American cross-country skier
Cross-country skier Bill Koch is the only American ever to medal in cross-country skiing at the Olympic Games. He won a silver medal in the 30-km freestyle race at the 1976 Olympics, and also competed in the 1980, 1984, and 1992 Olympics. He was first in World Cup standings in 1982, the first American ever to reach this position, and third in 1983.
"A Future Fantasy"
Koch was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, a state noted for its downhill skiers, and he originally chose to compete in the Nordic combined event, which features cross-country skiing and ski jumping. He told Ron Bergin in Cross Country Skier, "As a kid I grew up with Olympic stars in my eyes—I always had it in mind as a future fantasy."
When he was sixteen he tried out for the U.S. Olympic Nordic Combined team as well as the Olympic cross country team, and during the midpoint of both trials, was asked by ski authorities to choose between
them. He chose Nordic Combined, but in his final qualifying event, he fell, broke a ski, and came in sixth, not high enough to make the team.
Partly as a result of this experience, Koch decided to concentrate on cross-country skiing from then on. Two years later, at the age of eighteen, he became the first American to win a medal in international competition when he came in third in the 15-km race at the European junior championships.
Koch made the 1976 Olympic team in Nordic skiing, and in competition in Innsbruck, Austria, became the first American to win an Olympic medal in Nordic skiing, finishing second in the 30-km (18.6 mile) race. His time was 1 hour, 31 minutes, and 59.57 seconds. The winner, Sergei Savaliev of the Soviet Union, finished in 1:30:29.35. Koch told Leonard Shapiro in the Washington Post, "It makes me feel very excited and I hope the American people are very excited, too." In 2002, looking back on his Olympic wins, he told Ron Bergin in Cross Country Skier, "It was a wonderful gift in my life—those performances. I feel so privileged and enriched to have them in my past. At the same time I don't dwell on them at all. I think that they are best viewed as a feather in the cap."
As an Olympic athlete, Koch was deeply influenced by skier Bob Grey, who had skied on several Olympic teams. Another mentor was Mike Gallagher, a fellow skier who later became Koch's coach.
For the next few seasons, Koch struggled with exercise-induced asthma, but at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, held at Lake Placid, New York, he came in 15th in the 50-km race.
After the 1980 Olympics, Koch began working on his endurance, training at longer distances. He also used a technique borrowed from speed skaters, holding his skis at an angle with the tips outward, and pushing off the inside of the ski edge. The new technique made his times faster by 10 percent, and aroused controversy among ski officials; some tried to ban its use, and others simply added so much vertical climb to courses that the technique was unusable.
Wins Nordic World Cup
In 1982, Koch became the first American to win a medal in a world championship Nordic competition; he finished third in the 30-km race in Oslo, Norway. In the same year, based on that season's results, he won the overall Nordic World Cup title.
In 1983, Koch won the 30-km and 50-km events and came in second in the 15-km race at the U.S. National Championships. He also led the World Cup rankings until the last three races of that season, and placed third overall in the World Cup championship. Koch went to the Olympics, held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, where he competed in four events. He did not earn any medals at these Games.
In 1986, Koch's fight to introduce a new skiing style was victorious. The World Cup officials decided to allow his skating technique, but hold separate races for skiers who used the new skating stride and those who used the traditional diagonal stride.
Also in 1986, Koch came up with the idea of inventing a single layer of fabric that would be suitable for ski clothing, which traditionally has used multiple layers. Although the right fabric was finally invented in 1992, the same year Koch licensed his line of clothing to a company called Sport Hill, its manufacturing process was subsequently changed, eliminating the fabric's resistance to wind. Because of this, Koch's clothing line was dropped.
Koch retired temporarily in 1987, but came back to competition for the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. He did not medal at those Olympics, but he was chosen to carry the U.S. flag during the opening ceremonies. Koch told Bergin, "That was a very great honor to have been chosen by my peers to do that."
Although Koch competed in the 1994 Olympic trials, he did not make the final team.
Koch believes that his international wins can be repeated by other American skiers. In an interview in Ski, he told Andrew Bigford, "I don't think I'm that special. There's plenty of talent out there. What I did is repeatable." He founded the Bill Koch Ski League, a national cross-country ski program for children aged seven to thirteen, to encourage kids to ski and develop their talent. Koch told Bigford that he believed the sport was hampered by the fact that good snow for the sport is not always available, since most people don't live in snowy areas and for those who do, the weather and snow conditions are so variable. "If you could count on snow, I think cross-country would flourish."
