If you are from New England, you’ve probably heard of Will Sweetser. Originally from Auburn, Maine, Sweetser, 47, has been coaching nordic for the last 25 years. He skied for Dartmouth and coached at Bates College, the Jackson Hole Ski Club, Carrabassett Valley Academy, and Rangeley Lakes Ski Club before spending 15 years with Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) from 2000-2015. He started with MWSC as a cross-country coach and evolved into its competitive programs director, but in 2015, MWSC announced its Olympic Development Team was being restructured. It changed its name to the Outdoor Sports Institute and expanded its mission to four seasons of outdoor sports in Maine.
With a baby on the way, Sweetser and his wife, Sarah Dominick, a former assistant nordic coach at Bowdoin College, decided to leave their home in Stockholm, Maine, and move west to Cody, Wyo. There, the two started a post-grad, gap-year program called Mountain Endurance Sports, which also offered personalized coaching services and an online ski store. Last season in its second year, the program had two post-grads, Lance McKenney and Daniel Streinz. McKenney placed 20th in the classic sprint at 2017 Junior World Championships in Utah, and according to Sweetser, Streinz ended the season with the best International Ski Federation (FIS) point ranking of any junior man in the U.S.
In March, the Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vt., announced Sweetser would be returning back to New England to serve as its new head nordic coach. He said he accepted the job in early March and with his wife Sarah and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Aesklyn, the family of three planned to head East in June for the first training camp of the season at Burke.
FasterSkier caught up with Sweetser on the phone earlier this month from his current home in Cody.
FasterSkier: What drew you to Burke and back to New England?
Will Sweetser: My wife and I spent 20 years in Maine, and I grew up in Maine. I love the East, really, I’m a Mainer through and through, but certainly New England has been my home. My wife and I did something very similar to this 20 years ago, we moved out West after I had been coaching for a while in the East, in order to try to race, and we made it about a similar amount of time, about two years. I guess I would say my wife loves the trees, she misses them, that’s part of it.
Part of the move out here was to get a break after MWSC and to get a chance to be with family. I mean, I was constantly putting in 60 to 75 hour weeks at MWSC, so it was a good opportunity for me to change things up. I looked at jobs over those two years and had conversations with a number of different options, and Burke has been the best fit for us. Part of the attraction is that it is a very small rural town, it feels like a lot like where we just were in Maine, at the same time, I can drive an hour and 15 minutes and be in Hanover, where I could drive an hour fifteen in northern Maine and still be absolute nowhere.
It’s a good change for us, but it preserves a lot of the things we really loved about Maine, while offering us an opportunity. … We were looking for a place to raise our daughter, the opportunity to raise her somewhere the strive for excellence is real so that was a big draw. And last, it seems like a great fit for both of us to be able to work there when the time is right with our family. We felt really welcomed there.
FS: How difficult of a decision was that?
WS: Like I said, I had other job offers; I interviewed at other places the last two years. It was pretty easy for us to decide that those things weren’t right. … It wasn’t a difficult decision, every time you move it’s a big deal, so we wanted to make sure the fit was right. We spent quite a bit of time there looking things over, and we tried to do a good job making that decision with our eyes wide open, so we spent a better part of a week on campus, and I went back and visited again.
FS: When did the hiring process start and how long did it take?
WS: It was all pretty quick. I started having conversations with Burke in late February, and we went and visited the last couple days of February and first couple days of March and I accepted a position March 3 or 4. We knew that we were looking for something, I talked to groups in Canada, and I interviewed for two other positions while I was out East, but I was recruiting for Burke by the time JN’s [Junior Nationals] started [in March].
FS: What are your key priorities in your first year at Burke and what is the status of its nordic program?
WS: Priority number one is to recruit. I don’t know if you know the history of Burke, but it’s a longstanding nordic program, for over 30 years they’ve had a nordic program, and they produced some excellent skiers, from people like [U.S. Ski Team members] Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent, [and Ford Sayre’s] Sam Tarling a little after them. Heading into this with them having had no athletes and no coaches last year, essentially the program was dead. In name it was not dead, and they have always had a nordic skier on their school logo, and the board of directors seemed totally disinclined to let nordic die, so I feel like there is a tremendous support for nordic at the school.
My first priority is rekindling that core group. We do have interest. Two kids are committed to coming and I am in discussions with several others that I think we will start the year between four and six athletes for next year. My goal is to have enough athletes on campus to have a consistent group of somewhere between 18 to 24 athletes. I recognize that is going to take a while, but that will be a program that is several coaches, full-age cohort in both men’s and women’s high school ages. I am very optimistic about the potential. There are a lot of great things that Burke has to offer, such as skiing on campus, which I think is a big plus, so we are looking at homologating a couple of race courses right there. We are going to grow a fairly robust gap-year program, and we will have a pretty extensive camp schedule coming up. I will run one camp this summer and then see where that leads us.
