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A Fire Burns Fiercely Within Him

Feb. 06, 1984
Feb. 06, 1984

Table of Contents
Feb. 6, 1984

Record Jump
DePaul
Slam Dunk
Winter Olympics
TV/Radio
Scott Hamilton
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Fire Burns Fiercely Within Him

Bill Koch, the one U.S. hope for an Olympic cross-country skiing medal, drives himself in hot pursuit of perfection

The road is only a lane wide, with turnouts on its blind curves. Yet it's smoothly paved. It's a working Forest Service road, No. 2102, mounting the steeply pitched western slope of the Cascade Range, above Oakridge, Ore. Down it, on a sunny day last October, plunges an immense truck. It's 40 tons of steel, rubber and Douglas fir logs 10 feet thick, and it passes with such a violent roar of mechanical protest that one expects to see the driver leaping from the cab, abandoning a runaway. But he keeps control of the truck, and it disappears down the mountainside. The reverberations recede, leaving a shocked stillness. Even the jays are stunned.

This is an article from the Feb. 6, 1984 issue Original Layout

Then you hear Bill Koch (as in Coke), coming up. There's a curious clicking, which is all but lost in a growl that sounds like a blender making a puree of ice cubes. As Koch breaks out of the cover of the trees below, one sees that he's on roller skis. The clicking comes from the sharply filed points of his poles, the growl from wheels on asphalt. He crests a rise, shoots down a hill with astonishing speed, and then attacks the next ascent with a clatter of effort.

He has on shorts, revealing calves of Vermont maple. Over his T shirt is a white elastic harness holding an electronic pulse monitor. For the next 23 miles and 2½ hours, he will keep his heart rate at a steady 170 to 180, which he knows is the stress that yields him the greatest return in this off-season training.

Whoa, a runner would say at this point, there's some kind of mistake. A workout of such length and intensity, if one could do it at all (180 beats per minute is the limit for most runners), is the equivalent of a full-out marathon. It doesn't help your training; it wrecks your legs and makes you feel washed out for a week.

Yet as Koch continues his climb, doing sub-seven-minute miles uphill, striding not with light running shoes but four-pound roller skis, driving with his poles almost as powerfully as with his legs, his expression is incongruously gentle, often filled with a fine appreciation for the passing forest, the expanding vistas. Though it seems impossible, he's clearly not anywhere near his maximum effort.

This, he'll later say, has to do with the nature of his discipline. Skiing, like cycling, absolves an athlete of pounding, of shock fatigue. Therefore, cross-country skiers can do prodigious amounts of work before they begin to crack. As well, hard striding combined with hard poling makes for greater cardiovascular demands on them than on almost any other athletes. Cross-country skiers are our species' hottest metabolic furnaces.

Clearly it's with good reason that Nordic competitors are symbols of rugged-ness, of an almost animal imperviousness to strain and the elements. They race through rainstorms and blizzards, over mountains, across ice fields "and through cow pies," as Koch says of a memorable West German course. And they don't complain. "The thing is," Koch remarked on the drive up to the start of his roller-ski ascent, "it's almost never perfect, training or racing."

A Nordic ski race is won by the athlete who covers the course in the shortest time, but there the resemblance to foot-racing ends. "Runners have knowledge of pace to guide them," says Koch. "A track in L.A. is just like one in Moscow. With us, it's harder to nail down. Every day we go out, there's not only a different glide speed, but also the grip of the ski during the kick can vary with a hard or soft snow. With turns and hills, your technique is never the same from step to step. We have to go by feel."

Skiers tend to speak of improving as a mysterious process, as something that results from getting in closer and closer harmony with cold, frictionless surfaces. "You just get to know instinctively how to go fastest at each part of a course," Koch says. "Picking up a hundredth of a second here, a hundredth there. It all adds up." It does only if yours is a temperament that lusts to seize those fractions. As Koch puts it, "There's a voice saying, 'You can always do better.' "

To know the power of that voice is to see Koch in full flight across a snowy landscape. Cross-country skiing, by one kind of gassy, promotional definition, evokes thoughts of gentle gliding—"Like dancing on snow," a recent Reader's Digest article called it. Koch, moving by means of a lunging series of explosions, driving all-out over the top of each hill, twisting through turns in a muscular blur, gone before the snow his poles have uprooted returns to earth, is a vision of compulsion.

