`Preppie' ski academies supplying US team with young racing talents

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A chunky, teen-age farm girl from upstate New York beats the world's best ski racers to win a gold medal at the 1985 World Alpine Championships. Fluke or a predictable upset? You might say that 17-year-old Diann Roffe's triumph in the giant slalom at Santa Catarina, Italy, earlier this month is like a World Series shutout thrown by a rookie pitcher. Everybody is astonished except the scouts, coaches, and manager, who knew what the rookie could do -- and probably the opponents, who warily had watched the rookie's progress in the minors.

One thing is certain. The people at Burke Mountain Academy in the boondocks of northern Vermont see the electrifying win of alumna Roffe (she just finished her studies in September) as no fluke. Rather, it's more like a vindication, for Roffe is a product of a burgeoning ``farm system'' that is almost unique to all of sports: the ``preppie'' ski racing academies.

Singular in purpose, intense in atmosphere, and some say elitiest in concept, the academies have not been above controversy. Independent of the US Ski Team, they have sometimes been run by those with decidedly different views than those of the ski team establishment. Nevertheless, academies like Burke, Stratton Mountain School, and Green Mountain Valley School produce an increasing number of the nation's best ski racers.

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Everyone knows that being able to ski and train every day gives a kid an edge in making the ski team. What has not been so clear is whether cloistered, expensive schools for a small coterie of highly motivated youngsters from primarily wealthy skiing families could produce world-class ski racing winners.

Although she does not come from a wealthy family (scholarships are available for talented young racers without financial means), Roffe has gone a considerable way toward answering that question with her incredible gold medal race.

``It's been a long time coming, but it's fantastic,'' says Burke Mountain Academy founder Warren Witherell, the controversial educator-coach who started the academy ``movement'' in 1969. Stratton Mountain and Green Mountain Valley schools followed Burke. Last fall, Ski Racing magazine listed 20 ski academies in nine states, including Alaska. Some were traditional prep schools with strong skiing emphasis. Many were tutorial programs where serious racers can get top-flight daily coaching and still keep up with their studies. Others are intense ski racing programs affiliated with nearby public or private schools. But it's the small, fully accredited primarily Eastern academies (six are in Vermont alone) that have increasingly dominated the rolls of the US Alpine Ski team. Yet they have failed to produce an undisputed, world-class champion -- until this month, that is.

In that regard, the backgrounds of some of the young Americans, who won a surprising four medals at the World Championships, may be revealing.

Doug Lewis, who took the bronze in the men's downhill, is another academy grad. The 21-year-old from Salisbury, Vt., trained at Green Mountain Valley School. Many consider him a technically more proficient downhiller than Olympic gold medalist Bill Johnson, who has had trouble mounting the winner's podium this winter.

Eva Twardokens of Squaw Valley, Calif., who was third in the giant slalom behind Roffe, shows significant potential as an all-around racer. Last year's NorAm champion, the 19-year-old has jumped from 77th in World Cup standings last season to 13th at the break for the World Championships, where she took seventh in the combined.

Like Tamara McKinney, who won the bronze in the women's combined at the World Championships, Twardokens is not a product of the academy scene. She trained at Squaw Valley, renowned for its race training programs, and has told reporters she doesn't feel she missed anything because of the excellent training opportunities in the West.

Traditionally, America's top ski racers have been kids who grew up around ski areas. Their success has been attributed more to their natural ability than to the quality of their training. A ski team spokesman says that while the academy approach that combines rigorous education and training is good for the East, ``Western kids don't have quite that need.'' Witherell says that private school education is not as strong a part of Western US culture as it is in the East and that ``Western kids are more laid back'' and not as comfortable with the ``goal-oriented work ethic'' of a school like Burke. Still, some Western youngsters fit in quite well at the academies.

The US does not single out seven-year-olds to become ski racers, but the ski team has begun to test more racers for their athletic potential. That is how the high school soccer and basketball star Debbie Armstrong came to be an Olympic giant slalom gold medal winner (and fourth at this year's worlds). She was brought up through the ranks despite a relative lack of ski racing experience.

It's clear that a new day is dawning in the care and feeding of young ski racers. The new ski team staff sounds uncharacteristically humble and says it is listening. Somewhat overwhelmed with his team's four medals, US Alpine program director Harald Schoenhaar told Ski Racing magazine: ``We must be made aware of who the best young skiers are so we can work with the 15- and 16-year-olds. We will work very hard to open a dialogue with the academy coaches, the club coaches, the program coaches. We shall be much easier to reach, to deal with than in the past.''

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