To the top: Austrian coaching techniques bring Kirkwood’s ski racing team to another level |

To the top: Austrian coaching techniques bring Kirkwood’s ski racing team to another level

Dana Jo Turvey
Kirkwood Ski Education Federation team members, from left , Nick Cohee, Shane Collins, coach Guenther Birgmann, Bryce Wehan and Charlie Apple. The team is heading to Maine this week for nationals.

Guenther Birgmann doesn’t simply coach ski racers, he creates them.

Birgmann has a background with the powerful Austrian ski team and high expectations for his team. A second-year head coach for the Kirkwood Ski Education Foundation, the 44-year-old Austrian has implemented an innovative program which is posting big results. Designed for a select group of 16-to-18-year-olds comprising Bryce Wehan, Nick Cohee, Errol Kerr, Charlie Apple and Shane Collins, Birgmann’s team is headed this week to an elite eastern speed race, followed by an appearance at Junior Nationals in Maine. Birgmann says his younger charges, Cohee and Wehan, are ranked top seven nationally in their age group (15- and 16-year-olds).

“Last year … Bryce and Nick … were absolutely great skiers, but they were not podium racers,” Birgmann said. “They were battling the top guns, but not beating them. Then we started training together and at their first races Bryce and Nick beat guys they’d never beaten before. We had a successful season … but they were not very strong in dryland training, not very strong physically, not strong mentally – so we had a lot of work to do.

“We decided to give three years toward a professional program with the goal of getting on the U.S. Ski Team. The question is always if you do something halfway or three-quarters, you leave open the chance to say, ‘Ah, if I had done this better or more of this, if I had gone in summer to this training, done this different in dryland, then maybe I would have made it.’

At a recent practice, Birgmann set a short speed course to evaluate the boys’ race form, mainly as further prep for the pending eastern races. The mere 20-second long, stubby-gated track boasted control gates, two split times, plus video and radio feedback.

World Cup training

“What we did here – no other coach at this level does this sort of training,” Birgmann said. “Speed element training allows you to see what needs to be done to make him faster. What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? Then you need a system to break it down to make it visible. For this, you need timing and video – plus there was a second and third coach out there. You just don’t get this in a normal program.

“My involvement with the Austrian team transfers a lot of those World Cup standards to our program,” he said.

The program included hiring former USST trainer, Isaiah Tenachi, as their dryland coach. And the KSEF boys travel with a spin bike for both warm-up and recovery – a la Bode Miller, another facet coach Birgmann says isn’t typically seen at the J2 level.

John Wehan, Bryce’s father, is thrilled with the whole package now at KSEF.

“Guenther is the epitome of professionalism,” he said. “The thought, the foresight, the positive environment he has provided is something you just can’t buy. One part that’s critical with Bryce is his being a teen. At that age, there can be a loss of focus – other sports, girls, the whole schemer. So if you want to get to that next level, you must stay focused, and Guenther has been able to keep that going with Bryce.”

KSEF board member Michael Frye said Birgmann has done wonders.

“It’s like night and day. And no reflection on anyone else who’s ever been here, but if you get an opportunity to hire a Michael Jordan, why wouldn’t you?” Frye said. “Guenther has a sports science degree (from the University of Innsbruck), so along with his coaching background, he’s bringing a better understanding of the mechanics of ski racing to the team. Motivating kids is a tough job, and he does it.”

Birgmann, who speaks five languages, got his start the old-fashioned way. He began as a junior ski racer at his home of Kleinarl (near Altenmarkt and Flachau) and turned to instructing and coaching when he realized he wouldn’t make a living as a racer. Coaching locally quickly turned into a global endeavor.

“You have an advantage as an Austrian in that we have a very international reputation,” Birgmann said. “In the beginning, you have to go through countries like Greece or Turkey or Bulgaria – wherever, until you make your way up in the ranks. Basically, you need to show that you can breed ski racers, great ski racers. If you can create these ski racers, then they will be your best business card.”

He left Austria for a position with the Greek team. Why the sun-drenched islands of Greece?

“I had already a relationship with Greece – my aunt was Greek and I already spoke the language. Their federation made me quite a nice offer to move down there and coach, and people don’t realize that Greece has over 25 very decent ski resorts. And the whole Olympic spirit is a Greek ideal, so there’s a lot of support from their government, plus a decent race budget,” he said.

New Zealand bound

Birgmann next traveled to the South Seas, finding a home at the resort of Treble Cone, on New Zealand’s south island where he has coached for 15 seasons so far, including a month each fall with the Austrian team. This is when he assists at coaching Austria’s mighty World Cup Four team, consisting of names like Hermann Maier, Michael Walchhofer and Benjamin Raich.

Austrian team may visit Kirkwood

He also developed a close friendship with racer, Stefan Goergl, who won this year’s super-G at Beaver Creek, Colo.

“Stefan is my pal,” Birgmann said. “Last winter, he had a break between races in North America, so he came to stay with me at Kirkwood and we made a little training camp. Now we have a possible project in the works, that with some changes in snowmaking and terrain, we may get the whole Austrian team to hold camps at Kirkwood.”

Contacts in New Zealand brought Birgmann to Mammoth Mountain three years ago, at which point he caught the attention of the Kirkwood president, Tim Cohee, father of racer Nick.

“Tim wanted to see about getting Nick out of Sugar Bowl Academy and back home, perhaps through some program at Kirkwood that would match these kids’ skill level. I heard what would be supplied to the coaching program, with the parents being fully committed to offering them a road to the U.S. Ski Team. With Tim as the CEO, it would allow full support from the mountain, which without, the best team in the world can’t operate. As soon as I put all these factors together, I thought it was worth trying,” Birgmann said.

“Birgmann brings that Austrian passion and technique, which is the best in the world,” Cohee said.

North Shore-Kirkwood connection

“This is a 365-day per year involvement,” Birgmann said. “These kids do independent studies just to follow the race program. In the summer, they come to New Zealand, and their dryland training is three to four hours each day. It’s like a job. You can’t expect to put in a few hours each week and be on top of the world.”

This season Birgmann gained three racers from the North Shore: Kerr and Collins from Squaw Valley and Apple from Sugar Bowl.

“This has been quite a commitment for these boys,” Birgmann said. “But I have also given them a full commitment. We try to do everything we can to get these kids to perform well. We’re running this as much as possible like the Austrian ski team.”

And now, the fundamentals of Birgmann’s program are trickling into the lower age groups at KSEF. Mark Payne has been their junior varsity and varsity coach for nine seasons. Having Birgmann on board has helped the program.

“Any time a national level coach comes on board, it’s a good thing,” Payne said. “My kids rarely train on his courses, but he’ll take the other coaches to work in his daily training, and we’ve learned a lot. He has brought world-class coaching to the program, and the boys have really responded to him.”

Birgmann recognizes a discrepancy between American and Austrian children’s approach to the sport.

“Absolutely there is a difference. I don’t want to ‘Austria-ize’ the situation, but what I saw with European kids, we are very strong with this fundamental structure,” he said. “I said, ‘There’s just no structure here,’ so I just set up the same program for KSEF that I had seen at home. And it’s not only the dryland, it’s not only the mental preparation we do, it’s the whole package.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.