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Tell Me About Warren Witherell

post #1 of 23
Thread Starter 

Warren Witherell's ideas on ski equipment and technique, first proposed in "How The Racers Ski", and again in an update a few years later entitled "The Athletic Skier", have informed many skiers, instructors, and other authors over the last 40+ years. He is a highly influential, if not seminal, figure in skiing, and it seems fitting he should have his own thread here so people can share their take on his history and legacy.

 

Just to get things rolling here's an article dating back to 1984...

 

On the Slopes at Burke Academy, Headmaster Warren Witherell Preps Skiers for the Next World Class

 

Please share your memories, impressions and links to other information about Warren Witherell.


Edited by jc-ski - 7/12/12 at 7:28pm
post #2 of 23

I shared this before, but here goes:

My friends and I had little coaching in high school, and his book was a big hit with those of us who raced.  Years later (late '80s I think) I was at a driving range in the Orlando area working out a problem, and a tall guy next to me said, "Try this."  He was spot on.  A while later we started talking and it turned out he was into water skiing.  We exchanged names and I recognized his immediately.  He was surprised someone in central Florida knew he wrote books about skiing.  He had a hell of a golf swing and hit the ball a mile.  I was envious that he only played golf a few years, yet hit the ball so well.  I guess he is expert at analyzing movement at multiple sports. 

 

His genius IMHO comes from being the first to analyze the modern ski turn in so much detail, being the first to publish information about the cause and effect of equipment has on technique (canting, ramp angle, etc.), and making the analysis of the turn so damn simple: "Put a ski on edge, pressure it correctly, and it will take you where you want to go."  You can't find a more simple description of a carved turn.

 

A lot of great skiers came out of the Burke Mountain Academy.
 

Witherell is like Alf Engen.  They rank among the greats of the sport yet most people never heard of them.


Edited by quant2325 - 7/13/12 at 11:14am
post #3 of 23
A friend who ran the race program at Northern Michigan's SugarLoaf while I worked there took over the ski school at Nub's Nob in the late 1990s. He had Witherell come to Michigan to conduct boot fitting and canting clinics several times. Everyone I knew who met Witherell at those events raved about both his personality and knowledge.
post #4 of 23

     Over the past 15 years, I have had a chance to get to know Warren due to my interest in Boot fitting.  Early on I had purchased a copy of "the Athletic Skier and had looked up the author and called him to get a better understanding of some of the info in the book.  Later as He was traveling from Fla. to upstate NY, he stopped by my home and spent the night.  We spent all evening bouncing ideas off each other about fitting ski boots, and flying, He at one time had an amphibian aircraft he kept on a lake in NY,(I had flown some in the US navy).

   

     Warrens gift to skiing is his ability and courage to put down on paper, new ideas that for some time were not accepted by other professionals/teachers/coaches in the skiing business.  Those ideas went on to change how skiing is taught internationally and improve the sport we enjoy so much. He has been acknowledged by being inducted into both the American Snow Skiing and Water skiing halls of fame, (he was an avid water skier also).  Quite a guy.
 

mike

post #5 of 23
Thread Starter 

Found a short video of WW talking about the writing of "How The Racers Ski"...

 

 


Edited by jc-ski - 5/29/14 at 10:28am
post #6 of 23

Sounds like someone I would like to meet. 

post #7 of 23

If the ski world had paid attention to Warren in 1976 we would have had shaped skis in 1977.  His focus was on racing and carving and in my opinion he is one of the top few ski instruction thinkers in the history of our sport.  Many don't know it, but he was a world class water skier and moved to Florida in the 1990s.  I corresponded many times with him in the late 80s and 90s and used much of his theories and concepts in my teaching career.

 

My autographed copy of "The Athletic Skier" has a prominent place on my bookshelf.

post #8 of 23
Thread Starter 

Some concepts embody truly new thinking, and some are (consciously or unconsciously) derived or synthesized from previous exposure to other thinking. Let's label  them revolutionary and evolutionary, respectively. I'm curious to know about some of the concepts commonly associated with Warren Witherell.

