Interview With Torin Koos

FasterSkierJanuary 31, 2008

Phil Bowen: You're a student of the sport. Both in running and skiing, you seem to have a respect for those who came before you. Names like Koch, Wassberg, Svan, Mikkelsplass. Yet as a sprinter, you are definitely part of the new school – the format is hardly 10 years old. Do you feel like you're betraying (maybe too strong a word) the forefathers or are you happy to be part of the revolution?

Torin Koos: Wow. So I'm seen as a student of the sport? I'm down with that. It's probably even true, too. Even in the early days I'd read up on Seb Coe or Zatopek or Mark Allen. Picking up the goods on skiers was more difficult. Even today there's a serious lack of books like “Clean Pair of Heals” on the ski legends. I vividly remember, though, the first time seeing the 38mm reel of Kochie doing his thing in the backwoods of Vermont. Or getting that translated copy of Gunde Svan's autobiography from Nat Brown. During the holidays Alison Owen-Bradley would come back to the Wenatchee Valley. Around the Thanksgiving table she'd pass on a story or an insight or two. Really, this stuff was pure gold.

Do you know the one message I took away from all these different sources, coming from all these different sports? I'll tell you. The way to the top is YOUR way. Alison loved to go fast and always kept in the back of her mind, “Is this making me faster?” because, at the end of the day, she'd tell me, ” It's not about who looks the best on the camera. Or who can do one-hundred one-handed pushups. It's about who goes from start to finish in the least amount of time.” I hear Kochie hated to run. Most every coach will tell you you have to run to be a skier. Somehow, someway Kochie found a way to a silver medal, and a World Cup overall title without running. Zatopek ran 100 by 400 meter loops in military boots in the woods. Coe said seven miles was the longest run he ever did, then added, “And that was six miles too long.” It's not that Coe didn't know what Zatopek or Johnny Walker did before him. He just knew that wasn't the way to him to get the most out of his potential. So many advisors adhere to the idea that you must do this, or you must do that to be great. The further we can get away from this, the better. That's my gut feeling.

Honestly, I just don't see sprinting or skating as revolutions. Developments maybe. But definitely not revolutions. Is there really that much difference in how Alison or I view skiing? It's all about going fast. To me, the only difference comes out on the course. Instead of doing a five or ten kilometer race, I'm doing sprints and sprint relays.

PB: So with regards to finding out what works for you, how do you do that? How much experimentation and trial and error can you afford? The US team is doing more testing now. At some point you have to trust science and do what the results tell you to, right? How do you find the line between training your way and training the way the numbers tell you to get the most speed, power, oxygen, recovery, etc? Or is it the same?

TK: How does one find out what is the best possible way for them to find the best way to prepare for racing, getting their body and mind and everything else ready to go ten-tenths, to race right up to their potential? I don't really know. That's the magic, that's the intrigue, that's the challenge ski racing provides. It's kind of cool, you know, to have a big race to prepare for. In conjunction with enablers – your coaches, physiologists, family, training mates and service techs – you come up with a plan to race your fastest on the big day. Then you train your plan. Along the way, you revisit the plan. Perhaps the athlete needs a max Vo2 boost. So the question arises, “Did the intensity work raise one's Vo2?” Yes, no, maybe. Then you go from there, tweaking the plan to how the body responds. We need testing to help us answer questions like this, to chart our progress.

But, still, science by itself it's by no means the alpha & omega. I mean how do you measure strength or rate of force production in skiers? What changes happen to power application or economy of motion when going from an artificial training environment like rollerskiing to racing on the real thing? How can one accurately measure max speed, and see changes from week to week that aren't snow dependent? Numbers are only as good as the test.

After all this comes competition day. To opportunity to lay it out on the line, bust a gut and then… – this is my favorite part – at the finish, you get immediate, concrete feedback. It's right up there on the digital screen – name, place, time. Between the accepting of a challenge and the finish line some informational nugget of personal physiology, of how you respond to a stimulus is out there, ready to be mined.

PB: That's especially true of interval-start races and in the sprint prelims, but talk about how your mindset changes when it comes to sprint heats. Traditional nordic races pit the athlete against the terrain, the conditions, his own fitness – but you have to compete directly against other skiers. Does the digital screen still give you useful feedback after each heat? What lessons do you learn from the heats, and how do you gauge your successes and failures there?

