• Gold mettle
     | February 20,2005

    At 5 feet 1, Barbara Ann Cochran isn't much taller than the preschoolers skiing behind her on the Mighty-Mite slope. She sports long blonde pigtails and a childlike smile.

    But Cochran's no student, she's a 54-year-old Olympic gold medalist. And her story, once about speed on faraway white slopes, now is about strength and stamina in the Green Mountains.

    Cochran was 9 when her family bought a house in small-town Richmond with a big hilly backyard. Some parents might have put up a swing set. Hers installed a ski tow and floodlights.

    Cochran and her three siblings grew up to grab slots on the U.S. Ski Team. She climbed one step higher - onto the medal platform at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, becoming the third of only six U.S. female alpine skiers ever to win gold.

    One of the first, fellow Vermonter Andrea Mead Lawrence, landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1952. The latest, Picabo Street, laps up $1 million a year from ChapStick ads made famous by Vermont Olympian Suzy Chaffee. Cochran, in contrast, came back home, went to college and took a less glossy job.

    Make that jobs. Weekdays she teaches family and consumer sciences - "it used to be called home economics" - and physical education at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol. Weekends she instructs a new generation of downhill upstarts in her old backyard, now the nonprofit Cochran's Ski Area. In between she single-handedly cooks, cleans and chauffeurs for her two children, Caitlin, 14, and Ryan, 12.

    Cochran's gold medal didn't reflect outrageous fortune.

    "I remember when my mom asked me if I was interested in doing a commercial for some laundry detergent - I didn't want to endanger my amateur status, so I said no," the Olympian says today. "Now there's a part of me that wishes I had been able to capitalize on some of that so I'd be financially secure. I don't know when I'll ever be able to retire. I'm sure people think I am set for life, and I'm not at all."

    Even so, this Vermonter reaps a different sort of reward.

    Historic birth

    Cochran's parents, Gordon "Mickey" Cochran and Virginia "Ginny" Davis, were students at the University of Vermont in Burlington when they met six decades ago sharing a car ride to the ski slopes of Stowe. They married and moved to Brownsville, a southeastern village too small for a hospital. That's why Barbara Ann was born Jan. 4, 1951, in neighboring New Hampshire.

    Pick up a Granite State history and you'll see the gold medalist pictured with the likes of patriot Daniel Webster and President Franklin Pierce.

    "Kids write to me as a famous New Hampshire person, but I don't feel like I'm a New Hampshire person," Cochran says. "I feel like I'm a Vermonter."

    A Vermonter like her mother, a farm girl from Hartland Four Corners, or just like her father, who also was born in New Hampshire but went on to quarterback the University of Vermont's football team and play baseball with the semi-pro Burlington Cardinals."The Boston Red Sox wanted Dad to try out," Cochran says, "but his family was so important to him."

    And so he set everyone skiing. Cochran, older sister Marilyn, younger brother Bobby and younger sister Lindy raced for lollipops at Mount Ascutney at an age most children were still waving off mittens.

    "Dad really believed for us to do the best we could we needed to ski more than just weekends," Cochran says. "His idea was to have a hill so we could train after school."

    And so he set out to find a house with a slope behind it. The family toured town after town ("I don't even know what my parents told the real estate agent," Cochran says), turning down one property that came with a horse.

    In the fall of 1960, they drove through the center of Richmond, then population 1,303. They saw a turn-of-the-century brick downtown. An iron-truss bridge over the Winooski River. A 16-sided wooden Round Church built in 1813. But none attracted them like the nondescript hillside farm they bought a mile away.

    Things start spinning

    Cochran's father, a mechanical engineer, planted some poles, fastened a few pulleys and strung up some rope. Neighbors envisioning a clothesline reeled when he hooked up a tractor engine and set the contraption spinning.

    "I'm sure it wasn't as simple as the first rope tow, but it was simple," Cochran says. "It just didn't seem that big a deal. Some people had farms, we had a rope tow. Dad would tell people you could put a rope tow in your backyard if you wanted to. To me, the lesson then was nothing was impossible. Now it just amazes me what he did."

    Cochran would finish her homework early every wintry Tuesday and Thursday, eat supper and ski under the backyard floodlights until 10 p.m. Schoolmates and fellow skiers would travel 15 miles from Burlington or 30 miles from Montpelier with donations of gas for the rope tow.

    The slope fueled success. The U.S. Ski Team welcomed Barbara Ann and sister Marilyn in 1967, brother Bobby the next year and sister Lindy in 1970.