"Have you ever seen him ski?" asks Lary Simpson, a business analyst and accomplished cross-country skier who's now one of Koch's partners in a Nordic consulting firm. "He rockets by people, and you can watch them suddenly wondering if what they're doing isn't something other than skiing. Most of the time, they just have to laugh. Sheepishly laugh. He's such an embarrassment to us all."

An embarrassment of riches. Koch is the best cross-country skier ever reared in the U.S. He won the 1982 World Cup title (decided in 10 races over four months), the only American ever to do so, and finished third last year. In 1976, at 20, he got the silver medal in the Innsbruck Olympic 30 km. It remains the only Olympic medal ever earned by an American in a Nordic race.

That's what Koch has done against other men. What he does against snow and distance seems even more compelling. In 1981, as part of a personal project to see how fast he could go on skis over all the running and skiing distances from 100 to 50,000 meters, Koch became the first man ever to break two hours for 50 kilometers, clocking 1:59:47.

That doesn't register at first. You have to work out the distance in miles (31.0685) and do some division before the dawn begins to break. This man has skied, on a snow-covered frozen lake in Vermont, 31 miles at an average time of 3:51 per mile.

He doesn't let on that it was anything special. "I remember finding that, because of the start, a runner goes faster than a skier up to about 400 meters. After that, skiing is faster." Incredibly faster. "Yeah, my mile was 3:20 something."

One reason for these remarkable times, besides Koch's remarkable engine, was his use of a technique he has perfected: skating. He can take the skis out of their single-plane motion in the tracks and push with the edges and tips on the snow exactly as if he had on eight-foot speed skates. "I first saw it in a race in Sweden in 1980, a world-record attempt at 30 kilometers on a frozen river," he says. "Some guy went by me like I was lashed to an oak tree. I jumped in behind him and copied him. That started it."

Among the things it started was a controversy in which the most anguished howls were those of Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. "The Scandinavians went bananas," Koch says. "They hate change. I think they're a little afraid of it. They've made cross-country skiing a holy tradition, and of course they want it to stay the same. But you just can't legislate away an effective technique for covering snow." Nonetheless, international rules now ban skating in the last 200 meters of an individual race.

Koch doesn't skate on his roller skis as he works his way up the mountain. He has a friend in a support car to give him water every few miles. He discovered this road, seductive because of its pavement (most logging roads are of dirt or crushed rock), by aerial reconnaissance. He has flown small planes for three years. "It's a quick way to check out the snow without driving for hours," he says. He also can fly to Canadian glaciers when Oregon snow is finally gone, in June.

But Koch-flying isn't for the faint of anything. "I've got this dream of going up in a jet fighter and really...egging the pilot on," he says. "I love aerobatics in small planes, so I know the exhilaration, but the speed would be 50 times as great." Thus the source of a memorable Koch cry: "Wouldn't it be great to fly maneuvers until you puke!"

He's roller-skiing at more than 4,000 feet now, and there are more frequent descents. He drops into a tuck and takes them like a downhill racer, some at 40 mph over stretches scattered with loose gravel. There are no brakes on his roller skis. "It can be dangerous. You can't stop on a dime. I wear a helmet now, and elbow and knee pads, because I know the day is coming when someone will back out of a driveway and not see me."

Yet he has had few accidents in his 28 years, 26 of which he has been skiing. "Last December, sand got in the bearings, and I went down hard. It was disorienting, especially because I couldn't see the reason for it. Then, just when the scabs were healing, it happened again."

Koch's dry-land training consists roughly of half cycling and half roller-skiing in the summer, changing exclusively to the latter in the fall. He never runs. "I used to. But unless it was uphill, I had to really sprint to tax myself," he says. "I think that skiing can help runners train because they get cardiovascular stress without pounding."

Koch and his wife, Katie, a former U.S. cross-country team member, and daughters Leah, 6, and Elisabeth, 3, moved last year to Eugene, Ore. from their home in Vermont. "Essentially, I did it because of the family," says Koch. "I can count on eight months of snow training here, so I don't have to be away nearly so often to training camps. It doesn't hurt, either, that the snow in the Cascades is just as wet and heavy as the snow in Sarajevo. Eighty percent of the time, wax doesn't work at all."

