This article was originally published in The Aspen Times by Austin Colbert.
Before Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall reset the bar last winter on what American cross-country skiers were capable of, it was Vermont's Bill Koch who blazed the trail for the sport in the United States.
Koch, who won Olympic silver in 1976 to become the first American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, is the name behind the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, a nation-wide recreational program for children.
It was a program Aspen native August Teague grew up with.
"We had this phenomenal American who was shaking up the European ranks and in an attempt to ride out some of that enthusiasm, the U.S. Ski Team rolled out the Bill Koch Youth Ski League," Teague said of the program's start. "It was a recreational, learn to ski, fun program that really tried to capitalize on Bill's spirit."
The program disappeared over the past decade-plus in the Roaring Fork Valley as the AVSC's recreational programs were all rolled into the Base Camp program. But, with the alpine Base Camp program going back to its old name — Aspen Supports Kids — in honor of the late Bob Beattie, it seemed like a good time to bring back the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, as well, replacing the Nordic Base Camp program.
"The theme this year at AVSC seems to be going back to our roots a little bit," said Teague, the club's Nordic program director. "Our return to the Bill Koch Ski League is embracing going back to our roots. It's bringing back some of that fun, free spirit aspect of the program."
Meant for children ages 5 to 11, the program strives to provide a fun avenue to get youth interested in cross-country skiing. The non-competitive league is still big in the Northeast, Koch's native home, but has lost ground in the Rockies. Aspen will be only the third area club to currently provide the league to children, joining the clubs in Leadville and Summit County.
"The hope is we can grow it and actually create a festival in the spring that celebrates 'Kochie' and celebrates the fun-loving enthusiasm," Teague said. "It's to have fun outside on snow. It's a lot of games. It's a lot of play on snow."
There are one- and two-day options for the Bill Koch League in the valley. In Aspen, sessions are held either Monday or Wednesday, taking advantage of the district's early release. The two-day option, which is typically for the older kids, will be Mondays and Thursdays.
The Spring Gulch (Carbondale) programming will be Tuesdays and Thursdays. The AVSC is putting more emphasis on transportation and scholarships for downvalley kids to get them involved in the program this winter.
The days won't conflict with the Aspen Supports Kids alpine programs, meaning children can enjoy both gravity-fed sports as well as cross-country ski, if they so choose.
Registration is open, with the scholarship deadline and early-pricing deadline set for Nov. 2. Programming begins in late November.
Much like with Koch in the late 1970s and early '80s, Teague is seeing in increased interest in cross-country skiing after Diggins and Randall won Olympic gold in February during the Pyeongchang Games. Their medal was the first for the U.S. in the sport since Koch's silver.
"Absolutely unbelievable to see what they did," Teague said. "We are seeing the excitement in the athletes we have. We are seeing excitement in new athletes and new participants."
For more on the program, visit http://www.teamavsc.org. Registration is currently open.