FS: How is the Burke position different than your position at Maine Winter Sports Center?
WS: Well, one, it’s vastly less travel. I am going to spend, I don’t even want to guess the number of fewer miles I am going to drive, but a significant amount. The proximity of other strong programs is just outstanding. One of the things that makes New England the strongest region in the nation is that we have such a strong club system, thanks in large part to NENSA [New England Nordic Ski Association], but the proximity to GMVS [Green Mountain Valley School] and Stratton and Craftsbury is just great. I think it is excellent that all those programs are in Vermont, not too far from one another and can bang heads, and for that matter, [NENSA Head Cross-Country Coach] Margaret [Maher’s] program over at Lake Placid, and then the rekindling of the Dublin School if you go a little further out. I think that if you drew a radius around [Vermont’s] upper valley, you really get to some super-strong programs.
Some of the other things that I think will really help Burke and that I did not have access to at MWSC is I got access to snowmaking both at Burke and at Craftsbury and I think I am going to be able to capitalize on that. And it will be different in that my duties are different. My role at MWSC was in no way shape or form confined to coaching junior racers. Almost the whole time I was there, I had extensive other duties: community building, facilities management. It’s not like those things are going to go away, but it’s all right there, which is really different from driving across the whole state of Maine trying to grow those things. It is much more ‘grow it at home’ and I will have a lot more contact hours with athletes than I have ever been able to have.
FS: Will Mountain Endurance Sports continue and if so in what capacity?
WS: It will happen in a modified iteration, the latest iteration. We are still working on the ins and outs of where to keep the business. It very well may change name, certainly we will continue to retail and do team sales for Maplus wax and Rex Ski Wax, we are working on details with how our arrangement with KV+ will move forward, and as far as the coaching goes, no, we are not going to do a gap-year program anymore — that’s going to be Burke — but I will continue a coaching relationship with some athletes who are older than high school. I am still talking with several athletes that I have worked with in the past about their athletic future. I am for sure working with Austin Huneck, who was with me for two gap years with MWSC then he was a standout freshman at the University of New Mexico two years ago, spent last year in Sweden not ski racing, but now he is coming back to ski racing. I am working with him as his coach, and somehow, he and a few other guys are going to be part of, I don’t know what to call it yet, maybe like a Burke Mountain training group, something like that. It’s not a full senior program yet, but give me a few years.
FS: What has kept you coaching and in the sport for the last 25 years?
WS: It was really at Dartmouth where I developed a passion for skiing and I coached first. I was a writing major. I was writing and coaching, and then I was teaching English and coaching, and then it turned out I could make a better living coaching. But more than that, I lost a brother to drugs in 1998 and since then I have been pretty motivated to help kids make better choices, and I have been doing that through skiing ever since then, so that’s a lot of what has kept me in it. That is my driving passion: working with kids and helping them make good decisions, and that was a big piece of MWSC. And the other piece is that my wife and I have done this for essentially all our adult lives, we really enjoy the lifestyle, the people we get to work with are fantastic. It’s a great way to travel and it’s a great way see other parts of the world. We really enjoy just being outdoors and being fit. Even two years ago, I wasn’t coaching essentially, we were out in the mountains hiking, skiing, doing all the things you do for ski training, just because we love them, so it’s a really easy fit for us, and we look forward to sharing more of those things with people who are passionate about those at Burke. The Burke community is really motivated.
FS: Do you know where you will be living yet when you move in June?
WS: We don’t know; we would like to know. I am hoping by the time I go to run this camp in June that I will know and I will be able to look at where we will live and then can pack appropriately. We are leaving a lot of our stuff here. Cody is not a ski town, but its a great place to train for skiing. The elevation is excellent, the climate is excellent, the mountain biking is growing in leaps and bounds, so the trail system is fantastic right in town. Cody sits at 5,000 feet and the mountains around it goes up to 12,000 feet. If everything goes as well as we think it’s going to go, I am sure we will have a permanent location at Burke in a few years. For now, I anticipate that we will live near or on campus.
We are looking forward to being back. It really does feel like our family. The New England ski family feels like our family. Even on the circuit the last two years, we have been astonished by the continued support we get from New England, even when we lived out here, so it really does feel like a homecoming for us.