Koch, as often happens to celebrated people who cherish their privacy and independence, has been oddly represented in the popular press. The training system he has worked out for himself sometimes has conflicted with U.S. Ski Team programs, so he has often found himself going his own way and being labeled difficult. A perfectionist, he finds it especially hard to take when he sees the things he loves written about poorly, superficially.

The hardest publicity to take came when, after Koch had been heralded as a sure thing for a medal in Lake Placid in 1980, he placed 13th in the 50 km and 16th in the 15 and didn't finish the 30, his silver-medal race of four years earlier. There were accounts of these events that barely stopped short of calling Koch a traitor, and his DNF is still mentioned as often as his victories.

Even his move west was enigmatically reported. An AP story led with, "World champion cross-country skier Bill Koch has sold his Vermont home and moved to Eugene, Ore., because there is less danger of fallout from a nuclear attack in the Northwest, according to his friends...." It was but a minor factor. "Who isn't worried about nuclear war?" Koch says. "But to say that was my prime reason...." He sighs, less than contentedly. "The thing was, I got more press from that than from winning the World Cup."

His notices having preceded him, Koch was a delightful surprise to Eugene. The thing first remarked upon there was his youthful look. A two-page photo in the official 1976 U.S. Olympic book makes him seem an embittered 40. Actually, especially away from competition, he appears half that. Another unexpected attribute was his warm sociability. "He has a gentleness only men of immense strength have," says Roscoe Divine, a 3:56 miler in 1970 and now a lumber broker in Eugene. "Here, he's from a country with no background in his sport, and he's transformed it in both technique and training. He's an intuitive genius, the kind that only comes along once a generation, and inevitably he's been resented by the traditionalists. But it hasn't affected him. He's kept his calm center."

Shortly after his arrival in Eugene, Koch met orthopedic surgeon and demon masters Nordic skier Stan James and, through him, Simpson. Soon they were all partners in Koch & Associates Inc., Nordic Consultants.

Far from being the austere loner he was reputed to be, Koch invited new friends along on training jaunts, especially his 30- and 40-mile bike rides. He bound some to him by the simplest of means. "I'd be at the back of the pack, struggling to hang on," says Jody Miller, a city planner in Eugene, "and he'd look over his shoulder and check on me and smile that smile, and.... Has he ever smiled at you full on? I was renewed. I'd be good for another five miles. My only worry was that I'd get so tired I couldn't smile back."

It was on those rides that Simpson began to see, as he puts it, "The fire in there. It's an eccentric, humorous kind of ferocity, not like he's competing with you, but responding to something his body's telling him."

The most famous biking incident took place at the bottom of Old Dillard Hill, a steep, mile-long climb that came when everyone was tired. "You guys go ahead," said Simpson's wife, Sally. They all did, racing for the top, except Koch. He whipped a bungee cord out of his pack, hooked it to Sally's bike and towed her up the hill. They were a minute behind when they started. They were ahead at the top, Sally having had a pleasant rest.

Once, members of Koch's group of cyclists were nearly brushed by a pickup truck. "Had a rifle in the back window. Was going about 50," says Simpson. "And Bill just took off. He didn't think, 'Hey, that's a truck. I'm on my bike. I can't catch a truck.' No. It was more 'I can do anything I want.' I think we were all lucky he didn't catch it."

In his true element, Koch can run down any machine there is. "Stan and Bill and I had worked all day setting up a five-kilometer loop at Willamette Pass," recalls Simpson. "We were exhausted. Then Bill skied his regular workout, so he was even more exhausted. It was a mile back down to the lodge, and the only packed snow was the track of the snowmobile we'd come up on. There was 2½ feet of powder on either side. I drove the snowmobile back down, but these crazy guys decided to try to ski down. It was clear that if you stayed in the track you'd be going far faster than you could control on skis. And if you didn't stay in the track, you'd be torn up by rocks and stumps, because this was the season's first real snow. I watched from about 600 meters down. Stan went first [It should be remembered that James was second in his age group in the National Masters Championships in 1982], turning into the soft snow when he got going too fast. He fell a lot; then he waved on up at Bill.

"Bill just hops into the track, in a tuck. In a few seconds I realize I've got to get this snowmobile going. I run it up to about 30 miles an hour, and I turn around to see he's already on my tail. I crank it, hanging on for dear life, and he's still right behind me, still in a tuck!

