Bill Koch's Nordic title caps amazing year for US skiers

To grasp the significance of American cross-country ski racer Bill Koch's accomplishment, imagine a Norwegian, a Finn or a Russian coming to the United States and winning a baseball Most Valuable Player award.

That is the magnitude of Koch's remarkable triumph last weekend when he captured the Nordic World Cup skiing championship. To give the feat even more impact, the Vermont native's accomplishment matched that of countryman Phil Mahre, who won his second straight Alpine World Cup. Thus after decades of striving just to make the top 10, the Americans have finally arrived at the pinnacle of competitive skiing in a spectacular way.

But unlike Mahre, who clinched his cup long ago via a series of early-season successes, Koch went down to the wire in a dramatic nip-and-tuck battle for season-long Nordic honors. In fact, he entered the final 15-kilometer race at Castelrotto, Italy, third in the standings behind Thomas Wassberg of Sweden and Harri Kirvesniemi of Finland. He knew he had to win that race to win the Cup.

The track was fast -- the kind Koch, whose biggest strength is in the downhill sections of a course, likes. His winning time -- a remarkable 37 minutes 52.5 seconds -- put him more than a minute ahead of Wassberg, who finished fifth. Kirvesniemi was third, behind Milos Becvar of Czechoslovakia.

As is often the case when a team's top performer starts to break out, some talented teammates have begun to follow Koch's lead. Dan Simoneau, an Oregon University student from Livermore Falls, Maine, who had some outstanding races this season, recently was second to Koch to give the Americans an unprecedented one-two finish in a World Cup race. To put icing on the cake Sunday at Castelrotto, the Americans won the 4X10 km. relay, with Koch gaining the lead on the anchor leg to beat Norway by nine seconds.

Ever since he first gained international recognition in 1976, when he became the only American cross-country skier ever to win an Olympic medal (a silver in the 30 km.), Koch has demonstrated he is his own man. Sometimes he has had an off-year; sometimes he has broken sharply with his coaches' training methods. At times critical of press coverage, which he often feels overemphasizes winning rather than the fulfilling of individual goals, he has contributed much of his own time to help establish the Bill Koch youth leagues. Last year, he took the season off to train and race on his own -- and win the citizen marathon circuit. Then on a frozen pond near his home, he set world records for the 30 km. and 50 km., the latter in just under two hours.

Perhaps fittingly, it was a solo run. And just as fittingly, it set the stage for his capturing the symbol of cross-country ski racing supremacy this season, the Nordic World Cup.

Mahre also marches to own drummer

Phil Mahre is another champion who follows his own training regimen. Unlike most world-class ski racers today, Mahre and his twin brother, Steve, have abandoned glacier and South America summer skiing for moto-cross racing, water skiing, and other pleasures. Whatever else their approach to serious racing has led to, it preceded the finest season two US Alpine racers have ever had.

By February Phil had clinched his second consecutive World Cup, but ironically it was Steve who outdid his more famous brother at the World Championships, becoming the first American male ever to win a gold medal in an individual race in such competition. He continued strongly thereafter, too, scoring enough World Cup points to finish third in both the slalom and the overall standings.

It was still Phil, however, who dominated the season, taking top honors in the slalom, giant slalom, and combined competitions as well as the overall title to become the first skier since France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1967 to win four World Cup titles in one season.

Fittingly, Phil found himself facing his arch-rival, Ingemar Stenmark, in the season's final event -- the circuit's only head-to-head parallel slalom. Phil won the first run; Sweden's former World Cup champion the second. But Phil's margin was too great, and the American won out by .386 of a second.

Erika Hess won top women's honors

On the women's side, Switzerland's Erika Hess came out of a late-season slump to nail down the overall and slalom World Cup titles after earlier winning three gold medals at the World Championships. Irene Epple of West Germany, who almost overtook Hess, won the giant slalom and combined Cup titles.

Two other happenings underscored the changing face of alpine ski racing, heretofore pretty much the domain of Europe's alpine countries. A Canadian, Steve Podborski, rather than an Austrian, won the World Cup title for skiing's premier event, the men's downhill. And the American women, led by Christin Cooper (third in the World Cup slalom and also third overall) and Holly Flanders (third in downhill), showed such surprising depth that they easily won the unofficial women's Nations Cup. But in the overall Nations Cup -- the only one that really counts, including both men and women -- Austria was first (1,492 points), Switzerland second (1,423) and the United States third (1,196).

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