Vermonter Koch 'up' for key ski test

Olympic medalist Bill Koch, his competitive fires rekindled by an impressive string of victories and high finishes a year ago, is eagerly looking to the world championships next month in Norway.

Before that, however, the quiet 25-year-old Vermonter has to contend with the early World Cup races, then the US championships Jan. 27-Feb. 2 at Bretton Woods , N.H. The Nordic worlds are Feb. 18-28 in Oslo.

''I feel really good and I'm in a very positive frame of mind,'' Koch said as he reflected on last week's season-opening World Cup competition at Reit-Im-Winkl, West Germany, and tuned up for this weekend's races here.

''I'm very satisfied, since I hadn't raced for three weeks,'' he said of his 26th-place finish in the 15-kilometer event. ''I'll do my best in the World Cup , but I'm really keeping my eye on Oslo. I don't want to burn out before the worlds.''

Actually, his initial 1982 effort was more impressive than the result might indicate. His time of 48:59.2 was just 14 seconds out of 20th place in the field of 102, which would have earned him World Cup points, and only a minute away from 6th place. He was the top US finisher, and he also anchored the American team to 7th place out of 24 in the 4 x 10-km relay.

It is a thoroughly renewed Bill Koch who comes back to the international swirl this winter. About 18 months ago, admittedly weary of his own high level of intensity and competition as well as the American public's incessant thirst for medals, medals, and medals, he entertained the notion of packing it in and leaving ski racing. He was America's first -- and is still its only -- legitimate X-C hero, thanks to his silver medal in the 30-km race at the 1976 Olympics; he is still the only US athlete the news media -- worldwide as well as in America - care about when it comes to cross-country; and he was simply worn down by shouldering all the pressures.

''I know people consider me the team leader, but I just try to go out and do my best. If that's good, then fine, but as long as I do what I know is my best, then I'm satisfied,'' he said.

His quiet determination has made him something of a reluctant hero. He has the glory and honors that befit his performances, but he would really prefer to be able to practice on his own, show up at race time and compete, and then retreat home with his wife, Katie, a former national X-C team skier, and their two daughters, Leah, 4, and Elizabeth, 1.

Thus, after training at Labrador City, Newfoundland, in November, he took off in December to train at home in Putney, Vt. He showed up for the Gitchi Games at Telemark resort in Wisconsin because head coach Mike Gallagher had said he was picking his World Cup team there. Koch ''earned'' his spot with 6th- and 4 th-place finishes in the two 15-km races and shrugged off fears he might be slipping. Gallagher also scoffed at the results and fears.

''Kochie had to win a spot and he did. I'm not concerned about where he finished, '' Gallagher said, ''because he's the one athlete who has proven he's always ready when we get to Europe. He's a new guy this winter; last season was probably the best thing that could have happened because he really stoked for this season. He's ready.''

As always, Koch declines to predict how anyone - including him - will do before any race. ''I can give you a list of 20 people, maybe 10, who could win a race,'' he says, ''but there are just too many variables that could happen at any time . . . the wax, the snow, anything else.''

Gallagher's reference to 1980-81 pointed to what may have been the finest season by an American runner. Attempting to redefine his place in skiing after the disappointing 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid (where Koch dropped out of the 30 -km race, then had two top-20 finishes but no medals), Bill trained mostly on his own last winter. He competed in only two of the 11 World Cup races (but had top-10 finishes in each to still lead the US team for the season); became the first American to win a European marathon when he captured Switzerland's Engadin Marathon in March, and was second in a marathon near Montreal; won two more national titles; and won six straight races in the Dannon Series throughout the East and at Telemark.

After the season, he helped cut a X-C trail at the Labrador City training camp, then took the family on a ''working vacation'' to Australia, where he worked out for a couple of weeks at mile-high elevations.

''He went to New Zealand last year with Katie and Leah, then went to Australia this summer with Katie and both girls,'' Gallagher said. ''He laid out a trail at Telemark and helped cut it, did the same at Lab City this summer. So he's been able to get away from skiing and yet still stay with it.''

He has also been able to blend skiing with family life, a vital connection for Koch. ''Skiing is important to me, but nothing is as important to me as my family. Nothing,'' he says. When he is away three or four weeks, he makes arrangements for Katie to come on the last part of each trip.

For relaxation, Koch enjoys reading and has taken up a new hobby: flying. He has logged about 100 hours as a solo pilot after a friend got him interested in 1980. He even flew the friend's plane to the US Ski Team's training camp in Newfoundland.

And the future? Will Koch stick around for two more seasons, including the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia?

''Well, let's get through this year first. I'd like to get back to some of that marathon skiing, but right now I'm focusing on the worlds. That's my target this season . . . and I wouldn't worry about '84, either. I'll be there.'' That gush of wind in the background was no cyclone -- just coach Mike Gallagher and the rest of the ski team hierarchy heaving a sigh of relief!

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