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Burke Mountain Academy’s Diann Roffe reflects on new world record set by alum Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin of Team United States reacts during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Slalom on Saturday in Are, Sweden.
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Mikaela Shiffrin of Team United States reacts during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Slalom on Saturday in Are, Sweden.

It's official: The greatest Alpine skier in the history of the sport is Burke Mountain Academy alum Mikaela Shiffrin.

Shiffrin set the World Cup record for career victories by taking first place in a slalom race in Sweden. It was her 87th World Cup win, and it broke a tie with Ingemar Stenmark on the all-time list for first place World Cup wins for men or women in the sport of skiing.

This victory came 12 years to the day after Shiffrin's first World Cup race in the Czech Republic at age 15. She won her first World Cup race at 17 at the same place in Sweden, where she set the world record this past Saturday.

Shiffrin is set to compete in three more races at next week's World Cup Finals, and has already secured this year's giant slalom season title.

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with World and Olympic champion Diann Roffe, program director and head coach of the Burke Mountain Academy Junior Program. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: First of all, what can you tell our listeners about what kind of training is provided at ski academies like Burke and how long Burke has been offering training to athletes like Mikaela Schifrin?

Diann Roffe: Burke Mountain Academy was the first ski academy available to athletes that saw skiing as a passion and wanted to be able to continue a high level of academic education, as well as continue to get better as ski racers. And I think it's a pretty special thing here in Vermont, because I think Vermonters can really relate to just being in the mountains. And the unique thing about Burke Mountain Academy is that we're set in the Northeast Kingdom. We're on the side of the mountain, and we're up here sort of on our own.

And the kids that choose to come here, like Mikaela and myself, you know, we really wanted to be the best in the world. And we wanted a place where we could focus solely on pursuing that passion.

And you've been doing that since the early '70s. Is that right? 

Yes. So since 1970, the Academy has been operating, and in the same place, starting in the same red farmhouse we call Frazier, up here on the side of the mountain.

Mikaela Shiffrin attended Burke Mountain Academy from 2009 to 2013. I understand that she grew up in Colorado, but chose to come to Vermont to train in her years, learning how to race, essentially. And given Colorado's reputation for some of the best ski conditions in the world. I'm wondering why you think she chose to train in Vermont instead.

It's interesting because most of the World Cup is located in Europe. And the European training venues are similar to our snow that we have in the East. So there's the same sort of freeze-thaw cycle that creates what we affectionately call Eastern ice. With the dry conditions and the elevations out west, they don't get that same type of snow condition. So while not all freeskiers may like the Eastern ice, for us to be a racer and be successful all over the world, it's really perfect conditions.

So if you could ski the East, you could really ski anywhere, pretty much — those slicker conditions, I guess.  And you're no stranger to the podium. You won a gold medal in giant slalom at the 1985 World Championships, you were just 17 when that happened. You took silver in the giant slalom at the 1992 Winter Olympics in France, and gold in the Super G in Lillehammer in 1994. So, you know better than really anyone how being off for even a fraction of a second can make the difference on whether a racer medals or not, given those incredibly slim margins in the sport. What goes through your mind when you consider what Mikaela Shiffrin has accomplished here?

It's really a Herculean feat for the sport, and particularly for Mikaela, you know, it's difficult to be a child prodigy, such as she was growing up. There's a tremendous amount of pressure internally and externally that comes along with that.

Mikaela has done a better job than anybody, obviously, in the history of the sport in being able to manage the pressure of her own expectations and stay consistent to the quality of her training, and focus on the training. It's a phrase we use a lot. If you can put money in the bank, you can make the withdrawals when they're needed. And throughout her entire career, externally, you know, the media and the public and her fans are so excited about her, but she still has to execute. And she's had some speed bumps along the way that are completely normal to any athlete at that level of the sport.

You know, at the end of the day, I think it's gonna be very hard for anybody to ever break her record again, because she's not even close to done.

Right. Who knows how many more victories she can pile up by the time she actually retires. It's really quite remarkable. What stood out to you about Mikaela Shiffrin as a person, as well as an athlete? Were there any signs, you know, that you saw in her just as the kind of person she is — and you may have spoken to this a little bit already — but anything that would kind of indicate to you that she might eventually become the winningest skier in the sport's history? 

There are a bunch of what we'll call green flags for Mikaela that we saw. We often talk about inhibitors, but with Mikaela, she created her own wealth of opportunities with her attitude and her character. She loved to train. So even as a child, and you know, I, I'm a junior program director here at Burke Mountain Academy for children's racing, which is age 14 and below. And even as a child, Mikaela was incredibly focused on her training volume and her training quality and she probably skied more than anybody else in her age group across the world.

I think an additional thing for Mikaela is her athleticism. She embraces all other sports and all other athletic activities. While she was a ski racer, she also was a soccer player, and she also rides a unicycle, and does so many other things to continue having a wide range of athletic abilities.

And then number three, she trained with intent, so that she knew how to race. She trained in a way that practiced racing in her mind. And she was always chasing the fastest skiers, whether they were boys girls, or college-age kids, or USA Team athletes.

I've heard a lot of interviews and read a lot of information about Mikaela Shiffrin, but this is the first time I've heard that she knows how to ride a unicycle! That's really interesting! I'm wondering if there's been a benefit for Burke here since she broke the record — and obviously, you already have this wonderful reputation as a major ski academy, but has there been renewed interest now? Are more people sort of knocking on the door, so to speak, saying, ‘Hey, I heard that Mikela Shiffrin trained with you folks, and you know, I'm interested to do that kind of thing.’

I think we have definitely seen that. Mikaela has inspired particularly young girls. We're seeing a surge in young girls that want to be like Mikaela, always be faster than the boys. You know, her whole motto, I think, is inspiring to young girls, and she's worked really hard at that. So for us as an organization, I'm seeing a lot of girls at the U10 and U12 age that want to come to BMA because they want to have the possibility of a track that will allow them to be exceptional.

If any athlete can come in with a passion for the sport, and that's the single most thing that will carry them the farthest. You can't come in with half a dream. You have to come in with a whole dream, and I think Mikaela has been a major part of that for us here at BMA.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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