TK: Phil, now you're getting all introspective – how to gauge success and failure, opportunity and regret, these kinds of things. In some ways, mass start and sprint races actually make getting feedback that much easier. Instead of just getting splits, or seeing that you're X amount of time behind the winner, you race alongside them. You get to see where the others replace you from contender to a member of the illustrious suffer bus. Is it on the sustained V2 sections that the pack slipped away? Did the winner accelerate over climbs while you, well, didn't? Immediacy, this is a really good thing.

Out West on the college circuit we'd race an interval start Saturday, followed by a Sunday mass start. It's one thing to be nineteen and get roughed up by a Pietro Broggini or Petter Svendsen in a ten kilometer. It's another to come back in the next day's fifteen skate and ski with the lead pack for two-thirds of the race before slipping off the back. After a weekend or two of this it was natural progression for me to say, “Alright, let's stay with the leaders through twelve kilometers today and go from there.” That became my goal. In attacking a competition this way you might sacrifice placing a bit to equally-prepared skiers who use a more conservative race strategy. But you gain a little something, too. You learn speed. It's not a question if you're able to go World Cup pace. The question remaining is, “Am I strong enough this time to hang on all the way?”

PB: Speaking of being nineteen and racing at World Cup pace… At the 2001 World Cup in Soldier Hollow, UT you qualified ninth in the skate sprint prelims. That seems like a dream come true for a college kid. How did that day affect your career in the short and long term? Is there a downside to getting such a good result at such a young age?

TK: The Soldier Hollow Pre-Olympic World Cups might have opened eyes. For me, it opened doors. Getting that result got my ticket punched to the 2001 Lahti World Champs, got me named to the National Team. This opened up more race opportunities, glacier skiing in the summer, better access to sport science testing, good stuff like that.

The best benefit of having a little success in SoHo, though, was the feeling of confirmation. After that one day in January, from that very moment on I knew, truly, I was on track. I've always wanted to do big things in the sporting arena, make Olympic teams, win National titles, be more than a number in international competitions. Before SoHo I had glimpses and moments when this life seemed a real possibility. Still, true confidence takes more than this – the trick is having something to grab hold of. An obvious piece of non-circumstantial evidence is results. Going into that first international race, competing, then getting back real, tangible evidence that I am a world-class skier is something I carry with me today. How can that not be a boon to have a dream and begin to see it unfold?

PB: Finally, looking ahead. Pete recently noted of the top-5-sweeping Norwegian men in the Rybinsk sprint that “2 could have been sick, 2 could have crashed into each other and one still could have won.” While the US now has athletes who are threats to the podium in every race, we don't have the luxury of such depth at the WC level. Yet. Do you feel pressure to help sustain or grow the sport in the US? In the short term it's great that your results are getting attention, but does it mean anything if it ends when you retire? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the current successes in US skiing lead to another college kid getting his or her ticket punched down the road?

TK: I have a story that just might get around to answering this. Right after Nationals last year I headed over to Davos for a short training camp before the Rybinsk and Otepaa World Cups. Skiing up Fluela Pass that first day in Switzerland I run into Trond Nystad. For those of you who might not remember, Trond was the national team coach from 2002 through Torino 2006. After a quick exchange of pleasantries he says, “I saw the results from Nationals. Looks like you're skiing alright. But what's with the field? Isn't there anybody new coming up? The same guys who were winning races years ago are still winning today. What's up with that?”

One week later I run into Vidar Loefshus, former US sprint coach. We exchange pleasantries. He then asks me the same thing Trond did. I mean, exactly. One year ago I didn't have an answer. This year I feel differently. I really do.

One day Phil, maybe ten years down the road, I hope we get this chance again. One of the two questions I really want to hear then is, “When did you first know Noah Hoffman or Reid Pletcher or Garrott Kuzzy were such special skiers?”

And the women? We have so many up and comers. If they keep that hunger through the plateaus, keep driving, keep seeking speed, World Cup speed, they'll be scary good. Kikkan and Alison good? Who knows, maybe better. That's the intrigue. That's the magic. That's the challenge. That would be cool. I hope what Cook and Andy, Kris and Kikkan and myself have started to do is just that, the start.

PB: Thanks, Torin. Good luck with the rest of your season and in preparation for WM 2009 and OWG 2010.

TK: Phil, the pleasure's been mine. See you out on the race trails.

Phil Bowen began skiing at an early age in Grand Marais, MN and spent six years on the Continental Cup Circuit and racing marathons with the Factory Team. He is currently a freelance photographer and shoots for competitive image Phil lives with his wife in Kampala, Uganda.

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