Warren Witherell, founder of first U.S. ski academy

Passing Date: 
Monday, May 26, 2014

Warren Witherell died on May 26, 2014, at his home near Middlebury, Vermont, after a yearlong decline in health. He was 79. An honored member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, he founded Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, the first American school specifically dedicated to ski racing.

The program at BMA has barely changed since Witherell established it more than 40 years ago, and the Burke blueprint has been copied many times over by ski academies that followed. To date, 135 Burkies have made their national ski teams (130 on the U.S. Ski Team) and 33 have become Olympians.

An outstanding athlete, Witherell was the world water-skiing champion at age 18. He graduated in 1956 from Wesleyan University, where he played soccer, captained the hockey team and was an All-American swimmer. After learning to ski at age 20, he became a coach at Northwood High School in Lake Placid, New York. Applying the techniques he had mastered on water, he became an early and influential proponent of the carved turn and a savage critic of resort-based ski schools.

Witherell wrote two key learn-to-race books. The first, How the Racers Ski, was published in 1972. It became the bible by which race coaches taught their athletes for a number of years. The book promoted the idea of the pure carved turn, “without skidding or sideslipping.” In 1993, he added The Athletic Skier. In his final year, he was finishing up a book on the academy he founded, titled One School that Works.

Witherell served as Burke headmaster from its inception in 1970 until 1984. He then moved to Florida, where he coached the water-ski team at Rollins College to a national championship. In 1984, he was inducted into the U.S. Water Ski Hall of Fame; among other accomplishments in the sport, he was honored for being the first person to jump 100 feet.

In 2004, he shocked many by agreeing to come out of retirement to take the reins of the then-new Crested Butte Academy in Colorado. He retired in 2008.

Witherell is survived by his two daughters, Dr. Holly Mata and Dr. Heidi Witherell, and two sisters and a brother.

Sources: Hank McKee (, John Fry (The Story of Modern Skiing)

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