Success did not spoil Billy Koch. It merely sidetracked him. In 1976 Koch stunned the skiing world by winning a silver medal in the 30-kilometer cross-country event at the Innsbruck Olympics. This was more than stunning, it was downright historic. No American had ever won any medal in Nordic skiing; indeed, the best U.S. finish at an Olympics had been a 15th at Lake Placid in 1932.
In a sport in which years of experience are considered the prerequisite for success, the 20-year-old Koch became an instant boy wonder. In that Olympic race he had beaten all of the famed racers from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia except for one Russian, Sergei Saveliev. Koch was the toast of the Continent and a hero back home.
It was the back-home that did it. Growing up in the quiet community of Guilford, Vt. had not prepared Koch for stardom. Wherever he went, he was feted and surrounded by admirers and reporters. Clearly, more triumphs were expected of him. Koch had won the medal in spite of chronic asthma, a curse for a man in his sport; the fact that he could race at all was considered an act of courage. But when the year ended, Koch was also suffering a hangover from too much acclaim.
In his first race of the next season, a 15-km. event at Telemark, Wis. in December of 1976, Koch bombed out, finishing a dismal 27th. He decided to quit. He went home to tend his Bill Koch League for young Nordic skiers. He became a family man when his wife Katie bore a daughter. He got an unlisted telephone number.
"I was just fed up," he says. "There was pressure from all directions. Everybody wanted me to win. Skiing has to be enjoyable or you can't be successful. And after the Olympics, it wasn't enjoyable anymore."
His piece of mind restored, Koch returned to racing last year. "I could still have been doing the banquet circuit," he says, "but I had learned to say no." Further obstacles lay in his path. He broke his thumb in training, and during the early part of the season he twice developed bronchitis. At the world championships in Lahti, Finland last February, he placed 15th in the 15-km. and 33rd in the 30.
Still, Koch kept coming on. In three races in Sweden following the championships, he skied stride for stride with the top five finishers in the early going before folding. He figured then that with another year of training his endurance would return.
"Last winter I was just trying to get back into things," Koch says. "I have always been very serious about training. And this year I feel strong again. I know good things are going to happen."
They have. The U.S. cross-country team has a new coaching staff that believes in low-key leadership. Marty Hall, a formidable taskmaster who had coached the team since 1973, resigned in April, and in June his assistant, Rob Kiesel, a soft-spoken, gentle sort, took over.
"We have a whole new situation," says Koch. "Our training camps this year were conducted in a relaxed atmosphere, which, I think, is a very healthy thing. More attention is given to our individual training methods. I like to design my own program. I seek suggestions, but I don't take orders."
Such fiercely independent attitudes are typical of Nordic competitors. They tend to be older than Alpine racers and less gregarious as a breed. The new U.S. coaching program recognizes the difference. "Racing provides its own pressure," says Kiesel, "so they don't need more pressure from us. We tend to be more mild-mannered in our approach."
Koch and his teammates were in high spirits when the new Nordic World Cup season opened a couple of weeks ago at Telemark. "I am in excellent shape," said Koch, adding that he had stopped taking medicine for his asthma. "It still bothers me at times," he said, "but I don't want to be on drugs, and I won't let myself think that it could affect my performances."
Even before the first race, the word spread that the new Billy Koch was as good as the old: in the team time trials at Telemark, he blew the socks off everybody. "I can enjoy racing again," he said. "I'll consider this a better season no matter how I do."
Koch's optimism was shared by his teammates, including Stan Dunklee of Brattleboro, Vt., who had finished 11th in the 50-km. race at the world championship, and Tim Caldwell of Putney, Vt. Last summer, Koch and Caldwell had even done something frivolous—they had taken ballet lessons. Ballet? Well, "I wanted to try it so I could appreciate the art," says Koch, "and I think it does help improve your flexibility, strength and coordination."
The bright prospect on the U.S. women's team was 26-year-old Alison Owen-Spencer of Anchorage. Owen-Spencer, who seems to be all legs, had embarked on a comeback of her own two years ago after dropping out for school and to marry John Spencer, a bush pilot. Like Koch, she returned to serious competition last winter. She finished 23rd and 24th respectively in the five- and 10-km. races at Lahti, and in Sweden and Norway, against much the same competition, finished sixth, seventh and 10th twice. "I felt I needed more conditioning," she says, "so I ran more and skied more. I'm more dedicated than ever."
The season opener at Telemark inaugurated the first official Nordic World Cup series, a major step in cross-country racing. This year for the first time, the best of the Nordics will compete à la Alpine racing, with nine races each for men and women at a dozen sites in 11 countries with points being awarded for the top 20 finishers in each race. Russia and East Germany chose not to send teams to Telemark, but there were plenty of other top-notch Europeans on hand: seven Norwegians, six Swedes, three racers each from Finland, France, Italy and West Germany and one Pole. Among the best were Sweden's Sven-Ake Lundback, who won two gold medals at Lahti, and Josef Lusczcek of Poland, upset winner of a gold and bronze, and France's bronze medalist, Jean-Paul Pierrat. It was clear that a good showing against such a field would indicate whether the U.S. is ready to be taken seriously in world-class racing.
In the first event, the women's five-km., Owen-Spencer streaked through a blizzard to win in 17:14.43, beating Sweden's Marie Johansson by 14 seconds. "First time I ever won an international event," she gasped. "The first time I even came close?" The next day, her third wedding anniversary, she won the 10-km. under sunny skies and on a faster course, again beating Johansson, proving that a lot of dedication can go a long way.
It must be pointed out that Owen-Spencer did enjoy a sort of home-snow advantage, because the toughest steamrollers in the sport, the Soviet and Finnish women who had taken all the top spots at Lahti, had stayed home. When the women's Cup circuit moved to Furtwangen, West Germany last weekend, Owen-Spencer finished seventh in the five-km. against a more formidable field.
At Telemark the men warmed up with a non-World Cup 3x10-km. relay, which the Norwegians, Swedes and West Germans skipped in order to rest for the 15-km. Cup race on the next day. The Finns were figured to win in a breeze. But the Italians won, coming in just ahead of the U.S. trio of Dunklee, Caldwell and Koch, who staged a dandy chase scene with Koch clocking the fastest leg of the day. The Finns finished fourth, behind the French.
"Maybe I skied a bit too hard," said Koch. "I put out everything I had, and it may affect my race tomorrow. But I really wanted to catch the Italian. I can always get pretty excited about catching somebody."
The next day, in the 15-km. race, it appeared that Koch's fast relay leg had indeed taken its toll, but he still finished sixth, one minute behind the surprise winner, Ove Aunli, a 22-year-old Norwegian who is only in his second year on the A team. It was Koch's best showing since Innsbruck, and against tougher competition than Owen-Spencer had faced. He was especially cheered by the fact that Lusczcek, the world champion at that distance, had come in only a tick ahead of him in fifth place and that Lundback, the other world champion, finished one spot behind him. Owen-Spencer had collected 26 World Cup points, Koch 15, Dunklee 13 for 8th place, Caldwell nine for 12th and Doug Peterson of Hanover, N.H. seven for 14th. All considered, it was a creditable start for the season.
"We're catching up," Koch said. "The way we are skiing, I'm sure good things are going to happen." He said it before and he was right the first time.