WW's own presentation changed over time: In How The Racers Ski (1972) he used the term "carved snowplow turns", which changed into "wedge turns" in The Athletic Skier (1993), but they both describe the same thing:

How The Racers Ski, Chapter 17, Page 113

Carved snowplow turns ... teach beginners, intermediates and experts "how the ski works"; ... how to use their knees and ankles to
change edge and pressure on their skis. They teach that the ski is a tool - that if you just stand on it properly it will provide turning
force. They teach people to "feel the snow". They teach people to edge their skis first, and then turn them. They stress that the upper
body's main function is to maintain balance - that quiet, disciplined upper-body movements are essential to sound ski technique.


( And continued on Page 114 )

I use snowplow turns to teach racers the fundamentals of how a ski works in the snow: To teach them to feel the snow; to teach them to
explore the ski's reaction to forward and backward leverage; to teach them the difference between carved and skidded turns; to teach them
to work for maximum speed on a slow line ... Yes, all these basic elements can be taught from snowplow turns. In fact, they are best taught
from snowplow turns. Why? ... Turns can be made at very slow speeds, allowing a skier to concentrate on specific details - to isolate each
factor of a turn and to think analytically about it.


So were these concepts as presented at the time by WW revolutionary or evolutionary?

 


One other interesting bit - This is from the end of Chapter 15 (Wedge Turns) in The Athletic Skier:

At this point, both skiers and readers may say: "Wait a minute. If I don't use my skis for a brake, how do I control my speed?" In
answering the question, we teach one of the most important lessons of athletic skiing. You control speed by selection of line. To go
slower, turn farther from the fall line, or turn more across the hill. To go faster, ski closer to the fall line. At all levels of skiing
we control speed in this manner.

When free skiing, racers say: "Pick a slow line and go fast on it." In this way they control their speed; they learn to let their skis
glide; they master carving skills; and they ski in harmony with the mountain.

post #9 of 23
Their application to race training may have been revolutionary (I have no race coaching background), but the idea of using wedges to limit speeds while learning advanced use of the outside ski was not new to the instruction field. One of my take-aways from the first PSIA event I attended in 1969 was how similar the body movements are between a wedge turn and a parallel turn. We didn't teach the wedge as something that had to be unlearned to advance.

Gee, the "ski the slow line fast" sure sounds familiar, eh?
post #10 of 23

Sure, he taught us how to carve turns and putting it in print really pissed off the Austrians (according to Witherell).  Carving--using the ski to turn by pressuring it--instead of hopping/sliding was revolutionary.  But recreational instructors never taught new skiers how to carve before sliding, since carving means initial acceleration!  New skiers slowing down only by extending their arcs across the hill would mean a bunch of accidents.   Now most recreational skiers seemingly want to go the other way and the sales of technical skis are in the crapper as a result.  But racing is still racing.  His thoughts on carving, equipment, set-up, and finding the optimal line are as true today as Hogan's Five Fundamentals of Golf when those lessons were first published.  Fundamentals don't change.

 

Evolutionary?  I don't think so since the ski shapes hadn't changed that much in the 1970's.  You still had to bend or pressure the long skinny skis a lot more to get it to carve on the desired path, unlike today when you can carve with much less effort due to the ski shape.  The old skis forced us to "step up" to get a faster line in GS, while today with modern equipment that is unheard of.  This was revolutionary stuff since European racing "secrets" were explained in detail and the USA started producing more good racers as a result.  His books and the Burke Mountain Academy may have been an inflection point in USA ski racing.

 

 

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by jc-ski View Post

Some concepts embody truly new thinking, and some are (consciously or unconsciously) derived or synthesized from previous exposure to other thinking. Let's label  them revolutionary and evolutionary, respectively. I'm curious to know about some of the concepts commonly associated with Warren Witherell.

