One cold and snowy morning late last March, on a frozen lake in southern Vermont, Bill Koch (pronounced coke), the best U.S. cross-country skier, set out to attempt a world record against the clock. He had carefully measured a five-km. loop on South Pond in Marlboro and had invited two local U.S. Ski Association officials as witnesses. At 7:03 a.m., in softly falling snow, he began; one hour, 59 minutes and 47 seconds later he finished, becoming the first skier ever to break two hours for 50 km. En route he was also clocked at 1:11:45 for 30 km., reducing by 37 seconds the record set in Sweden the year before. Typically, Koch made light of his accomplishments. "This was just part of my training for next year's world championships," he said.
Actually, the records were just crowning touches to a gratifying racing season: In the first five weeks of 1981 Koch had a string of seven consecutive victories in the U.S., including the national 15-km. and 30-km. championships, and followed those wins by surprising his European rivals in three big international marathons, racking up a second, a seventh and a first place. It was the best season of his career, and with it, Koch, now a veteran of 26, served notice that he is back near the front of the pack after a disastrous 1980 Olympics. This winter Koch is pouring it on again—humping it, as the Nordic folks say—in preparation for the biennial world championships this February in Oslo.
Koch is no longer the shy, apple-cheeked kid who stunned the cross-country skiing world by winning a silver medal in the 30-km. race at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, the first and only cross-country medal ever won by an American. Nor is he the angry and confused young man whose subsequent racing career swung up and down like a seesaw. He is now mature, self-possessed, and it showed on South Pond, where Koch went about the business of setting his record the way he likes to do things: with meticulous preparation and without fanfare or cheering spectators. In other words, alone.
Koch is a very private person. It bothers him when people make a fuss over his accomplishments. Unfortunately, as his father, Fred, says, "If you win a silver medal your cover is blown." Koch made headlines on the sports page, sometimes even on the front page, and as a newsworthy person, he couldn't escape being judged. When he raced badly in 1977, he was called a has-been; when he stopped racing later that year, it was said he was a quitter.
And when Koch tried to do things his way, he displeased U.S. Nordic Team Coach Marty Hall, who in 1978 called the cross-country star a "spoiled brat" and a "rebel." Koch's reputation revived briefly, just before the 1980 Olympics, when newspaper headlines proclaimed U.S. HOPES REST ON KOCH. But he hit rock bottom at Lake Placid when he quit in the middle of the 30-km. event; he was labeled a "disgrace" and a "poor example."
"Nineteen eighty is not my problem," Koch says, his voice cold and cutting. "I didn't feel it was my duty to finish that race just because others felt it was my duty. What right do they have over me? I did what I had to do."
Koch then placed 16th in the 15 km. and 13th in the 50, and his team finished eighth in the 4 X 10-km. relay. After the Olympics, there was much grumbling about how poorly the U.S. team, and Koch in particular, had performed. When the U.S. hockey team won the gold, it was said that what those cross-country skiers really needed was a disciplinarian, someone like Hockey Coach Herb Brooks.
"No way!" says Koch. "With a coach like Brooks I would quit immediately. I wouldn't ski. I can run my life just fine. I don't need anybody to run it for me."
Koch lives east of Putney, Vt. (pop. 1,853), at the end of a dirt road in a spacious two-story house situated on 18 acres of maples and pines. To Koch it is an oasis of happiness—for himself, his wife, Katie, and his daughters, Leah, 4, and Elisabeth, 11 months—in what he views as an often difficult and hostile world.. "This home is my security, my privacy," he says. "Both are very important to me."
Koch's wariness, his suspicion of outsiders, date back to a time long before the 1980 Winter Olympics. "My parents split up when I was eight," he says. "It was a messy time. I used skiing as an outlet, a way to get away into the woods, to take my frustrations out on some hard exercise. I very much liked to be alone, to get out of the house and away from all the baloney.
"I wanted to spend time with my father; I wanted to gain his confidence. He didn't make it easy for me. The biggest lesson I learned from him, a lesson that was drilled into me, was: Mind Your Own Goddamn Business!"
