Cross-country skier Torin Koos had a ton of motivation for his successful campaign to make his fourth Olympic Games.
What he didn’t have was the U.S. national team to help get him there.
Soon after his final race in the 2010 Olympics, a respectable ninth-place finish in the team sprint at Whistler, B.C., the veteran was dropped from the team.
The powerful Koos, a sprint specialist, isn’t the only one to make the 2014 Olympic cross-country team as an outsider. Kris Freeman, who races despite diabetes, was cut from the team this spring. Brian Gregg, 29, who grew up in Winthrop, made his first Olympic team despite never being on the national squad.
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All three will be racing in Sochi, with Koos competing in the individual skate sprint Tuesday, and possibly other races.
Making the Olympic team without national-team benefits is complicated, expensive and draining. Independent racers also face a different kind of pressure – they have to ski well to simply gain entry to the top races.
The ski federation had high hopes the 2010 Games, held so close to home on familiar trails, would be the start of a turnaround in U.S. nordic ski fortunes. Only one American, Bill Koch, has won an Olympic medal, in the 1976 30K race. But the cross-country team left empty-handed.
The fallout was that if Koos, 33, was going to make it to Sochi, he’d have to do it on his own.
That meant no more national-team training, coaching or sponsorship. With nearly all of the racing happening overseas, he would have to pay for his own travel and make all his own arrangements.
Not an easy task when you travel, like most elite cross-country skiers do, with 25 pairs of skis.
The biggest challenge for outsiders: Gaining entry to World Cup races, which gives you a ranking, which helps you make Olympic and world championship teams.
Koos made the Olympic team mostly through the Super Tour, a domestic ski tour similar to racing’s minor leagues. Success there can get you World Cup starts or points to fulfill criteria for making the Olympic team.
“He’s a veteran for sure,” said Chris Grover, U.S. cross-country coach. “He brings a lot of tactical experience in sprints. We’re hoping he could recapture a bit of his form from past seasons.”
For his long climb back to the Olympics, Koos called on past connections and made some new ones. He lived and trained in the Methow Valley for a year after the 2010 Games. His base the last two years has been the Swiss national team (Koos had raced with its sprint coach, 2002 Olympic champion Tor Arne Hetland.) He races for a Norwegian club and communicates with coaches around the world.
Hardly anyone skis for the money, because there isn’t much for most, even at the top levels. Still, Koos needed support to make up for lost training stipends. The Bridger Ski Foundation supports Koos. Other longtime sponsors stuck by him: USA Pears. Rossignol. A group called In the Arena, which pairs aspiring Olympians with youngsters. Koos makes regular appearances and keeps in touch with sixth-graders in Wenatchee’s Orchard Middle School.
His parents also continued to support his mission to make it back to the Olympics a fourth time.
“Having good people around you that believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, that’s the kind of support that matters,” he said.
This will be the last Games for Koos, and perhaps the most satisfying to attend. For the past four years, Koos has chosen to focus on the positives of his situation. It worked.
“When I got dropped from the team, the big goal was to make it to Sochi and finish my career on my own terms,” he said. “I guess it’s nice to put myself in a position to do that.”