On January 7, 2013, Torin Koos made a race-winning move up the final hill of the 30 k classic at U.S. Nationals that Tim Baucom, one of the Bridger Ski Foundation coaches, later called “unbelievable.” As competitors struggled in his wake, Koos bounded up the formidable Hermod’s Hill on the Olympic course at Soldier Hollow like it was a bunny hill. A few minutes later, he crossed the finish line comfortably in the lead to claim his first national title in a distance event.
Koos’ skiing that day was part of a season that marked a turning point for the veteran racer. The win was not a surprise to Koos himself, but it was still his first career win at the championships in a race longer than 2 k. As the winter progressed he accumulated more distance accolades, including his first World Cup distance points (albeit in a prologue) and victory in the 50 k at Canadian Nationals in the spring. For Koos, who didn’t even compete in many distance races for the first seven years of his World Cup career, last season may prove to be the start of a new phase of his career.
Koos celebrated his thirty-third birthday last month. After such a milestone, there is a tendency to take a retrospective look at an athlete’s career and come up with measurements of its success and longevity. There are several ways to do this — the number of competitions started, number of wins, and number of results above a certain threshold. A skier’s resume doesn’t always paint a complete picture of his career, but it covers enough of the canvas to depict and decent outline.
In the U.S., few cross-country skiers still actively competing have had a more packed career than Koos. His World Cup debut took place at Soldier Hollow, Utah, in 2001, when he was just 20 years old. The next winter, he competed in his first of three Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. He’s been to six World Championships and has logged 80 World Cup starts. He’s been on the podium at U.S. Nationals six times, including five wins and two trips to the very top step within the same week in January 2013, at the same venue where he first appeared on the international stage.
It is somehow necessary to preface anything written about certain athletes with these kinds of numbers, and in Koos’ case it is because they illustrate just how impressive his recent distance highlights are. Out all 80 of his World Cup starts, including stage events, 56 have been individual sprints while only ten have been individual distance races. Koos’ first distance race on the World Cup was a 15 k classic in Kuusamo, Finland, in 2008. Since then, half of the non-sprints on his World Cup resume took place last season alone, when he earned himself a trip to Europe by climbing to the top of the overall SuperTour rankings and the right to start every race in Period IV.
It is not unusual for sprint-specialists to see few distance starts on the World Cup, but this can mean that, from the outside looking in, Koos’ potential distance talent went untapped for years. Or perhaps his distance skiing has developed, as he’s gotten older. Either way, his experience last season confirmed for Koos he can be successful in longer events and that, at the age of 33, he has just begun to explore an exciting, new aspect of his skiing.
“I think [sprinting] is where, at the international level doing World Cup-type courses, I still have my top results,” Koos said on the phone last month from Bozeman, Mont. “But I’m really interested to see where I can take the distance racing, too. It feels like it opened up some doors, figuring out how good I can be in the longer distances… I think it was just a confirmation that something I hadn’t had much opportunity to do — it was confirmation that I could be really solid to maybe great at some of those races.”
Finding new ways to enjoy the sport is what keeps Koos motivated all these years into his career. But his undeniable forte is still in sprinting, and his focus will remain there for the upcoming Olympic year. He may have revealed his distance chops last season, but Koos also proved he is as strong a sprinter as ever on both the domestic and international stage. He hadn’t seen a World Cup bib since being cut from the U.S. Ski Team in 2011, but despite the extended break from the international circuit Koos came back with an 18th-place finish in the classic sprint in Drammen, Norway, last March.
Ten-plus years of experience of racing World Cup heats clearly hadn’t gone away, which Koos feels was important for him to prove to both himself and the world, particularly with the Sochi Olympics on the calendar this season.