WW's own presentation changed over time: In How The Racers Ski (1972) he used the term "carved snowplow turns", which changed into "wedge turns" in The Athletic Skier (1993), but they both describe the same thing:

How The Racers Ski, Chapter 17, Page 113

Carved snowplow turns ... teach beginners, intermediates and experts "how the ski works"; ... how to use their knees and ankles to
change edge and pressure on their skis. They teach that the ski is a tool - that if you just stand on it properly it will provide turning
force. They teach people to "feel the snow". They teach people to edge their skis first, and then turn them. They stress that the upper
body's main function is to maintain balance - that quiet, disciplined upper-body movements are essential to sound ski technique.


( And continued on Page 114 )

I use snowplow turns to teach racers the fundamentals of how a ski works in the snow: To teach them to feel the snow; to teach them to
explore the ski's reaction to forward and backward leverage; to teach them the difference between carved and skidded turns; to teach them
to work for maximum speed on a slow line ... Yes, all these basic elements can be taught from snowplow turns. In fact, they are best taught
from snowplow turns. Why? ... Turns can be made at very slow speeds, allowing a skier to concentrate on specific details - to isolate each
factor of a turn and to think analytically about it.


So were these concepts as presented at the time by WW revolutionary or evolutionary?

 


One other interesting bit - This is from the end of Chapter 15 (Wedge Turns) in The Athletic Skier:

At this point, both skiers and readers may say: "Wait a minute. If I don't use my skis for a brake, how do I control my speed?" In
answering the question, we teach one of the most important lessons of athletic skiing. You control speed by selection of line. To go
slower, turn farther from the fall line, or turn more across the hill. To go faster, ski closer to the fall line. At all levels of skiing
we control speed in this manner.

When free skiing, racers say: "Pick a slow line and go fast on it." In this way they control their speed; they learn to let their skis
glide; they master carving skills; and they ski in harmony with the mountain.


Edited by quant2325 - 7/28/12 at 12:14am
post #11 of 23

Spring of 74 did the PSIA academy at A Basin.  Witherell, Abraham, a pro freestyler who's' name I do not remember and the director of the Mission Ridge Academy were four of the clinic instructors.  It was interesting to hear the man dissect the points in his book on the snow and so the short version of his progression.  He was the only person in teaching/coaching I ever saw Horst Abraham deffer to, it was very interesting to hear those two discuss mechanics though.

 

Most of what he presented was already in use to some degree, he did put it together better than anybody else on the American ski scene at that time though.  The carved wedge was a drill way back before then.  Boot canting started making its' appearance about 70.  The ski shape had been changing in the mid 60s' with the waists moving back and becoming more pronounced.  

Witherell took these newer innovations and showed the American skier how to apply them together and their relationship to each other.  

post #12 of 23
Thread Starter 

Huddled on 29 acres of northern Vermont mountainside and hunkered down against winter's indignities but also perfectly positioned to preside over the glories of the other seasons, is a controversial enterprise of four small structures called Burke Mountain Academy. The buildings are designated as Frazier House, Moulton House, Woods House and The Gym. They might better be called Isolation, Unreality, Impossible Dreams and Nobody Said Life Was Easy. For life is odd at the academy. The nearest town of any size seems several light-years away.

...
When fresh snow falls, Witherell reschedules morning classes for the afternoon and everyone goes skiing.
...
"I don't think you should ever let school get in the way of a child's education," says Witherell.
 
Link to full article from Sports Illustrated, January 02, 1978
post #13 of 23
That is very interesting to me that he understood golf swing mechanics and was proficient in golf as well. Super talented guy. I have his books. The exact strips do decorator tape needed to create 1 degree for cantingnand. It has been a long time now, I am going to guess 8 strips. Anybody remember?
post #14 of 23

I raced on a course he set at Burke---it went way back and forth, sort of like he had set a training course.  It was the oddest, most uncomfortable race I ever skied in, we just had to step, step, step, to get the old straight 207cm skis around.  I can see how it might be a good drill, and it would have been a dream on shaped skis.