"He either had to hit me or pull off and hit something. I was sure whatever I did, he'd be killed, and I'd probably be, too. I slowed. Then he saved it. He turned off, curled around a few logs and came to a stop. He had a nice smile. But his eyes were like coals in a fireplace."

Simpson is a good skier, but Koch has taken him places he'd never been before. Ski-climbing a slope above 6,000 feet: "I knew my heart rate was over 200. Bill stopped and I gasped, 'This must be what it's like at the end of a 30 K.' He turned and casually said, 'I wish.' Sometimes he doesn't know what happens out there, how he gets into the states he's in."

Once, roller-skiing up Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, says Koch, "I was really rolling, going for my personal record. But my father, who was in the car, stopped me so I could tell him how to work a camera he had. I did stop, uncomprehending, and as soon as I was down out of my charged mental state, a wave of pain came over me. I couldn't believe I'd been hurting like that."

"It's not something that Bill seems to force himself into, that place where pain is completely subordinated to performance," says Simpson. "I think it just happens to him. That's his nature. I don't think he's really addressed it, the aggressiveness of it. Maybe it can't be defined, that unconsciousness in a race. If you could make it clear, then everybody could do it."

Koch reaches the top of his training run and points out the peaks he can identify on this spectacularly clear day. The farthest is Mount Hood, 100 miles distant. "If anybody could see this," he says, "and still not understand why I love this sport.... It's the most beautiful exercise. The more people who ski cross-country, the better off the world is going to be."

His cheeks are caked with salt, but his voice is still soft. He takes his roller skis off and finds an apple in the support car's jumble of poles and equipment. "I always carry water, ski tools, and paper and pencil," he says. Often during long workouts, he will rush to the car to fix on paper an idea, something that doesn't seem silly even in his raging effort. Pages are now spilling out of his notebook. "The work oftentimes clarifies the view," he says. This, surely, is a man who defines afresh the idea of rigorous thought.

"It all boils down to this," Koch says. "The more I win, the more I believe that what's important isn't the winning itself but trying to do your best—to simply strive for your own excellence. Our society, in so much of its behavior and values, doesn't agree with that. It says something like 'It's gold or failure.'

"If I say, as I do, that there's a flaw in society's view, that it allows only one winner, so everyone else must be a loser, society says that's sour grapes. If I say, 'Look, when our goal is to do our personal best, then people can really rejoice over their efforts,' society says that's making excuses for not winning. I find myself in the position of having to win, so I'll be listened to, so I can say, 'Hey, forget this obsession with winning.' "

Does he have a feeling that a great part of humanity never will understand, that perhaps most people resist the idea of forging their own goals and continually raising them? Isn't a double standard necessary, his own and a more forgiving one for others? "It could be," he says. "But even if that were true, it's not something you can say, because you can't presume to know other people's motives." That we may vary in motive and still be devoted to competition is what Koch wishes the International Olympic Committee would come to see. "The Olympics ought to be simply the best athletes on the planet gathered to join in ultimate contests," he says. "But they're not, because the IOC has rules that presume to keep professionals out.

"The Baron [Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics] had a nice idea. He wanted a Games in which everyone cared about the competition and not the reward. But it's turned out that there's no way that can be put into practice. People have forced loopholes through the Olympic rules. Some athletes make thousands and retain their amateur standing, because we're allowed to launder our earnings through our national federations. Therefore, the assumption that purity of motive somehow connects with amateur standing is a sham, and I am not proud of being a shamateur. But I know my motives.

"I know that when I'm in that gate before a race, it doesn't matter to me whether the guy I'm skiing against is a millionaire or lives in a shack. How much he makes or how he makes it just isn't a sensible reason to keep us apart.

"I know the Olympic situation is more complicated than I see. Maybe I'm doing a disservice to the Olympics by speaking this way, but I hope not. I love them and I believe in them, but I think they're in danger. The athletes are just as committed to the Olympic ideals as is the IOC. Athletes understand that fighting well is more important than conquering. Athletes know that an international gathering of youth is a profound force for peace. If the IOC, instead of disqualifying athletes, could devote itself to fighting for the athletes' rights to compete, then, boy, we'd have a real Olympics."