Koch became interested in traditional Hawaiian spirituality in the early 1990s, but soon became interested in another feature of the islands: the sand. He brought his skis, tried skiing on the sand, and found that it offered a surprisingly fast surface. In the past, Koch had skied through gravel pits and over pine-needle-covered forest floor, so skiing on sand was no surprise to him. He noticed that sand, like snow, varied according to the season, location, and weather conditions. He had been interested in sand skiing since the early 1980s, but could never find any really fast sand that was conducive to his workouts.
|1955||Born June 7, in Brattleboro, Vermont|
|1976||Wins silver medal in Olympic 30-km race|
|1980||Comes in 15th in Olympic 50-km race|
|1982||Becomes first American to medal in world championship Nordic competition: wins bronze medal in 30-km race in Oslo, Norway|
|1982||Wins overall Nordic World Cup title|
|1983||Wins 30-km and 50-km, comes in second in 15-km at U.S. National Championships|
|1983||Ranked third in overall World Cup championship|
|1984||Competes in Olympics, but does not medal|
|1986||World Cup officials allow Koch's skating technique in races|
|1987||Says he is retiring from competition|
|1992||Returns to competition in the Olympics, but does not medal.|
|1994||Competes in U.S. Olympic trials, but does not make the team|
|1997||Moves to Hawaii and begins developing the sport of sand skiing|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1976||Silver medal, Olympic 30-km race|
|1982||Bronze medal, World Championship 30-km race|
|1982||Winner, overall Nordic World Cup title|
|1983||Gold medals, 30-km and 50-km, silver medal, 15-km, U.S. National Championships|
|1983||Bronze medal, overall World Cup championship|
In an article in USA Today, Koch told Sharon Raboin that when he skis on Hawaiian beaches, the sunbathers "almost can't believe their eyes. One in 10 are amazed enough to get off their towel and take your picture. I never complete a workout without being stopped a couple of times." Koch doesn't mind, since he wants to publicize this new twist on the sport; his mission is to get more people out on cross-country skis, and if the sport can move to sand, so much the better.
Koch told Raboin that sand skiing had one notable feature: "This won't work with just any sand. It must be coarse, yet firm." He explained to Bigford, "Finding the right sand is kind of elusive. Like snow, it changes every day, seasonally and according to conditions." But when the sand is good, he told Raboin, "This is the best way to train."
U.S. biathlon manager told Lyle Nelson told Raboin, "When Bill says this [sand skiing] is better, you can't discount it. He's the most creative person I've ever met. He always comes at things at a different angle. That's why he was world champion in a sport that's not popular in the U.S."
In recent years, Koch has become concerned about the use of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs by athletes. "It seems that everybody is convinced that drugs are very, very important to winning," he told Bergin. "This is a false notion that has to be dispelled." He said that although he knew that other athletes were using banned substances during the years he was competing, he decided that competing with them would simply be a greater challenge, and he was able to beat them. Koch also noted that young skiers "need to be guided to focus on learning how to tap into their own personal powers, which always have more potential than any drug."
Koch told Raboin that he believes more people should try cross-country skiing: "I love the sport so much. I truly believe it's a therapeutic, healing endeavor. I believe if more people cross-country skied, the world would be a better place." And, he told Bergin, "I certainly plan to ski all the days of the rest of my life."
Where Is He Now?
After moving to Ashland, Oregon with his wife Kathy and their two children, Koch returned to Hawaii, where he skis the sand and teaches other skiers, ranging from complete novices to experienced snow skiers, how to sand ski. In 2000 he held a "Sandskiing Safari" for twenty Alaskans. He continues to offer sandskiing training camps several times a year. On his Web site, www.sandskiing.com, he collects information on beaches with skiable sand, offers tips on equipment and etiquette, and provides ski condition reports for Hawaii beaches.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY KOCH:
Bill Koch on Cross-Country Skiing, Collier, 1993.
Auran, John Henry. "Coming on Strong in an Off-Year." Skiing (September, 1983): 64.
Bergin, Ron. "Bill Koch: America's Cross-Country Skier." Cross-Country Skier (January-February, 2002): 30.
Shapiro, Leonard. "Koch Stuns Nordic Skiers; Klammer Wins Downhill." Washington Post (February 6, 1976): D1.
Bigford, Andrew. "Last Run: Bill Koch," Ski Magazine. http://www/skimag.com/(November 11, 2002).
"Bill Koch." Sports Unlimited. http://www.sportsu.com/feat-koch.htm (November 11, 2002).
Sand Skiing with Bill Koch. http://www.sandskiing.com/(November 18, 2002).
Sketch by Kelly Winters