Going Down Fast
For Coach Lindy Cochran, teaching skiing is all in the family
When Linda "Lindy" Cochran was in the ninth grade, she decided she wanted to quit Alpine ski racing and play basketball instead. That choice might not raise eyebrows in the average American family; adolescence is a time of shifting allegiances. But the Cochrans aren't your average American family; Lindy's three siblings were all highly successful ski racers.
When she heard her sister wanted to quit racing, Barbara Ann Cochran's first thought was, "How is she ever going to tell Dad?" Both dad Mickey and mom Ginny Cochran supported their children's racing careers, but it was Mickey who taught his kids to ski, and to race. He even cleared three slopes on a hilltop in the back yard of their Richmond home -- now the Cochran Ski Area -- so they could train after school. But Mickey, who died of congestive heart failure in 1998, wasn't one to force his kids to compete. He always emphasized that skiing should be fun.
His reaction to Lindy's early retirement announcement seems in character. "He was okay with it," she recalls. "He never pressured me." Instead, he tried one of his "tricks," his daughter says. "I went out with him and skied and he said something really encouraging, like, I just can't believe you're not going to ski, because you're just so good at it.'"
Within two weeks, Lindy was back on the slopes. She made the U.S. ski team in 1970. In 1973 she was the U.S. National Champion in Slalom and Giant Slalom, and she finished sixth in the Women's Slalom at the '76 Winter Olympics. Though she stopped racing competitively in 1978, she has yet to fully retire from the circuit. These days Lindy Cochran Kelley stays involved as a racing coach at the family ski area teaching Vermont kids how to love skiing -- whether they win or lose.
Kelley lives with her husband Steve and their children in a rambling farmhouse in Starksboro. The low-key, bucolic setting contrasts sharply with the high-profile nature of her athletic achievements.
Although Kelley's accolades are certainly impressive, they are par for the course in the Cochran family. All four kids were on the U.S. ski team -- a feat comparable to having four siblings in, say, the NBA. Lindy's oldest sister Marilyn was a three-time National Champ and won the 1969 World Cup Giant Slalom race. Her brother Bob was the top male U.S. skier of his day: A National Champion in three of the four Alpine events, he won the 1973 World Cup Giant Slalom and joined the U.S. Pro-Tour. Even when Lindy was at the peak of her career in 1976, commentators were spending half their time talking about Barbara Ann, who had won an Alpine Olympic gold in 1972. The second generation of Cochran racers has been equally impressive -- nine of Mickey and Ginny Cochran's 10 grandchildren are competitive skiers. Bob's son Jimmy and Lindy's daughter Jessica are already on the U.S. team.
Today all three Cochran sisters are helping to nurture the next generation of skiers. Barbara Ann, a teacher at Mt. Mansfield Union High School, is an instructor at Cochran's. Marilyn coaches high school age racers through Hanover High School. But it is Lindy who stands out from the pack in this area, having carved her own niche as a talented racing coach.
When Kelley taught her
then 2-year-old daughter Jessica to ski, other parents wanted to do the same, so she started the Ski Tots program. It wasn't until Jessica was in the eighth grade in 1995 that Kelley began working with the Junior 3, or J3s. (The United States Ski Association divides junior competitors into categories from J6 to J1; J3 is the division for 13- and 14-year-olds.)
The two J3 years are pivotal for young racers. Not only are they entering their teens, with all the social and hormonal craziness that entails, but they're also on the cusp of the high-stakes ski-racing world. International competitions begin at the J4 level. J3s are mainly focused on advancing to States, and then to Junior Olympics (JOs). Skiers start qualifying for the U.S. Ski Team as early as 16.
The parents of these young racers spend thousands of dollars a year on equipment, ski passes and club fees. Many of the top J3 skiers attend, or will soon enroll, in full-time ski academies. They'll spend upwards of $20,000 a year to go to schools that let them spend much of their time training, traveling and skiing all over the world.