Koch is back in his house now, where there's always a cup of tea, where lovely daughters climb over a visitor. Koch watches them with a glowing fixity that's reminiscent of his concentration on the mountain. You can always recognize love.

"I don't want to give the idea that all it takes to fix up the Olympics is to open them up to everyone who's qualified," he says. "There's the size of them weighing them down, and the politics. The Summer Games always seem to be held in such sensitive places that it's just asking for trouble. There was killing before Mexico City and during Munich. Montreal had its cost overruns and the African boycott. Moscow had ours. Now there's L.A. I don't know how you'd assess the odds of something happening there." He inhales the steam rising from his tea. "Sometimes it just seems like it would make more sense to hold the Games on an island somewhere, an Olympic sanctuary where people could keep first things first."

Isn't that hard, he's asked, when the millions who watch the Olympics aren't athletes themselves? When their gratification must be vicarious? "Yes, of course," he says quickly. "It's terrible to say, but the Olympics probably do create more frustration than joy in many spectators. The people who only care about who's wearing their flag into battle...most of them are going to be unhappy."

Koch has worn his nation's flag and will again. "I remember going in the gate before the first race [the 30 km] at Lake Placid. I felt I was on the verge of the greatest emotional and physical outpouring of my life. I was wrong. I'd gone overboard in my drive to do well in those Olympics. After World Cup racing ended in Europe, we had a month before the Games with nothing to do but train.

"Ten days before the Games, I felt wrong. I told myself with rest I'd come back. I didn't. Halfway through that first race, I was dead and five minutes behind. I had to make a tactical decision. I dropped out to have a chance in my later races. That was when I was most disappointed in the press. To have put everything into a crusade, to have put too much into it, and then to be told that you didn't try....

"My first Olympics resulted in an unexpected high placing for me, a gift. The second one was a miscarried crusade. This one...this one's for me, just to do the best I can."

Besides, an Olympian knows what's important, and it has to do with other Olympians. "There's so much respect for each other, such a bond you share," Koch says. "Last year, I led in the World Cup for most of the season, but Aleksandr Zavjalov [of the Soviet Union] won. I was genuinely happy for him. I won the Cup the year before, in the final race, from Thomas Wassberg [of Sweden]. He was the first to congratulate me."

Koch has those glowing eyes when he talks about this. "In the race, it's all-out, self-centered drive. Before and after the race, it's civil, good relations. Sport is about both those states. If you can't get out of the selfishness of the race, if you feel badly about losing, then logically it seems to imply that you think you're special, you should have the result you want. But that's absurd. The chance to express your will to dominate, to win, comes during the race. Not after. Not before. Just during."

This talk can't stay abstract. It has to come alive in the stories of real, gasping, ice-bearded men. Koch thinks of Juha Mieto of Finland, the 6'5", 210-pound giant of cross-country. Mieto is best remembered for his finish in the Lake Placid 15 km, for the .01 second by which he lost to Wassberg. "That was the saddest thing," says Koch. "To my mind, it was a tie. It was ridiculous to force them into first and second. Later somebody told me a story that each had cut his medal in half and then had the pieces joined, silver to gold.

"Mieto is a little bit my idol," says Koch. "I remember in 1976, after I'd been second in the 30 K in Innsbruck, I led in the 50 K for the first 30. I passed Mieto like the dumb little rabbit I was. Then I hit the brick wall that awaits all such rabbits. I fell back through the field. By 45 K I was barely walking. I was to the point of not knowing if I could make it to the end. There was a big hill there. I started trudging up it, faint and wobbling, and suddenly there was a huge, gentle hand grabbing hold of me. It was Juha. He pushed me all the way up that hill. It was an infusion of spirit, knowing that another athlete, who knew exactly what I was going through, helped me. At the top of the hill, I knew I could finish. He went on to get seventh or eighth. I finished 13th. I'll never forget that. Never."

PHOTOILLUSTRATIONPHOTOOn a hillside near Eugene, Koch and Simpson aim their sights at a new cross-country course.PHOTOLook, Ma, no brakes! Koch often roller-skis down mountain roads at up to 40 mph, a training method that, he says with understatement, "can be dangerous."PHOTOThe Koch family has taken to Eugene as readily as ducks to water.PHOTOKoch's best Lake Placid finish was his 13th in the 50 km.PHOTOAmerica's only Nordic racing medal is Koch's silver of '76.