Posted January 1st, 2006
Thirty years ago this February, I was a U.S. biathlete headed for the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Thirty years ago this February, I was a U.S. biathlete headed for the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Actually, the Nordic skiing events of the ‘76 Games were held in the picturesque alpine village of Seefeld, about an hour northwest of Innsbruck. All of the cross-country skiers, Nordic combined competitors and biathletes were housed in the hotels of the village, blissfully removed from the media frenzy that engulfed the Olympic Athlete’s Village down in Innsbruck. Aside from an Austrian soldier toting a submachine gun in the lobby of every hotel, and an assortment of international flags fluttering everywhere, our charming little resort town was relatively unchanged from a normal winter.
The cross-country and biathlon events shared a start/finish stadium in a broad pasture adjacent to the village. We could step out the back door of our hotel, put on our boards and ski to the Olympic trails. In fact, one of our younger athletes, moments before his Olympic event, discovered with horror that he had left his racing bib in his room. An assistant coach sprinted on skis to the hotel, recovered the bib, and handed it to the athlete seconds before his start.
Among American skiers, there was excitement for a couple of reasons, the first relatively mundane and materialistic. Since Nordic skiing had been dominated by Scandinavian and Soviet athletes for decades, Americans were rarely offered equipment sponsorships or preferential selection of complementary products. But at the 1974 World Championships, Thomas Magnusson of Sweden won the 30-kilometer event for the first time ever, on fiberglass skis, which threw the ski industry into turmoil overnight.
Two years later in Seefeld, an assortment of manufacturers, desperate to validate their innovative concepts, were begging Olympic athletes to use their products. Even competitors with little hope of medaling, were showered with new skis and poles, boots and bindings.
A second reason for excitement was related to the first. The advent of fiberglass skis with synthetic bases stimulated innovations in waxing techniques, and no one recognized this faster than U.S. cross-country coach Marty Hall. Marty recruited Rob Keissel from the U.S. Alpine team and began waxing the tips and tails of cross-country skis for speed, confining the slower kick wax to the pocket under foot.
A third reason for American optimism was Bill Koch. The 20-year-old from Guilford, VT, thanks to his phenomenal dedication and work ethic, had emerged as America’s top Nordic skier. In the weeks prior to the opening ceremony in Innsbruck, Koch had medaled in two important races in Europe, but since Nordic skiing received little media attention in the States, few people back home knew.
On February 5th, the biathlon range was open for training, just over the hill from the start/finish stadium. As we completed our workout, someone casually suggested stopping by the stadium to see how the men’s 30K was going. This was before the intense security precautions of recent games, so our training bibs and USA warmups were enough to get us inside the spectator fence, right next to the tracks.
Glancing up at the huge electronic scoreboard, we were astonished to see KOCH…..USA in second place! Our first thought was that Bill had an early start number, and that most of the hotshots had yet to finish. But as we watched in amazement, the names on the scoreboard kept changing below second place, as exhausted racers crossed the finish line. It began to dawn on us that Bill might actually accomplish what we had all envisioned for years— to win an Olympic medal.
As the late finishers arrived, and it became more evident that Koch’s second place would survive, we were surrounded by European coaches and athletes who pounded us on the back and shouted, “Beel Coke, Okay! Goot day for Uoo Sss Aha!” There was genuine admiration for a young American who had succeeded in a tough sport long dominated by Europeans.
That was 30 years ago, and my guess is that Bill is among the many American Nordic skiing enthusiasts who hope to see his accomplishment eclipsed by another young American this February in Torino.