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02 Feb 1980

Bill Koch - Cross country skiing

American cross-country skier Bill Koch exemplified the amateur ethos when he arrived in Innsbruck for the 1976 Winter Games, telling reporters that he wasn’t interested in winning medals but was racing to satisfy himself. He managed both.

In his third ever 30km classical race he pulled out an incredible performance to finish in second place and collect a silver medal. It remains the USA’s sole medal in the competition.

The sport’s low profile compared with glamour events such as the men’s downhill seemed to appeal to the modest, unassuming 26-year-old, a self-confessed loner.
He told reporters in Austria: “I was brought up in a rural setting and the glamorous sport wasn’t for me. You really have to love cross-country skiing because you can’t be motivated by any hope of recognition. No-one can respect you for the time and devotion involved because no one understands the sport.”

Cross-country  is a tough sport. Races are run over 5km, 10km and 20km routes against the clock, with racers in the individual competitions departing the starting gates at 30 second intervals.

The sport consists of classical races, where skiers use a diagonal stride, and freestyle, which has no restrictions on technique and is faster. Competitors choose their skis and ski wax based on the weather – this is now done by computer – and if a skier is being passed he or she must give way, while the passing competitor must shout “Track!”
Koch, from Vermont, took up skiing as a child and would ski 13 miles to and from school.
He tried Alpine skiing but didn’t like it, and switched to ski jumping. After he failed to make the USA team for the Sapporo Games in 1972 he switched again – and finally found his feet with Nordic Combined, then cross-country, In 1974, Koch became the first American to win a medal in international competition, placing third in the European Junior Championships.

Given the sport’s dominance by Norway, Sweden and the USSR, and the fact that no American had ever placed better than 15th, Koch had hoped merely to finish in the top 10 in the 30km race in Innsbruck. His technique, he said, was simply to go hell for leather at the start then “race the pain” – which he compared to being hit by a freight train – all the way to the finish line.

In the event his mental and physical toughness saw him finish less than 30 seconds behind Soviet skier Sergei Savelyev, speeding over the 28.8 kilometres of Seefeld Mountain countryside in 1:30:57.84. Most of the American dignitaries at the game missed his moment of triumph as they were watching Sheila Young compete in the speed skating.

But that didn’t faze the 20-year-old Koch, who told a press conference: “We’re not used to having a lot of people around anyhow.” He added: “When I learned I had won silver I was very excited. I thought about what this might do to popularise the sport in America.”
Koch was never to repeat his startling achievement, but he revolutionised the sport’s Olympic distance races by using the skate-skiing technique, previously only employed in marathon races. The style was banned in 1983 but allowed under the umbrella of the freestyle competition at the 1988 Winter Games.

He went on to win bronze at the 1982 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, and was the first non-European competitor ever to collect a medal in cross-country skiing at the World Championships. He was flag-bearer for the USA at the Opening Ceremony of the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville.

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