“The last time I [raced World Cups] I qualified second in Canmore and finished 11th that day, so when I left, when wasn’t able to race World Cups any more, I felt like I left it at a really high level,” Koos said. “So I always knew I could be back in that same performance zone and it was just a confirmation of that, as well. You have ideas, you have belief, but you also have to do it and show some other people again. I feel like it was a really solid year to build for this upcoming year, you know? So I think it’s a really good platform that I can take coming into this year. I feel like I’m coming into this year with some momentum and still with a lot to prove as well, to myself.”
Asked what his major goals are for the coming season, Koos knows when he wants to have the race of his life down to the day. The freestyle sprint in Sochi takes place on February 11, 2014, and he wants to be there and ski “better than ever.”
Koos has been a part of three Olympic teams, and with the confidence he reestablished in himself last winter he thinks a fourth trip to the Games could be his best yet. But the hardest part of meeting his Sochi goals may be in qualifying — in order to meet the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s objective criteria he would have to move into the top 50 in the World Cup sprint standings from the 69th position he occupied last year. And to do that, he first has to be able to log results on the World Cup before January 12, 2014.
Koos was not the Continental Cup leader at the end of last season and therefore won’t be that on the World Cup in Period I with that particular start right. Period II starts after the Tour de Ski on January 11, which doesn’t leave him much of a window to get on the ranking list even if he does end up leading the SuperTour in the fall. Discretion, therefore, may be Koos’ best chance at getting named to the team, but he hopes he somehow gets to compete on the World Cup before the team is named and objectively show he belongs on it.
“If I can get some more opportunity, I really feel that’s attainable,” Koos said. “It would be nice to get the opportunity again to show what I can do on the World Cup, and I feel that this year’s going, so far, much better than even last year.”
That is to say, Koos thinks his summer training is going well — perhaps better than it ever has. After the season ended at SuperTour Finals, where his races were hindered by a bout of illness, he took a quick vacation in Hawaii before going back to Salt Lake City, Utah, in time for summer classes at Westminster College. While there, he trained both on his own and with other athletes in the area, including former running teammates from his University of Utah days and with Miles Havlick, who is soon headed to Sun Valley but has been in town for the summer finishing his undergraduate degree.
Overall, Koos is encouraged by how sessions have been going. He finished his penultimate class last month and now has even more time to devote to training — and at the moment he is in Canmore at a Bridger Ski Foundation camp.
“I feel like I have a lot of control over how the body’s responding and how I plan training and everything like that, and now I’ll have a little less distraction with school, which all-in-all should be a good thing,” Koos said.
His overall approach to the sport is a reflection of how long he’s been doing it. Though he has goals like returning to the Olympics and doing well there, he generally tries to take things one day at a time. Koos doesn’t know, for example, how long he’ll keep racing, or what exactly he’s going to do with his distance skiing now that he has indicators that he could pretty good at it. This is part of what makes now such an exciting time for Koos. Yes, sprinting will continue to be his focus for at least the coming year, but after that he’s not sure what his future holds.
“I guess you have to find new parts about the sport, and that’s kind of what’s interesting about the distance racing part,” Koos said. “For a lot of years I did two, three, four distance races a year, maybe. And I feel like that whole part of the sport, it’s kind of new and exciting. And from there, there’s also some cool races that you hear about and you dream about, like the Vasaloppet. You can still see with people — I have a friend who’s on the LeasePlan Go Team with Thomas Alsgaard, and he says Thomas is really training to win the Vasaloppet. And I don’t know how old Thomas is, 40, 41 — many-time World Champion, Olympic Champion, coach, mentor, rally car driver, commentator. So for somebody like him, he can still find some new challenge in the sport, and that’s interesting and impressive.”
And so while Koos’ skiing future may be uncertain, you can be sure that he’ll be racing as long as it continues to motivate him like it does now.
“I honestly just try to take it day by day, season by season,” Koos said. “And so long as you wake up every morning and you’re like, ‘I’m really ready to give, go out and train,’ and that’s what you want to give 100% for, then yeah, I won’t question it… As an athlete you do think in four-year blocks, but right now I’d rather focus on what’s coming up rather than thinking too far down road.”