Koch the one to watch at Nordic tourney

Most eyes, when they could find him, were on American Bill Koch as the Nordic World Ski Championships set up housekeeping in this port city.

The biennial event, which is incorporated into the Olympics every fourth year , features cross-country ski racing as well as 70- and 90-meter jumping and Nordic combined (70-meter jumping and a 15-kilometer cross-country race).

A record number of athletes and journalists were on hand for the opening ceremonies that proceeded the competition, which begins this weekend and continues on into next week. Altogether, 1,250 writers, broadcasters, and photographers have been issued credentials, more than double the number at the 1978 world championships in Finland. There are also about 650 athletes and coaches from 29 nations, including such non-Nordic powers as Costa Rica, Greece, and Argentina.

Koch, the soft-spoken Vermonter who won two World Cup cross-country races last month in Central Europe, is front and center - when he's around. He has been pretty successful in ducking the photographers and news media hubbub in workouts.

He and his wife, Katie, are renting an apartment in Oslo, where they can relax with their two young daughters away from the media glare at the hilltop Holmenkollen site.

Six years ago Koch electrified the sports world and gave the United States its first, and still its only, cross-country hero, when he won a silver medal in the Innsbruck Olympics. A month ago he became the first American man to win a World Cup cross-country race, and he followed that six days later by taking another one, catapulting himself into second place in the World Cup point derby, the highest slot ever reached by an American at any point in any season.

''Sure, I'd like to win the World Cup,'' he says, ''but I'm still more concerned right now with the Worlds.'' Koch is expected to compete in the 15-, 30-, and 50-km races, as well as the relay. An athlete's two best races are included in the World Cup standings.

Koch tuned up for the Worlds by training on his own at home in Putney, Vt.; showing up for just one race - and crushing the field for his fourth straight 15 -km title - at the US national championships at Bretton Woods, N.H.; and training with the US team for 10 days in Sweden before flying to Oslo.

''I think I'm ready,'' he says. ''I feel pretty good about the way my training has gone. Now, we'll just have to see what happens.''

''I'm pleased with the way the training in Sweden went,'' says American cross-country coach Mike Gallagher. ''Everyone had a couple of very strenuous workouts. The terrain was hilly, much like we have here, so that was a help. Now , if we can keep that edge from training, and keep the media off Kochie's back, we should be OK. Bill's been able to stay pretty loose and handle it fairly well, but if it gets out of hand . . . .''

Warm weather (about 30 degrees) and a long snowless spell have made the skiing tracks here hard and fast. ''I hope it stays like this,'' Koch says. ''Some of the downhills and curves are a little hairy, but it's a good, fast track.''

Normally, Olympic multimedalists Nikolai Zimyatov and Raisa Smetanina would be among the favorites entering the competition. But the injured Zimyatov reportedly will sit this one out, while Smetanina's recovery from illness will prevent her from skiing in the 10-km, her best distance.

That leaves the identity of race favorites in doubt. Czech Kveta Jeriova, a bronze medalist two years ago, has swept this season's three women's cup races, while Pal-Gunnar Mikkelsplass of Norway, a dark horse who is just 20, won the first men's race before Koch took control.

Will Jeriova be able to maintain her peak? Will the Europeans and Soviets be inspired to outski Koch because he won against somewhat diluted fields (no strong Soviet men in any race, no Scandinavians in the second win)? Will the fanatical local crowds have any effect on their traditionally strong Norwegian skiers?

Joining Koch on the US men's team are Olympians Tim Caldwell, also of Putney, and Jim Galanes of Newfane, Vt.

Among the US women, Lynn Spencer-Galanes, an Alaska native who now lives with her teammate husband in Vermont, and Leslie Bancroft of Paris, Maine, are the top hopes for a top-20 finish. Spencer-Galanes, the only American woman with World Cup points, won all three individual races at the nationals.

There are few hopes for high placings by the US in Nordic combined and ski jumping. The combined team stayed home this winter, training entirely at home and not competing in any meets - a gamble that may not pay off, since the team has looked flat in workouts. Still, Kerry Lynch of Grand Lake, Colo., who won one combined meet last winter and finished second in two others, could surprise everyone.

Horst Bulau of Canada, who won three meets and had a second place before being injured, is the biggest question mark. He returned to action this week, uncorking an impressive 77-meter jump on the 70-meter hill, and said he was ready.

With or without Bulau, the Norwegians and Austrians appear to have the strongest chances for medals at the Worlds.

The American athletes don't feel any additional pressure, they say, because of the sparkling performance - five medals - by the US Alpine skiers at the recent Alpine World Championships in Austria. Says US team member Dan Simoneau: ''That's a completely different world. It's nice they did so well, but it has no bearing on what we're doing here.''

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