin, who attended Burke, an elite and expensive boarding school in the bucolic corner of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom.
With Beijing set to host the next Winter Olympics in 2022, the Chinese are pursuing proven methods of developing their Alpine skiing talent.
What better template at this stage than Shiffrin, who with 56 World Cup victories at age 23 appears well on her way to becoming the most prolific winner in the sport’s history?
After claiming the last two World Cup overall titles, she is in the midst of what could turn out to be her most dominant season. She won the super-G title at the world championships in Are, Sweden, last week, and after surprisingly choosing to skip the combined event and the downhill, it would come as no surprise if she won two more golds this week, with the giant slalom on Thursday and slalom on Saturday.
“The Chinese people look at the sport and see Mikaela, and they quickly figure out that her path came through Burke, and they see that as an opportunity,” said Booker as he leaned on his poles between runs last Wednesday and observed his student body in action on the same steep slope where Shiffrin polished her talent.
“She skied thousands of runs on this same trail,” Booker said.
Song Wenmiao and Zhang Dingyue, the academy’s 14-year-old newcomers from Beijing, are hardly the only students who are deeply attuned to this. Shiffrin’s legacy looms large at Burke.
Her example is cited in classrooms and on the mountain. Her biggest successes are hailed during the daily announcements at lunch in the dining hall with its wooden beams and dangling flags representing the home nations of academy students, known as Burkies. They regularly watch and study her races on their phones, sometimes while riding ski lifts during training.
“I’d say her impact is certainly huge just on everyone,” said Charlie Lang, a senior from Norwich, Vt., who is one of the 68 current students, 18 of whom are international students. “It’s really cool to see Burke can produce something as successful as she is. I think it makes it more comfortable, more familiar. I think it just gives us some hope to do what she has. Same hills. Same places. Same classrooms. Same dorms. Same teachers.”
And yet there are few images of Shiffrin on display at the academy, a conscious effort by the school’s leadership to send an egalitarian message.
“I try not to make her into a snow goddess or some sort of snow princess,” said David Chamberlain, her former history teacher. “I kind of cringe when I see that language. I think it’s the antithesis of what we’re trying to do here. This is Vermont. I think the school and most of the staff really prides itself on trying to be humble people, and there are a lot of tremendously successful people here but they carry it lightly.”
Chamberlain, a big admirer of Shiffrin’s work ethic and talent, said there had been some discussion about how much the school should feature Shiffrin on its website because her accomplishments can be an intimidating and extremely tough act to follow.
Burke is undeniably elite. The full annual cost for a boarding student is listed at $57,891, although Booker said that 40 percent of the students receive some financial aid and estimated that “15 percent receive very significant financial aid.”
“It’s a lot,” said Booker, a Burke graduate, of the full-tuition price. “Everybody involved in ski racing in America should be concerned about the overall rise in the cost of participation in the sport.”
There are numerous ski academies in the United States, but Burke was the first of its kind in this country when Warren Witherell founded it near the base of Burke Mountain Resort in 1970 with a single student, Martha Coughlin, who was looking for a way to train full time.
The academy’s alumni now include 36 Olympians. Diann Roffe won a gold medal in the giant slalom at the 1987 world alpine championships when she was still enrolled at the academy and went on to win gold in the super-G at the 1994 Winter Olympics.
But Burke has not seen anyone quite like Shiffrin, the daughter of ski racers who was born in Vail, Colo., and moved to New Hampshire with her family at age 8. She came to the academy in middle school when her older brother, Taylor, enrolled. Though she spent most of her last two years of high school racing internationally, she graduated with her class in 2013.
Now based in Vail again, Shiffrin has remained an active alumna, lending her voice to a series of instructional videos for the academy and extolling the long-term virtues of carving turns on the often hard-packed, icy trails of Vermont, which have much more in common with European World Cup racecourses than the abundant powder of the American West.
Shiffrin last returned in May 2016 for a farewell celebration for the academy’s departing headmaster, Kirk Dwyer, one of her former coaches. He is now executive director of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.
Charlotte Maurer, an 18-year-old senior, said she was able to talk to Shiffrin about their similar hard workouts and their favorite memories at the academy.
“I thought that was really cool that even though she’s on top of the world, she can still get down to earth and talk about the same things we have all struggled with,” Maurer said.
Things like the Green Mountain Relay, a 211-mile event in the spring in which students run a relay the length of Vermont through the night along Route 100 from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border at North Troy.
Tradition endures at Burke Mountain Academy. There are still no letter grades, only written evaluations. Students are responsible for cleaning their dormitories, maintaining and tuning their ski equipment and taking part in regular kitchen duty.
But there also have been significant changes since Shiffrin graduated, and not just in the staff.
The single-rider Poma lift that long served the primary training hill has been replaced by a higher-speed T-bar that can accommodate two skiers at a time and increase the number of repetitions athletes can pack into a morning session.
Back on the academy grounds, a short walk downhill from the resort, there is now campuswide Wi-Fi and a capacious indoor training facility, the Ronnie Berlack Center, which opened in December 2015 and serves as a poignant reminder of the dangers of Alpine skiing.
Berlack, a 20-year-old alumnus, and Bryce Astle, 19, were killed in an avalanche in Sölden, Austria, on Jan. 5, 2015, while free skiing on an off day from training with the U.S. Ski Team’s development squad. Berlack and Shiffrin trained together at the academy.
“He used to hate it when she’d beat him,” Steve Berlack, Ronnie’s father, said. “They built a lot of speed chasing each other.
Though Shiffrin’s serial success runs the risk of making her less relatable to current students, Berlack, a longtime coach at Burke, believes there are still lessons to pass on.
“You might not be able to ski like Mikaela or have the results of Mikaela,” Berlack said. “But you can go to bed when she did. You can eat like she did. You can do recovery like she did, take care of your equipment like she did, focus on your mental strength like she did. And all those things make a difference.”
Amid the academy’s upgrades, there is uncertainty about the future. The Burke Mountain resort has been in government-appointed receivership since 2016, when the Securities and Exchange Commission took control of it following a fraud investigation. “We are hopeful we’ll get a good owner who understands not just B.M.A. but the local community here,” Booker said.
The academy’s appeal for nearly half a century has been rooted in its on-site access to top-flight ski runs, which allow students to train all morning and then study all afternoon.
“Without this, the school doesn’t exist,” Booker said, pointing at the training hill in the February sunshine.
Shiffrin is a unique selling point, but the template has its limits, whether you arrive from nearby Burlington or faraway Beijing.
“There are a lot of things that are really special about Burke, and I don’t want to say that there aren’t,” Booker said. “But there are also a lot of things that are really special about Mikaela Shiffrin.”