Like the rest of the U.S. cross-country skiing community
with a watchful eye on the Olympics, Bill Koch had been waiting for this moment for quite some time. It seemed like clockwork, every four years, his name would pop up in the news and sports journalists would ask him the same question:
Will this be the Olympic year that the U.S. finally reaches your mark and gets a medal in cross-country?
It’s about time, he’d say.
Koch, now 62, lives in Peru, Vermont, with his wife Kate and two children, Mehana, 17, and Will, 16. After achieving worldwide recognition and a record that held for 42 years as the most successful U.S. Olympic cross-country skier of all time (with a silver medal in the 30-kilometer event at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria), Koch retired from ski racing after the ’92 Olympics in Albertville, France. He moved to Hawaii a few years later to sand ski, then he and his family relocated to Ashland, Oregon, before moving to Vermont about a decade ago.
There, Koch worked in trail design and built ski trails on his property in Peru. These days, Koch is still all about skiing. He doesn’t have TV at home, and he’s set on logging as many ski days as possible in a given winter.
“I ski in the National Forest around our home as well as at Wild Wings XC, a down-home ski area next door,” Koch explained in an interview with FasterSkier. “I ski every chance I get, and I’m well on my way to my usual 100+ days for the winter.”
On Wednesday, he watched the Olympic women’s freestyle team sprint unfold via live timing on the computer — numbers rather than images — as opposed to a live broadcast.
When he saw USA rank first at the finish, becoming the first Americans to do so in an Olympic cross-country race (and the first to win a medal since his 1976 silver), Koch headed out the door.
“I just went for a celebratory ski on a little 1 k track at my house going a million miles an hour,” Koch said on the phone Wednesday.
A little while later, he and Kate watched a short video clip of Jessie Diggins crossing the finish line first, fractions of a second ahead of Sweden’s Stina Nilsson.
“I just went for a celebratory ski on a little 1 k track at my house going a million miles an hour.” — Bill Koch on how he reacted to the U.S. women’s Olympic win
He wasn’t surprised with the result, but he was relieved.
“I knew going into this one that we had a really excellent chance, but I was trying not to get my hopes up too much because we should have done it in the last time around with Kikkan and it didn’t happen,” Koch said, referring to the 2014 Olympics where Randall finished 18th in her main event, the individual freestyle sprint.
“And here we are, this is kind of our last chance,” Koch continued, referring to Wednesday’s team sprint. “And it couldn’t be more exciting for it to be a joint effort, too. It is just so fitting given that the team is so cohesive and to have these particular women, they are just so amazing. There are so many more women just right there with them; they’re going to bring this sport into a new level now, I think.”
Once Koch had a chance to watch the replay of the women’s final, he described it as “awe-inspiring.”
“Kikkan did a magnificent job of staying in contact,” he wrote in an email. “It was a gutsy tactic to push the pace which was effective in taking the sting out of Stina’s sprint. I was so impressed by the brave and artful way Jessie maneuvered in close quarters on the final corners and her final sprint was flawless!
“I’m just blown away,” he added. “It’s going to take me a while to come back down to earth!”
While not directly involved with the sport at that level any more, Koch said he had become acquainted with and impressed by both Randall and Diggins.
“I think they are going to be such great role models and spokespeople,” he said on the phone. “The sport I know and love so much is really going to get a boost in the arm by these two and so many more right behind them, not behind, but with them. The team is so deep now. This is just so well-deserved.”
For Koch, who is credited with developing skate skiing, he thinks this could be the beginning of a new era for U.S. nordic skiing.
“It is just telling that all the would-be skiers that it is possible and it is happening right now,” he said. “It is just such an invitation to jump onboard and ride this bandwagon. Success tends to breed success, and this could just be the start of an era.”
“It is such a milestone,” Koch concluded. “It has been such a long time, more than 40 years … this is such a great moment for skiing. Even though these women have already done this before, the same team, Jessie and Kikkan won gold in the World Championships not long ago [in 2013], but somehow it’s the Olympics that really sparks the interest in a wider audience.”
— Matt Voisin contributed reporting