(HOST)This month, commentator John Morton says he’s celebrating what he calls a Nordic anniversary. Here’s the story.
(MORTON) Thirty years ago this February, I was a U.S. biathlete at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Actually, the Nordic skiing events were held in the picturesque, Alpine village of Seefeld, an hour northwest of Innsbruck. The cross-country skiers, Nordic combined competitors and biathletes were housed in the hotels, blissfully remote from the media frenzy down in Innsbruck. Aside from a machine gun-toting, Austrian soldier in the lobby of each hotel, and international flags fluttering everywhere, our charming, little resort town was relatively unchanged from a normal winter.
The cross-country and biathlon events shared a start/finish stadium in a broad pasture adjacent to the village. We stepped out the door of our hotel, put on our boards and skied to the Olympic trails.
Among the American athletes, there was excitement for a couple of reasons. Two years earlier, Thomas Magnusson of Sweden had won the World Championship, 30 Kilometer event on fiberglass skis, throwing the ski industry into chaos overnight.
The advent of fiberglass skis had also stimulated innovations in waxing techniques, and no one recognized this quicker than U.S. Cross-Country coach, Marty Hall. Marty recruited Rob Keissel from the U.S. Alpine team and they began waxing the tips and tails of cross-country skis for speed, confining the slower kick wax to a pocket under foot.
The second reason for American optimism was Bill Koch. The twenty-year-old from Guilford, VT had emerged as America’s top Nordic skier. In the weeks prior to the Innsbruck Games, Koch had medaled in two important European races, but Nordic skiing generates little media coverage in the States, so few people back home, were aware of his success.
On February 5th, as we finished our workout, someone suggested stopping by the stadium, to see how the Men’s 30 K was going. Our training bibs and USA warmups were enough to get us inside the spectator fence, next to the tracks.
Glancing at the huge electronic scoreboard, we were astonished to see, KOCH…..USA in second place! We assumed that Bill had had an early start number, and most of the hotshots were still on the course. But as we watched in amazement, exhausted racers crossed the finish line and the names on the scoreboard, below second place, kept changing. It began to dawn on us that Bill might actually accomplish what we had all envisioned for years, winning an Olympic medal.
As the late finishers arrived, we were surrounded by European coaches and athletes who pounded us on the back and shouted for a young American who had succeeded in a tough sport, long dominated by Europeans.
That was thirty years ago, and I’ll bet Bill is among the many American Nordic enthusiasts who hope to see his accomplish-
ment surpassed by another young American, this February in Torino.
This is John Morton in Thetford.
John Morton designs trails and writes about sports. His book about the Olympics, A Medal of Honor, has recently been re-issued.