Cochrans are a family of champions
By BILL PENNINGTON
The NEW YORK TIMES | January 25,2013
AP File Photo
Mickey Cochran stands at the Cochran Ski Area in Richmond in this undated file photo. Through the years, Cochran Ski Area turned out a family of champions and helped train generations of ski racers.
RICHMOND — It was 1960 in northern Vermont and Mickey Cochran had a simple plan with an uncommon stipulation. A former schoolteacher, Cochran would buy a house in the country for his growing family, but only if the new home had a pitched slope behind it where he could install a ski lift.
Along with his wife, Ginny, whom he met while skiing, Cochran found the right house and parcel of land for $10,000, and soon there was a rope tow just outside the back door. Educated as a mechanical engineer, Cochran affixed floodlights to adjacent trees and the roof of the two-story home, turning the modest rural hillside into a round-the-clock winter playground.
Like a Vermont version of the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you build and illuminate a place to ski in snow country, people will come from far and wide.
Throughout the 1960s, thousands of local schoolchildren and their parents learned to ski at the Cochran hill, with Mickey and Ginny providing free hands-on instruction. They did not charge to use the 400-foot rope tow either. Everyone was welcome, even in the kitchen of the Cochran home, which served as a warming hut.
“It was a magical place,” said Bob Cochran, one of Mickey and Ginny’s four children. “Like a big party at your house every night.”
The ski hill, moderately expanded in subsequent decades, continues to this day as a nonprofit organization and revered civic resource, a tribute to Mickey Cochran’s humble 1960 dream.
But that is not the reason Cochran’s Ski Area, with its one tiny roadside sign, is known throughout the racing world. It is not why the one-room Cochran lodge, built in 1984, is replete with pictures of international skiing stars who have made the trek to this out-of-the-way little ski area next to the Winooski River.
Mickey and Ginny Cochran’s children — Marilyn, Barbara Ann, Bob and Lindy — all made the U.S. ski team and each raced in the Olympics. At the 1972 Games in Sapporo, Japan, Barbara Ann won a gold medal in slalom.
The Skiing Cochrans, as they became known in the 1970s, were an American sensation, feted at gala dinners and featured in national magazines, like a sporting version of the Osmonds.
But there’s more: six of Mickey and Ginny Cochran’s grandchildren have made the U.S. ski team in the last decade, including Ryan Cochran-Siegle, Barbara Ann’s 20-year-old son, who won two events at the junior world championships last season. His cousin Robby Kelley, Lindy’s son, is the reigning national giant slalom champion, extending the lineage of America’s first family of ski racing into a sixth decade.
In 2005, four second-generation Cochrans were on the U.S. ski team, matching the four Cochrans on the team 43 years ago. And the ski area has helped produce more than a dozen U.S. team members who are not related to the Cochrans, even if they are all embraced as Cochran racers.
“People have asked me if there’s something in the water,” Bob, 61, said with a laugh last month, sitting at a picnic table inside the unassuming Cochran lodge. “People think we have some secret. But there was no special criteria for coming here except one. My father said you had to have fun.
“And my mother made every kid who showed up here feel like a part of the family.”
Each of the original skiing Cochrans insisted that making the Olympics was never discussed by their father, who died in 1998 at age 74, or by their mother, who was 76 when she died in 2005.
“Even making the national team was never envisioned,” said Lindy, now 59. “That was some mystical place and the farthest thing from my father’s mind. He did, however, believe that you needed a lot of repetition to get good at something.”
So what better way than to grab the rope tow just outside your bedroom window?
The usual Cochran winter day would have the children doing their homework after school, then awaiting their father, who had left teaching to take an engineering job at a General Electric plant in nearby Burlington.
“He would get home around 6 p.m. and we’d be waiting to get out there,” said Bob, who became a physician after his amateur and professional ski racing career ended. “My mom would give my dad something to eat, and then he’d go fire up the old gas-powered engine that ran the rope tow.”
Gates would be set on the hill, and if there were not enough gates, saplings cut from the adjacent woods would be used instead.
“It would hurt hitting those saplings,” said Marilyn, 62. “But you couldn’t get us off that hill. We’d be out there five nights a week, and the only way to get us to go to bed was to flip off the lights.”
When Marilyn and Barbara Ann, who was 11 months younger, began winning regional and national-level races, their celebrity spread in the pastoral remote villages of northern New England, but they remained something of a curiosity at the extravagant Alps resorts that hosted the top international ski races. That was true even after they each won a medal at the 1970 world championships.
“I recall the Europeans saying: ‘Who are these Cochrans? From where?’” Marilyn said. “But you know, they started thinking of us as kids to be reckoned with.”
Their father was their coach and, they said, an innovator. Relying on his engineering background, he introduced scientific methods to racing tactics, turning a mountain descent into a conversation about vectors and ski path velocity. He taught his children to chart the number of gates in a racecourse and to memorize it using visualization techniques. He was also a master sports psychologist, an underappreciated part of coaching at the time.
“He was a teacher at heart, and he knew how to keep you focused on your performance and not the outcome,” Bob said. “He was years ahead of his time.”