It was Bill's father who first put him on skis. "The front yard was on the south side of the house," Fred recalls. "There, under the maple in the sun, I put Bill out to ski when he was about 1½ years old." At seven, Bill was one of the gung-ho kids in the junior ski-jumping program of the Brattleboro Outing Club. When jumping meets were held, there would be cross-country races too, but they weren't very popular. Early in 1963 Bill tried cross-country skiing thinking it would be a golden opportunity for him to win an easy trophy. Fred took the edges off Bill's alpine skis, told him to wear his jumping boots and took him to a 5-km. race in Connecticut. "If you win," Fred said, "I'll buy you a pair of cross-country skis." Bill won by a mile, and his racing career was launched.
Fred Koch is financially independent. As a major stockholder in the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, he has never had to work for a living. He did some farming at times; he has studied astronomy and taxonomy and has spent time in search of rare wild flowers. He can be very gentle and charming, especially with small children, but he can also be difficult. His sudden mood changes often were unsettling to his family.
If Fred lived in New York City, he might blend right in, but in the small towns around Brattleboro, Vt. he doesn't go unnoticed. There he's known as a sort of maverick who rubs people the wrong way. "I'm a person who elicits anger," he says. "Let's have it out. It's a healthy thing to do."
"My father is almost a genius," says Bill. "He has good ideas, but they never work out." At various points in his life, Fred wanted to found an orphanage and a school, and he was going to open a real-estate exchange service to cut out brokers' fees. A life that to others looks like a failure seems a huge success to Fred. When he was still married to Bill's mother, Nancy, he would sometimes take the lithium carbonate tablets prescribed to correct his erratic shifts in mood. Convinced that he was taking placebos, Fred says, "I just took them because it made my family so happy."
In 1965 Nancy married Tom Ragle, then the president of Marlboro College, who had two children of his own. The new family found a home in a 200-year-old farmhouse in Guilford, Vt. which had belonged to Nancy's father. Two years later, 12-year-old Bill, by then heavily into cross-country, introduced himself to Bob Gray, the enthusiastic young man who would become the strongest influence on Bill's skiing career. Gray was one of the best U.S. cross-country racers and an obvious inspiration to a young skier. He taught Bill to train hard but intelligently, to know his physical limitations.
Gray was training for the 1968 Olympics when he first met Koch. "He was a tiny fellow weighing no more than 100 pounds," Gray recalls. "One day he called up and asked me whether he could come to Putney Sundays and train with us." Gray was 28 and an instructor at The Putney School, and on Sunday mornings he would lead the members of a local ski club on long runs or bike rides. "Bill had to get up at six and ride his bike 23 miles just to go training with us," says Gray, "and afterward, he had to ride back to Guilford. He was really eager." When Bill was 14, his stepfather moved the family to England for the duration of a sabbatical, but Bill refused to go along because he wouldn't be able to ski there. So Ragle enrolled him in a British school in Villars, Switzerland. It turned out to be a very strict boarding school, and Bill wasn't allowed to train early in the morning, as he was accustomed to doing. "I had to sneak out of the dorm at the crack of dawn," he says. "And when I wanted to train in the afternoon, they wanted me to play basketball."
"There was not a damned thing I could do about it," says Fred, who vividly recalls a letter he received from his son describing the situation at school. Fred was so upset by Bill's plight that he took the letter and set off at 3 a.m. on a cold November day to run the 23 miles to Gray's house. "I started out in tennis shoes," he says, "but they were worse than bare feet, so I took them off. At about 7:30, I wound up in Gray's living room with bloody feet and handed him the letter. It was mostly to work off steam. I think I walked back after that."
The next fall, Koch became a resident student at Putney, a school known for its fine cross-country skiing program headed by John Caldwell, then head coach of the U.S. national Nordic team. Caldwell's son Tim would soon become Koch's toughest U.S. rival as well as a friend. The school also had a student and cross-country skier named Katie Tobey. "She was irresistible," says Koch, "a very warm and caring person. I knew right away she was it for me."
"He was so confident in knowing what he wanted even then," says Katie. "He let nothing stand in his way. He hasn't changed. He's still just as determined, though as husband and father he now can compromise when it's essential." Bill and Katie were married in 1977 during Koch's break from racing.
After his return to competition the following year Koch was increasingly at odds with Hall. As he sees it, Hall was an overbearing coach who made decisions without consulting him. "He couldn't accept the fact that I wanted my own way of doing things," says Koch.
When Hall resigned as Nordic coach after the 1978 season, he blamed Koch for his decision to do so. "You cannot cater to one star," Hall said. "He was running the team."
