"a Future Fantasy"
Koch was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, a state noted for its downhill skiers, and he originally chose to compete in the Nordic combined event, which features cross-country skiing and ski jumping. He told Ron Bergin in Cross Country Skier, "As a kid I grew up with Olympic stars in my eyes—I always had it in mind as a future fantasy."
When he was sixteen he tried out for the U.S. Olympic Nordic Combined team as well as the Olympic cross country team, and during the midpoint of both trials, was asked by ski authorities to choose between
them. He chose Nordic Combined, but in his final qualifying event, he fell, broke a ski, and came in sixth, not high enough to make the team.
Partly as a result of this experience, Koch decided to concentrate on cross-country skiing from then on. Two years later, at the age of eighteen, he became the first American to win a medal in international competition when he came in third in the 15-km race at the European junior championships.
Koch made the 1976 Olympic team in Nordic skiing, and in competition in Innsbruck, Austria, became the first American to win an Olympic medal in Nordic skiing, finishing second in the 30-km (18.6 mile) race. His time was 1 hour, 31 minutes, and 59.57 seconds. The winner, Sergei Savaliev of the Soviet Union, finished in 1:30:29.35. Koch told Leonard Shapiro in the Washington Post, "It makes me feel very excited and I hope the American people are very excited, too." In 2002, looking back on his Olympic wins, he told Ron Bergin in Cross Country Skier, "It was a wonderful gift in my life—those performances. I feel so privileged and enriched to have them in my past. At the same time I don't dwell on them at all. I think that they are best viewed as a feather in the cap."
As an Olympic athlete, Koch was deeply influenced by skier Bob Grey, who had skied on several Olympic teams. Another mentor was Mike Gallagher, a fellow skier who later became Koch's coach.
For the next few seasons, Koch struggled with exercise-induced asthma, but at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, held at Lake Placid, New York, he came in 15th in the 50-km race.
After the 1980 Olympics, Koch began working on his endurance, training at longer distances. He also used a technique borrowed from speed skaters, holding his skis at an angle with the tips outward, and pushing off the inside of the ski edge. The new technique made his times faster by 10 percent, and aroused controversy among ski officials; some tried to ban its use, and others simply added so much vertical climb to courses that the technique was unusable.