Over Before It Really Began: Burke and Sweetser Part Ways

Gavin KentchJuly 19, 2017
The logo for Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vt., shows both alpine and nordic ski racers side by side in this photo from December 2016. (Photo: @BurkeMountainAcademy/Instagram)

A recently promised revival of the nordic program at Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy (BMA) now seems to be on hold, following a recent change in leadership and what appears to be the school’s subsequent decision to cut ties with its recently hired nordic coach Will Sweetser. As the first day of the 2017/2018 school year approaches in less than a month, Sweetser remains in Wyoming, far from northern Vermont. And the school remains without a publicly announced plan for the future for its nordic ski program.

Revival and retreat?

For several months earlier this year, the future of nordic skiing at a private school in northern Vermont that describes itself as “the preeminent ski academy” was bright. A press release on the BMA site, dated March 7, proclaimed, “BMA Revives Nordic Program with Olympic-Level Coach.”

The school announced that Sweetser had been hired as head nordic coach “effective immediately in preparation for the 2017-2018 academic year.” Then-Head of School Jory Macomber enthused about the school’s “revived Nordic program,” and said that the school had “always … aim[ed] at delivering world class alpine and Nordic racers.”

Two months later, on May 9, the Facebook page for BMA Nordic announced “The first camp of the new era,” to be held in late June, reflecting this nordic revival.

Later that month, Sweetser was featured in a May 26 article on FasterSkier. “We felt really welcomed there,” Sweetser said of the Burke community. He dismissed concerns that the school’s nordic program had lain fallow during the 2016/2017 season (there were “no athletes and no coaches” on the nordic side that year), saying that “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.”

Sweetser appears to have been employed by BMA as recently as late June. An archived version of the school’s coaching staff website (archived on June 21) lists Sweetser as head nordic coach. (The same URL, burkemtnacademy.org/skiing/nordic/coaching-staff/, now redirects to a site ending in skiing/alpine/coaching-staff/. This page lists 17 different coaches, none of them with an explicit nordic affiliation. The total student body at Burke Mountain Academy is 66 kids. The school claims nine “teaching faculty” and 16 “coaching/athletic staff” on its website.)

June 23 screenshot from BMA Nordic Facebook page

As of June 22, Sweetser was still listed (in both the cached and current versions of the site) as running the BMA Nordic Assessment Camp, held on the Burke campus from June 21-25. And a June 23 Facebook post for BMA Nordic asked, “Want to find out what Burke Mountain Academy Nordic can do for you? We’d love to help!” while giving Sweetser’s BMA email address as the point of contact.

There have been no updates on the BMA Nordic Facebook page since June 25, when a post described the final day of the Nordic Assessment Camp and looked to the future: “Great finish to a fantastic camp. Yoga, hike up Burke Mountain and some planning for the future. Thanks BMA (especially Dave, our chef), can’t wait to come back!”

If something then happened between Sweetser and BMA that led to or reflected a relationship souring, it happened fast. FasterSkier spoke with Sweetser by phone less than three weeks later, last Friday, July 14.

“I am no longer employed by Burke Mountain Academy,” Sweetser told FasterSkier at that time. “And I can’t comment further,” he added, alluding to the possibility of pending litigation.

No comment from Burke Mountain Academy

FasterSkier spoke with BMA Director of Development & Communications Jodi Flanagan on Friday afternoon. “I don’t have information on that,” Flanagan said by phone when asked about Sweetser’s employment status. She pledged to provide contact information for someone who could answer these questions.

Flanagan subsequently provided an email address for Head of School Willy Booker. She stated that Booker was traveling in Europe, but would be glad to answer questions for this story. 

FasterSkier emailed Booker last Friday (evening European time), and again on Tuesday, with a number of questions. On Wednesday, Booker wrote back, in full, “Thank you for your note. I’m traveling abroad with limited access to email. I will respond upon my return the first week of August.”

Phone messages left with a number of other coaches within the BMA athletic program were not returned.

Turnover at the top

After what the school has described as “15 years of stable leadership” under a single man, BMA has seen at least four different leaders within the last thirteen months.

Will Sweetser with his wife Sarah Dominick and their 1-year-old daughter, Aesklyn, near their home in Cody, Wyo. (Courtesy photo)

Former Headmaster Kirk Dwyer left that position effective June 2016, the school announced a full year in advance, vacating a position he had held since 2000. Dwyer was followed by Macomber, in a position that by this point had the job title of head of school. But less than ten months later Macomber was on his way out; a BMA press release dated April 13, 2017, said that he was resigning for “personal reasons.” Steve Berlack was announced as interim head of school for the next few months. 

Two months later, a June 2 press release announced the school’s fourth leader in roughly a year, Booker. The press release stated that Booker would be the next head of school “effective July 31, 2017.” In practice, Booker is currently listed on the BMA staff directory as head of school, and was media representative Flanagan’s recommendation for an appropriate person to answer FasterSkier’s questions about Sweetser and the school’s nordic program.

Sweetser “started having conversations with Burke in late February,” he told FasterSkier, and accepted the position at BMA on “March 3 or 4.” Macomber was the BMA head of school at the time that Sweetser would have been discussing his potential employment with the school. By the time Sweetser was no longer employed by BMA in late June or early July, first Berlack and then Booker had assumed that role.

Booker gave only the polite placeholder response quoted above to a follow-up email asking whether there is any connection between a change in school leadership and a change in Sweetser’s employment status.

What happens next

As Sweetser intimated, there may be litigation between the parties in the future. As of Tuesday afternoon, docket searches suggested that no case involving Sweetser and BMA had been filed in either Vermont state or federal court. (There are numerous steps that often precede the filing of a formal civil lawsuit, such as letters between the parties and attempts to reach a settlement without resorting to litigation.)

The future of the BMA nordic program, which dates back over 30 years and counts U.S. Ski Team athletes Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent and NCAA champion Sam Tarling as its most prominent alumni, is also unclear.

Sweetser said in May that “Priority number one” for his first year there was “to recruit.” He added, “My first priority is rekindling that core group [of nordic athletes]. 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.”

(FasterSkier has been unable to contact any athletes who were recruited to BMA for nordic skiing with Sweetser this fall. If you would like to speak with FasterSkier about this, you may email gavin (at) fasterskier.com.)

This potential comes with a steep price tag: annual tuition at BMA is over $55,000 for 2017/2018 (down to $42,000 for a day student needing tuition alone, sans room and board). “Approximately one third” of the 66-person student body received financial aid in 2016/2017.

The fall semester for the 2017/2018 academic year begins on Aug. 14. 

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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