"My job is to ski-race," says Koch. "Why do people expect athletes to be so subservient? I know what I'm doing. All I ask is that the coach gets me to the right races on time."
Unlike an alpine racer, it's difficult for a cross-country skier to hold his peak for more than a few weeks at a time, and a lot of long-range plans are needed to prepare for an event such as the world championships. Koch figures he is experienced enough to know exactly what his training needs are. He has built a number of strange contraptions in his basement, made of bicycle tire inner tubes, ropes, weights, boxes and boards, which are exercisers with very specific functions. The workout circuit that he does with them is what Koch calls his training secret. When skiing, he usually works on his technique. "I used to ski erect, up and down," he says. "Now I'm more extended."
"Bill has a nice relaxed bounce, as if he has an inner spring," says Gray. "He's not a mechanical skier. God, is he beautiful to watch!"
Koch supports his family primarily with "broken-time" payments that his ski supplier, Rossignol, funnels through the U.S. Ski Association. (These transactions are legal and don't affect the amateur status of a racer.) Koch gets this money from the ski company essentially for using their products. Because of Koch's recommendations, Rossignol has been able to build a better racing ski. "We had to," says the company's racing director, Daniel Mornet. "Bill is very demanding."
Koch's demands on himself finally seem to have paid off. He has a job, a family and a new, more lofty view of life. He has become a pilot and flies a small plane whenever he can afford it. He has taken his family on trips to Australia and New Zealand "looking for new frontiers." He also has become an architect of cross-country trails and spent much of the last two summers laying out trails near Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wis. and Labrador City, Newfoundland.
Last July, Koch could be found in a thicket outside Labrador City overseeing the bulldozing of a new 15-km. trail he had designed for the local ski club. "I feel like an artist out here," he said exuberantly, "trying to make the trail flow with the terrain, trying to include scenes of special beauty—this waterfall here, some lovely lookouts by the lake. The trail should have a nice rhythm, smooth corners, nothing choppy, and a challenging downhill. It isn't easy to build a trail because you have to remain within certain parameters and yet come out within 150 meters of the requisite distance."
The trail is a smashing success: In November, when 70 U.S. and Canadian racers joined Koch at Labrador City for a month of early on-snow training, they found not only scenic beauty and a downhill that caused them some trepidation, but also a course that was a mere 60 meters shy of the distance.
Koch is looking for new horizons in his ski racing, too. Last year he took time off from the regular World Cup cross-country circuit to give long-distance racing a try. It was a new experience; he had never been in a mass start before. In his first marathon, in which thousands of skiers competed over a 55-km. course at Rivi√®re Rouge, Quebec, Koch made his break from the leading group too soon and Pauli Siitonen of Finland caught him and outsprinted him. "He really nailed me," says Koch. Next came the celebrated 89-km. Vasaloppet in Sweden, a stampede of some 12,000 racers. Soon after the start, Koch was rammed against a post and broke a pole. By the time a spectator supplied a new one, Koch was in about 500th place. "I blew by people going uphill," he says, "and when I caught up with the leaders after five kilometers, I felt like I had raced a relay leg—and I still had 84 kilometers to go." He finished a respectable seventh.
By the time Koch got to the Engadin, the 42-km. race in St. Moritz, Switzerland in mid-March, he was a seasoned marathoner. Again there was a field of 12,000, this time starting in a blizzard. But it was also warm, and everybody had wax problems. "I had put on something gooey and it just iced up," he says. "I was barely able to hang on." But he did, and when the track turned into corn snow, Koch's gooey wax wore off. From about the halfway point he was able to skate very fast—skating, removing one ski from the track and pushing off the ski's inside edge in an ice-skating motion, is something he does particularly well—and soon left most of the pack behind. Only France's Jean-Paul Pierrat, the bronze medalist in the 50 km. at the 1978 World Championships, remained in front. "I skated behind him, yelling 'Go! Go!' " says Koch. "It worked perfectly. We made a clean break." With only 500 meters to go, Koch made his move. Pierrat hung on for 100 meters, then broke. Koch went on, humping with all his might, alone, in front, all the way to the finish. Which is the way he likes to do things.
The Kochs (from left): Katie, Leah, Elisabeth (on sled), Bill, Hattillon the cat and Rastis.
Koch was the first American to win the Engadin race.