If there is a shared trait from generation to generation of Cochran Olympians, it is the powerful benefit of basic homework, or time on the snow in ski racing parlance. The emphasis has always been on the value of dedicated, enthusiastic preparation, even in modest circumstances. The Cochran race training course is far from steep and only several hundred feet long. But Cochran racers for multiple decades have completed lap after lap, smiling as they go.
“There was never pressure on us,” said Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who is now racing at the highest levels of the World Cup circuit, a path his cousins blazed before him. “I never felt any expectations. I wanted to do well, but winning was never the central goal. We were urged to just get better and better.”
Marilyn, who became a World Cup giant slalom champion, recalled that her father always deflected questions about success, even as it became common to the household.
“Acknowledging medals and things like that seemed arrogant to him,” she said recently, sitting with her sisters and brother. “Although I know he was proud of us.”
Marilyn then explained that her parents could not afford to attend the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, where three of their children competed, but they stayed up late to watch the races from Japan. The living room scene, just feet from the backyard rope tow, was later re-created for her.
“My father cried twice in his life — when his mother died and when this one won the gold medal,” Marilyn said, tapping the shoulder of Barbara Ann.
“I didn’t know that,” Barbara Ann said, turning with a look of surprise. “Now I’m going to cry.”
Marilyn said, “Me, too.”
The Cochran’s Ski Area of today has moved about 150 yards from the original home, which has remained in the family. An adjacent 140-acre parcel of land, bought years ago for $4,000, allows more room to teach beginners, which comes in handy with more than 700 students enrolled in after-school programs.
Hundreds of local youth and Vermont high school racers also train and compete on the main trail next to a busy T-bar.
“It’s just an extension of when the local parent-teacher organization came to my mom and asked if she would teach the kids on our hill,” said Barbara Ann, who heads the current instruction program. “Mom always said skiing was the best way to keep parents and their kids together in the backyard.”
On a bluff overlooking a dirt and cinder parking lot, the Cochran lodge is festooned with dozens of numbered racing bibs from championship races. The oldest are from New England in the mid-1960s and the newest were proudly spirited home from top international competitions last winter.
The skis Barbara Ann used to win her gold medal hang from the ceiling, and photos celebrating the careers of nearly every Cochran are tacked to the walls, which takes up a lot of room given the breadth of the accomplishments. From Bob’s 1973 win in the famed Hahnenkamm combined in Austria to Lindy’s top American finish for a woman in the 1976 Olympic slalom and giant slalom, to NCAA championships by the grandchildren, the Mickey and Ginny Cochran racing pedigree is long and full. And all of it from a hill that is a miniature of a major ski resort.
Simplicity and unpretentiousness have remained hallmarks of the Cochran way. So has affordability. A junior weekend lift ticket is $14. Children pay about $40 for a season of after-school lessons — $90 with rentals.
“And we give scholarships if someone can’t afford that,” Lindy said. “If you really want to learn to ski, you won’t be turned away.”
The ski area may have registered as a nonprofit organization only after Mickey’s death, but as Ginny told her children at the time, “It was always a nonprofit.”
The current ski area, with its gaggle of instructors, coaches and lift operators, is overseen by a board that has had to raise money for improvements like top-to-bottom snow-making. The bills are paid, the lodge picnic tables overflow in the winter with excited, red-cheeked children, and warm food is doled out of a tiny kitchen. But donations are continually sought to keep Cochran’s Ski Area viable and available to the next generation.
On a stormy Friday four days before Christmas, rain pelted the tin roof of the Cochran lodge and gusts knocked out the electrical power. Man-made snow was on the slopes, but the downpour threatened the anticipated opening of the ski area the next day.
The four children of Mickey and Ginny Cochran, who live not far from Richmond, happily gathered inside the lodge nonetheless, reminiscing and finishing one another’s sentences as if they were at the dining room table in 1960.
They discussed the Olympics and world championships like run-of-the-mill high school events. When shown black-and-white pictures of their Olympic media appearances, the Cochrans hardly seemed impressed; they were too busy teasing one another about their 1970s hairdos.
One by one, recollections from decades past were summoned with ease and spontaneity, and almost every story began with a Cochran turning and pointing at the ski trails beyond the lodge window and saying:
“We were on the hill. ...”
The weather that day may have been cold and blustery. The Cochran memories are forever warm and genuine.
After a few hours, the siblings departed wondering when the ski area — a Vermont cultural landmark — might open for another winter.
“If it stops raining, we’ve still got a chance tomorrow,” Lindy said.
The next day, the rain had ceased but the snow beneath the T-bar lift was too irregular for Cochran’s to open as scheduled.
About 25 youngsters from the weekend race program showed up anyway. So did some coaches and the three Cochran sisters. Pulling into the muddy parking lot, they got out of their cars to gaze uphill at the swath of good snow that remained on the central trail.
A procession soon began hiking up the hill carrying skis. Gates were set in the snow. Racers skied down.
Smiling, they walked back up the hill. Over and over.
It snowed soon after. Three days later, Cochran’s Ski Area officially opened for another winter.