    Cochran's mother drove her children cross-country for training camps because the family couldn't afford plane tickets. But a car wasn't an option when all four were set to make the U.S. team that would compete at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Lindy injured herself and couldn't go. But Barbara Ann, Marilyn and Bobby soon winged their way to the Winter Games a half a world away.

    "We were in this strange foreign country we hadn't been to before - just trying to get something to eat, there was no way to read the menus," Cochran recalls.

    Even so, the 21-year-old easily drank up the camaraderie of the opening ceremony and Olympic village.

    "I felt I was living in Sports Illustrated. It wasn't just skiers, but figure skaters and speed skaters and hockey teams. Even though we each were into our own thing, I felt I knew them forever, probably because we all had worked hard, had common goals and high aspirations. It felt like a real community."

    The competition, however, loomed as tall as a mountain.

    Snowballing momentum

    Cochran was the first competitor to stand atop the Olympic slalom hill.

    "I like to go first," she told a reporter at the time. "I find if I don't, there are bound to be bumps on the course they tell me about and I tend to be cautious."

    Cochran watched snow fall on a course that was already foggy. Even more disorienting, race officials traded 10, 9, 8 for a countdown of electronic beeps, as few of the skiers understood Japanese.

    Cochran wasn't sure if she'd hear the start or see the finish. But at the end of her opening run, she led the field.

    Being first meant Cochran would go last on her second and final run. Snow fell fast. Skiers fell faster. Finally standing alone, she felt the wind blowing upward.

    A New York Times reporter on the sidelines wrote about her "snake-hipping through the 62 gates and gathering speed." But Cochran most remembers extending her head and shoulders virtually parallel to her skis so her bootstraps - which would trigger the timer - left the starting gate a tenth of a second after her body.

    "It's critical at the start to get your momentum going as fast as you can," she says today. "It was something Dad taught me."

    Exactly 45.19 seconds later, she stood upright downhill.

    "They had an electronic scoreboard, but when I finished I didn't even think to look at that. I saw my brother and my boyfriend tumbling over the fence to put me on their shoulders."

    But Bobby - today Dr. Robert B. Cochran, a family physician in Walpole, N.H. - didn't know about her victory. He simply was happy the sister he calls "BA" had survived. Of the 42 race starters, fewer than half finished.

    "I thought after, 'Man, I'm glad she won,'" the doctor says today.

    Cochran had beat her competition by two-hundredths of a second - then the closest margin in Olympic history - giving the United States its first Olympic Alpine gold medal since Lawrence's two decades earlier.

    "It was a little bit of a shock," Cochran recalls, "but what really surprised me was it was a little bit of a letdown. I felt I should have been so ecstatic, but I thought, 'Is this all it is? Where are the stars and bells and whistles?' It's sort of like watching my kids get excited about Christmas. The anticipation is so thrilling, and then when you go through the presents and it's over and done with, it's almost a letdown."

    Life lessons

    Back home, the hoopla didn't let up.

    Cochran landed at Burlington's airport to a crowd of well-wishers. She still remembers the honor of getting to leave the plane first, then meeting the governor (at the time, Republican Deane Davis) and driving home in a car caravan, where she discovered Richmond had renamed her family's street "Cochran Road."

    "We didn't feel we were celebrities, but they treated us like we were."

    Athletes today can accept commercial endorsements and retain their amateur status. But three decades ago U.S. Olympic organizers prohibited anyone from competing if they signed such contracts. And so Cochran, wanting to continue, was never able to translate her win into a windfall.

    She raced two more years. But after the Olympic slalom, everything else was simply downhill.

    "Those last two years I really felt I'd had it with ski racing. It just felt burned out. I wished I would get injured so I could stop and not have to make that decision myself. But to retire at age 23 ..."

    What to do? Cochran had taught herself to sew in junior high.

    "I really enjoyed that," she recalled. "And I love working with kids."

    And so the retiree enrolled at the University of Vermont, studied home economics and starting teaching. She has worked in local public schools almost 20 years.

    Although Cochran stopped ski racing, she never stopped skiing. As her father added a T-bar tow to the family's backyard, the Olympian taught local children how to use it. She followed the example of her mother, who taught an estimated 10,000 students how to ski before inviting everyone inside her kitchen to warm up.

    Remember struggling to turn your ski tips inward and hang on to your poles to "snowplow"? Cochran lets students keep their hands free so they can focus on turning their feet into a "pizza wedge."

    If only the adult world was so easy. The rope-tow slope used to require little more than a can of gas. Now, serving 1,000 visitors a week, Cochran's Ski Area needs more than $15,000 a year in liability insurance, even though it still revolves around a few lifts and, with only a few snowmaking pipes, prayers for a periodic nor'easter.

