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It was opening day at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. The eyes of the world were focused on the men's downhill on the icy slope of Patscherkofel where Austrian farm boy Franz Klammer would steal the show with an electrifying win over Swiss favorite Bernhard Russi.

Nearby, in the quiet mountain village of Seefeld, American ski history would be written on the cross-country trails. Nearly 38 years later, the success of a young U.S. skier still resonates around his sport as the only cross-country Olympic medal won by an American - something Kikkan Randall hopes to change in Sochi.

There were no expectations that day in Seefeld when an unheralded 20-year-old Vermonter, Bill Koch, won silver in the men's 30K. No one expected that to happen on the trails of Seefeld - except Koch.

The timing for "Kochie" and American cross country was perfect. The fitness boom that swept America in the early '70s created a renaissance for cross-country skiing devotees. Sweeping changes in equipment - from wooden skis with leather bindings to fiberglass skis and click-in boots - were creating a boom in the sport that for years had been in the shadow of alpine skiing.

Cross-country skiing was still a sport where athletes went out one by one into the woods at 30 second intervals, racing against themselves with coaches calculating times off other racers.

To be clear, Koch wasn't a complete unknown. Two years earlier he had won bronze in the European Junior Championships.


He had grown up in southeastern Vermont's Nordic Mecca under the legendary coach John Caldwell in Putney, Vt. He was one of a talented group of young skiers who trained at the Telemark Ski Area in northern Wisconsin for U.S. Ski Team coach Marty Hall.

Coaches along the Olympic track in 1976 were stunned as they looked at their watches, measuring the splits on the American who had started seventh. With his early start, he came into the stadium as the leader and watched as, one by one, no one matched his time until Soviet Sergei Saveliev finally took the gold, bumping Koch to silver. He added another top-10 finish in the 15K later in the Games.

Some called it one of the most significant accomplishments in Olympic history. For legions of health-driven cross-country enthusiasts on trails across America, it galvanized the growing movement that was sweeping the snow belt. Bill Koch became a hero for generations of young cross-country skiers.

He went on to revolutionize the sport, taking advantage of the new skating technique some years later, winning the season-long World Cup title in 1982 and becoming the first non-European to win a World Championship cross-country medal. The Bill Koch Youth Ski League - which still exists today - has introduced tens of thousands of boys and girls to the sport.

Koch came out of retirement to qualify for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, and was selected flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic Team. While he stays out of the public spotlight today, he's still an ardent fan of the sport he popularized with his historic silver medal on the trails of Seefeld.

One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.