How a unique exchange program is paying off for Burke Mountain Academy and Buck Hill

Q&A with Burke’s Kirk Dwyer

In the tale of two ski programs — Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy and Minnesota’s Buck Hill Ski Team — it’s mostly been the best of times. Mikaela Shiffrin, Diann Roffe and Erik Schlopy have emerged from Burke while Buck Hill has given us Lindsey Vonn and Kristina Koznick, among others.

So why not combine forces for even better times? That’s just what happened this season.

Take away the obvious differences between the two: a full-time ski academy versus an after school training program; rural Vermont versus metropolitan Minneapolis; vertical drop, 2,011 feet for Burke to 310 feet for Buck Hill, and you have two programs that share a philosophy of what makes a strong alpine skier.

That mutual respect and desire to develop strong ski racers, led by Burke headmaster and coach Kirk Dwyer and longtime Buck Hill coach Erich Sailer brought the two together this season for a U16 training collaboration.

“Grassroots programs like Buck Hill and ski academies like Burke,” said Sailer, “are some of the most important parts of the development of future ski racers in the U.S.”

SkiRacing.com had a chance to catch up with Dwyer to talk about his experience with the exchange with the group of U16s. Read what he had to say about rope tows, travel, sprint courses, and legendary coach Sailer.

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SR: How did the idea of a “training exchange” come to fruition?

KD: Initially my interest derived from our desire to continue strengthening our slalom and giant slalom emphasis at BMA and recognizing the long term success of Buck Hill and Erich Sailer in producing great slalom skiers. I have long had great respect for Erich. We frequently had breakfast at the same time during our June ski camps at Mount Hood, where I expressed my interest in bringing a small group of U16 girls to train at Buck Hill and possibly attend some slalom races in Central.

SR: How did you decide on the group to bring?

We trained eight days of slalom at our August camp at Mt. Hood, and identified three of the U16s we felt were skiing the best. From our Colorado camp in November at Loveland, we selected two more based on who was fastest in our timed slalom runs.

SR: How were you able to schedule the travel into the season?

KD: We were assisted by Buddy Ide, whose wife, Lisa, is president of the Buck Hill Ski Club. Buddy coordinated between Buck Hill coaches and me. Basically, we looked at when the timing worked and when there might be races in reasonable proximity to Buck Hill.

We reciprocated with two visits by Buck Hill skiers to Burke. The first was during the latter part of President’s Week in February. Three of the Buck Hill U16 girls flew to Burlington, where we picked them up. They stayed on campus at BMA, had meals at the school, and immersed in our training for three days, then flew back to Minneapolis. Coach Todd Nelson came to Burke before the U16 Nationals at Sugarloaf with the four Buck Hill athletes who had qualified and trained four more days.

SR: What was your experience with the Buck Hill training set-up? What could they provide that you do not have access to at Burke?

KD: We loved the training environment with the rope tow and short training hill. The nature of taking repeated training runs on courses of 25 to 28 gates in length and very quick repetition is excellent for slalom training. We did two training days of double two-hour sessions. The first block was by ourselves, and Buck Hill generously ran the rope tow for us and provided the use of their gates and equipment. After the first session our girls were understandably tired from riding the rope tow, which they weren’t used to. The energy of having the range of ages on the hill, with kids skiing right on to the rope tow from the training courses, pace of training on the sprint courses, and talking to Erich in his start building at the top of the course led to all skiing hard and having a blast.

buckhill_Ropetow_loadingRiding the rope tow at Buck Hill: more tiring than it looks.

SR: What do you see as the main benefit of visiting a place like Buck Hill?

KD: I think the uniqueness of the training is the great training environment. We have similar ability to have high-volume training on a great training hill, but the sprint courses and number of skiers training on four parallel courses was unique. As was the spirit in the ski club room.

SR: What did the athletes who participated gain from the change of scenery?

KD: Training and racing outside of our norm. It reinforced the idea that getting fast in slalom is fairly simple if you want to work hard, and if you have a great environment, positive peer group, and great coaches.

SR: Do you think this idea could expand internationally with European and/or Canadian programs?

KD: We have other associations including one with the Norwegian program Felix McGrath runs. We also have a very close association with the Loveland Ski Club and John Hale.

SR: What was the overall experience like for the athletes and how did they respond?

KD: It was a very positive experience. It’s helpful to learn to travel as a team, and it reinforces a healthy team dynamic. With the traveling, the girls learned to be very organized. They skied great in the two races we attended at Lutsen, which was nice, because all five who attended had a positive experience in the training and racing. I think we found that at heart, we have real similarities in how we approach training, and the mutual exposure was very beneficial.

SR: Will you continue to collaborate in the future?

KD: We felt the exchange this year was mutually of great benefit and I hope we will continue to collaborate.

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burketraininghill2“We have real similarities in how we approach training,” says BMA’s Kirk Dwyer of the collaboration with Buck Hill.