 

I also remember allegations of impropriety with young girls.  One student said he'd go to the girls dorm to shower (alone, closed door, not a Sandusky, just creepy weird).  A few others left suddenly or had Dad come up to lay down the death threat.

post #15 of 23

Whoah.  

post #16 of 23

He was from Troy, I think.

post #17 of 23
Decades ago, more than four, I was a hockey player who was forced to participate in a different sport each semester (3) at Northwood School (Lake Placid). I decided to play goalie on the soccer team. On the second day, a skinny, dressed in shorts only, came riding up the driveway on a bicycle. He leaned it against a tree and walked over to us (3 goalie prospects and a ski jumper, Rand). Rand was shooting pretty hard, so I thought. The skinny guy had no shoes; we laughed. Then everything changed. He kicked non-stop at us for two hours. A blister developed on his foot. "Thank God," I thought to myself. But then he switched feet and pummeled me for another hour. For the next two weeks he kicked perfectly accurate rockets while coaching and teaching me a position in a sport that was more or less unknown to me at the time. During the season, we competed against some of the top college freshman soccer teams in the East. At that time, freshmen weren't allowed to compete at the varsity level, but most could defeat their varsity teams. Warren gave me confidence, instruction, and love for the game. We shut out Middlebury (30+ saves), and I was actually recruited for soccer; but hockey was my game. Warren was an amazing coach and athlete; and a fantastic person as well. I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience of knowing Warren.
post #18 of 23
Thread Starter 

Been reading through "How The Racers Ski" again. Originally published in 1972, but even though ski designs have changed a lot since then and had an impact on technique it still seems pretty relevant, e.g...

 

"Almost every new student is self-conscious about his body position. He wonders if he's twisting and bending enough at the waist, if he's holding his hands properly, if his hips are in the right place. ... But I am looking at his skis - at the tracks they leave in the snow. ... I am evaluating his use of the tools on which he is skiing."

 

"A racer may move his body to change edge or pressure on his skis, or to anticipate changes in balance, but he does not think about moving his body. He thinks about the different feel of the ski edges in the snow, or about the line in the snow he wants his skis to follow."

 

"Don't think too much about angulation. Just edge your skis, relax, and let angulation occur naturally."

 

The book is chock full of Witherell's simple, common sense approach to learning and doing. Good stuff!

post #19 of 23

I just heard that Warren Witherell passed away.   Oddly enough when I searched to find out for sure this thread was what google popped up.  

post #20 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by Trekchick View Post
 

I just heard that Warren Witherell passed away.   Oddly enough when I searched to find out for sure this thread was what google popped up.  

Sad to hear this. Rest in Peace Warren.  Hope he enjoy the technical discussions with the group that has been waiting for him.

post #21 of 23

I had the pleasure of spending two days with Warren.  One was on snow and one was an off snow  ski coaches clinic .  I often wonder about Warren and the carving snow ski.  Warren was a world champion slalom water skier  (In several age classes).  Carving on a slalom water ski is about all you do.  Everybody that slalom skis carves, even novice slalom skiers.  I too competed as a water skier.  I love carving water ski turns and I love carved snow ski turns.  There are actually some similarities between the carved water ski turn and the carved snow ski turn  mechanics  in working the skis tip to tail.  I wonder if some of Warrens attraction and affinity for the carved snow ski turn came from his water ski background.  Warren had the ability to understand what was fundamental and important in his coaching.  YM

post #22 of 23
Warren was the kind of person who taught you how to get out of your own way.
His brilliance wasn't simply contained in the mechanics, nuances and technical aspects of skiing or running gates...it also encompassed the necessity of developing well adjusted young adults, capable of dealing with the range of requirements and responsibilities of School, Training and Life in general.

He had an ever present smile and mirthful wisdom, which exuded the joy of life itself.
3 times a year... We were required to self-assess in three areas.
How am I doing with School, Training/Racing and Social Interaction?

What areas am I doing well in, what do I need to work on and what plan of attack do I have for achieving those goals?
That tact was exemplary of his wish to produce kids who could critically self-analyze performance, not in relationship to others, but to oneself.

I lived in the Moulton House... and in the Frazier House with Warren and about 15 other Bears and I just can't really remember another person in my lifetime who so embodies the Renaissance Man and joyous heart.
post #23 of 23


nice

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