In Ineke’s Mitten, the main character, Nels Torkle, was Norway’s next hope to win an Olympic medal in Nordic skiing. I got the idea to make him a skier looking back at Bill Koch’s stunning silver medal win at the 1976 winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
This was the event that stirred my writer’s memory the most. I cheered him on in front of my television and felt, for the first time, the excitement, and pride, Norwegians feel for their Nordic racers.
A native of Brattleboro, Vermont, Koch was the first, and remains, the only American to win an Olympic medal in Nordic skiing.
Although he lost the thirty-kilometer race by twenty-eight seconds to Sergei Saveliev of the USSR, this twenty-one-year-old stunned the world of Nordic skiing, challenging the traditional domination of Scandinavian and Soviet athletes.
I started cross country skiing in 1974 in Colorado. My wife grew up in Tucson, Arizona and was not drawn to downhill skiing, no matter how patient I was. But, she loved cross country skiing.
I was a runner at the time and, inspired by Koch’s effort, decided to start racing cross country in local races sponsored by Coors.
I have a strong attachment to Vermont. My father lived in Northfield and we visited his farm every year. So my protagonist from Norway had to be an Olympic hopeful in cross country skiing. The U.S. Olympic Committee would have to hide him in Northfield where he would teach Nordic skiing to the cadets at Norwich University, the oldest military college in the United States.
Koch went on to win the bronze medal in the 30K event at the 1982 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Oslo, Norway, becoming the first non-European ever to medal in cross-country skiing at the World Championships.
He won by switching from the classic kick-and-stride style to the more propulsive power of “skating.” For more than a hundred years cross-country competitors universally raced with the ancient diagonal stride, alternately kicking and gliding.
Koch carried the American flag at the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.