    "We liken the ski industry to farming," says David Dillon, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, made up of 15 downhill and 40 cross-country venues. "You're at the mercy of Mother Nature, the economy and market fluctuations, and you have all the expenses associated with any business. It's very demanding, complex and low margin. It's a challenge."

    When Cochran's father died in 1998, his backyard hill faced a potential mountain of financial problems. Family and friends proposed an unusual solution.

    Volunteer effort

    A year later, the Internal Revenue Service granted the slope nonprofit status - a first, nationally - exempting it from taxes and making donations tax-deductible.

    An all-volunteer board of directors now oversees a $125,000 annual budget for insurance, maintenance and salaries for a paid manager and a few part-time attendants. Tickets ranging from $10 to $15 a day cover about 75 percent of expenses. Contributions pick up the rest.

    "Without donations, we wouldn't survive," says Steve Kelley, head of the board of directors and husband of Lindy.

    "It is unusual," Dillon adds, "but then again they are an unusual story."

    Mad River Glen, a ski area 30 miles away in Waitsfield, is skier owned and operated but doesn't have Cochran's tax status. Its governing board also doesn't include as many family members as Cochran's, which features Barbara Ann and her three siblings. Their mother served with them until her death this month at age 76.

    "We never really made any profit anyway," Virginia "Ginny" Cochran said about the ski area upon its change to nonprofit status, "we just did it to give people a chance to learn to ski and race and now to snowboard. A nonprofit corporation is the best way to keep kids and families skiing in the backyard."

    The Cochrans' dedication is appreciated locally.

    "It not only provides outdoor activity, but also preserves open space," Richmond Select Board Chairman Jared Katz says. "In the winter it's a lovely white patchwork of trails and in the summer it's lovely green hills. I know from my perspective as a resident that's terribly important, and I'm sure travelers see that and feel strongly as well."

    It's also appreciated statewide. William Shouldice III heads a lobbying firm in Montpelier known for representing a spectrum of heavyweights from the American Red Cross to Philip Morris USA. But even snow-deep in the legislative session, Shouldice stops everything to talk up the ski area.

    "There are doctor's kids and the local snowplower's kids - quite a cross section in age and socioeconomic background," the 61-year-old grandfather says. "It's a very unique experience in the fact it isn't overwhelming to young children, the lifts are designed so they can ride them without parental supervision and everyone is everyone else's babysitter. You don't find that anymore. Now it's all glitz and glamour."

    'Heart and soul'

    Mary Houle isn't a local or state official, but a Richmond woman who grew up down the road and now manages the warming hut.

    Some people attribute the area's success to its cozy size, ambiance or the fact a family can buy a season pass for less than $300. Houle credits Barbara Ann's continued presence.

    "Because she's still involved, people come back," Houle says. "I see her as the cornerstone. She's the heart and soul here."

    It's not just because you can snap a shot of your child with the Olympic gold medalist, then sip hot chocolate under her winning Rossignols hanging from the ceiling ("Golden Oldies," a sign says). It's also the fact Cochran can name every one of the 35 preschoolers in one introductory class and coax each to ski down the slope without fuss or fury.

    So how does Cochran fly so high yet stay so down-to-earth? She credits hereditary. Her entire family won induction into the Vermont Ski Museum Hall of Fame last fall, while her nephew, 23-year-old Jimmy Cochran of Keene, N.H., and niece, 22-year-old Jessica Kelley of Starksboro, are the first of a new generation to make the U.S. Ski Team. But as the family ski area's Web site attests: "The rest of the world may know Jimmy as the Bode-beating national champ, but we all know him as the guy who was mowing our trails this summer."

    Barbara Ann's equally grounded.

    "When we would train in California in the summertime, I used to think, 'I hate the fact it's always nice,'" she says. "I like the seasons. I've always loved Vermont. Although winters are getting a little long ..."

    This one has been especially harsh. Cochran and her siblings stood by as their mother died Feb. 5 after a long fight against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But the family's commitment to the backyard ski area lives on.

    "What your head is doing and what your thoughts and beliefs are really do affect how you perform," Cochran says. "I used to think, 'Why was I the one who won at the Olympics? What was it about me?' I really think everyone is here on earth for a specific purpose. I feel my purpose in life is to teach other people to perform to the best of their ability. To take somebody who doesn't have the skill and get them to master something and see the excitement on their face, that's very rewarding."

    This is part of a monthly series profiling Vermonters whose stories offer perspective on life in the state.

    Contact Kevin O'Connor at kevin.oconnor@rutlandherald.com.

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