For teenage racers, the pressure is intense. Alpine ski racing is a dangerous, demanding sport -- racers can compete in three slalom events and a downhill competition, all of which involve zipping down steep slopes at high speeds. Even small setbacks can be costly. Nineteen-year-old David Gutman, one of Kelley's former students, sums it up best: "You work all year for less than a minute run, and then you make one mistake and the whole thing's over."
Kelley tries to alleviate the stress of competition by focusing on improvement rather than on victories. "You can't just feel good about winning," she says sensibly, "because you're not always going to win." She encourages her skiers to set goals, but doesn't harangue them if they screw up.
Kelley also operates outside of the more expensive ski academies. Cochran Ski Area racers pay only a $275 family pass and $35 a year in club fees. The J3s who train with her at Mad River Glen in Waitsfield pay for passes there, too. Several of her students have gone on to the Mount Mansfield Tutorial Academy, where they can complete coursework at their home school while studying at the ski school in the winter. It's a slightly less intense environment than academies like Burke Mountain.
"I try to do a program where our Cochran kids can stay competitive in that atmosphere," Kelley says. "I want them to be the best they can be, but I also want them to feel good about skiing I'm not like Vince Lombardi. Having fun is the most important thing."
Kelley readily admits she inherited her coaching ability from her father. An engineer by trade, the elder Cochran understood the physics of the sport and could spot a skier's technical flaws just by watching a few runs. He was also a gifted motivator.
"Psychologically, he was really good at getting the best out of kids," says Kelly. She fondly recalls another of her father's motivational techniques. "If one of us was having a rough day, he'd get the timer out and give us something to work on. Even if it wasn't making us faster, he'd fudge the time." Thinking they'd improved always made them ski faster, she recalls.
Kelley remembers another key moment, during a practice session on the family hill. She was frustrated with a piece of the course that she hadn't been able to ski. "I felt like giving up," she admits. "He said, Fire and determination, just remember those words.' Every time I was in the starting gate I was saying that to myself, and I started making it. I still remember that day when I was up there with him He was able to find the right words to make skiers believe in themselves and go a little bit faster."
According to Kelley's students, she's mastered this skill as well. "She was the best coach I ever had," says Gutman, who raced from age 6 to 18. "She paid attention," he adds. "It just seemed like she knew what to tell you." Gutman recalls the first race of his second J3 year, when he lost a ski on both of his runs. Kelley was supportive, he says. "She kept my spirits up."
Despite his early difficulties, Gutman was one of 20 skiers from Northern Vermont who made it to States that year. He says his improvement taught him about hard work and discipline. "You have to keep at it and keep at it," he says. "I tried harder for skiing than anything else I've ever tried."
Nineteen-year-old Karl Johnson, another of Kelley's former racers, hails from Richmond and now skis for Dartmouth College. He's set his sights on "the top" -- ski team, Olympics, everything. Johnson also holds Kelley in high regard. "She was an awesome coach. If you had a bad run, you'd get frustrated, you'd go talk to Lindy and it'd be fun again."
One incident that stands out in Johnson's memory is a practice run at Mad River Glen. "I was having not-so-good runs. She said, Go up, and don't think about anything. Just ski the course." Johnson says his next run was better. Much better. Trying to describe how and why, he says simply, "I skied better than I was."
David's father Huck Gutman, an English professor at the University of Vermont, is grateful for the work Kelley has done with his son. "You hope for a child that they will have teachers who will teach them to understand what life, and what their own lives, are about, and I think Lindy did that," he says. "She really did help shape a lot of the good things David is today."
Gutman also appreciates the way Kelley connects with adolescents, especially the boys. "They talk to her like they won't talk to their parents or anybody else," he suggests. "They talk to her like she's one of the boys."
Karl Johnson agrees. "She'd pick us up and drive us to Mad River Glen, and she'd bring us home. It was great," he says. "To have another adult, who's not your parent, to have a relationship with is good."
Kelley has also been deeply affected by the kids she coaches. When she talks about David Gutman, for example, she smiles excitedly. "I cried when he made States," she says. "He really, really improved. He was such a hard worker. Working with him was really satisfying."
Her father would no doubt have said the same about working with Lindy.