Putney, Vt. — Bill Koch says he has nothing to prove anymore, so he isn't feeling any additional pressure this season to repeat as World Cup cross-country ski champion.
The soft-spoken Vermonter, who traditionally has let his actions speak louder than his words, laid wholesale siege to the record book last winter. He not only became the first American man to win a World Cup cross-country race but he was the first United States skier to win a medal in the World Championships (a bronze in the 30-kilometer race at Oslo) and the first Yank to capture the World Cup cross-country crown.
His triumph, coupled with Phil Mahre's victories in alpine, gave the US an unprecedented alpine-nordic tandem. No other country ever had swept the two disciplines (although the Soviet Union had both the top man and woman cross-country skier in 1981).
Koch took his title in the final race of the schedule. Needing to finish at least third and be ahead of Sweden's Thomas Wassberg, Koch sizzled over a sloppy 15-km. course in Castlerotto, Italy, and won with the fastest 15-km. time in history; Wassberg thrashed around the soupy course and finished fifth.
But that was last season. This winter?
''It's just another season,'' says Koch. ''I don't think I have to prove anything. I'm certainly pleased with last year and what I did. I'm not going to point for any one particular race this season. I just want to see if I can come up with good performances all season.''
Such a pattern, he feels, is the key to winning the World Cup, not one or two isolated victories.
''I want to be racing well both early in the season and in February and March - I want to be consistent all season if possible,'' says the 27-year-old skier who first burst into prominence seven years ago at Innsbruck where his second place finish in the 30-kilometer event made him the only American ever to win an Olympic medal in cross-country.
Koch began defense of his championship the week before Christmas in Davos, Switzerland, finishing fourth in a field of 119 skiers. He returned to his home in this southeastern Vermont village for the holidays, but is now back in Europe for the second leg of the World Cup season.
Bill knows he is the target of every other skier who wants to knock off his crown, and he also is aware of a movement afoot in Scandinavian circles to handcuff him as he skates. Koch has perfected the ''marathon skate'' style of skiing in which a skier puts one ski outside the machine-set track and pushes off while double-poling for more strength and speed instead of the traditional double-poling or diagonal stride technique. The maneuver is especially geared for rolling and flat terrain and Koch dazzled Europeans last year with his proficiency. (In a less dramatic fashion, he won more friends in the European media by answering questions in French.)
This winter, Norwegian and Swedish coaches are trying to outlaw the technique , claiming it is ''unnatural'' and nontraditional. The move has received little support among other countries but there is a fear some countries may yield to the Scandinavians, who consider it their birthright to win cross-country titles; while they might not prohibit ''skating,'' some race organizers might set a hillier course, place marker flags alongside the track to prevent lifting the ski out of the groove, or maybe even pile snow along the track to thwart Koch.
''I hope they don't get this (the proposal to ban) through the FIS [ International Ski Federation] because it would be bad for the sport as a whole. There already is too much climb in these courses,'' according to Koch, ''and it could be a real threat to the sport. I'd rather see an outright ban than creating more hilly courses.''
The irony of the matter, as US coach Mike Gallagher points out, is that Koch learned the technique by watching a Swede win a race several years ago. Although he and fellow Vermonter Tim Caldwell had played around with skating, he never saw the full potential until that non-Cup race on a frozen river.
''They're after Kochie with this no-skating deal,'' says Gallagher, a three-time Olympian, ''but it won't matter. Everyone is skating these days, or learning how to do it . . . even the coaches. If the Norwegians and Swedes had paid attention to what they already had, they could have been the ones who capitalized on skating.''
As the Europeans scramble and play catch-up with Koch (and American sidekicks Dan Simoneau, Caldwell and Jim Galanes, who also have mastered it), Bill goes his way, preparing to defend his title and spend as much time as possible with his family.
''This is going to be a different winter. Because of the way the schedule is split, we'll go to Europe three times. I can't recall ever doing that before. It's going to mean more travel than ever, but I still want to spend as much time as possible at home,'' he says.
''I hate to be away, but fortunately Katie (Bill's wife)does a great job with the girls [daughters Leah, 5, and Elisabeth, 2], so I don't have to be too concerned. She's tremendously supportive for me, so I keep pointing out this World Cup goes to her as well.''