Ryan Cochran-Siegle’s Stunning Success at the Olympics Took a Village

Seconds after Ryan Cochran-Siegle dashed across the finish line to win an Olympic silver medal for the United States in the men’s super-G on Tuesday, he abruptly stopped next to a television camera. Peering at the lens, Cochran-Siegle, in homage to his home state, said: “What’s up Vermont?”

He added: “Call you in a minute, Mom.” And soon, he did reach his mother, Barbara Ann Cochran, another lifelong Vermonter who won an Alpine Olympic gold medal 50 years ago.

The need to immediately connect to family and a place was a natural instinct for Cochran-Siegle. His is a unique story in the ski racing world, where nurturing an elite performer is usually exceptionally costly.

But Cochran-Siegle, 29, was raised by a single parent who, in her words, often lived “paycheck to paycheck,” and throughout Ryan’s childhood could not afford to send him to select junior camps or the top, invitation-only regional competitions that he qualified for.

Turning down such opportunities is all but unheard-of in ski racing, since most young athletes are desperate to accumulate the race points needed to get noticed by the U.S. ski team and college programs. It can be a cutthroat system, and the stakes and expenses are greatest at the biggest races. But Cochran-Siegle and his mother, who was a ski school director and a part-time teacher, largely sat it out.

Ryan Cochran-Siegle of the United States after finishing the men’s super-G.Credit…Luca Bruno/Associated Press

“At the time, I was lucky that I could come up with the money to pay the entry fees for local races,” Barbara Ann, 71, said in December as she sat inside the empty lodge of the tiny, family-owned ski area founded by her parents 60 years ago in Richmond, Vt. “Still, you know, it worked out.”

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But it was certainly not conventional, which given Ryan’s stunning success on Tuesday — he was four-hundredths of a second away from winning a gold medal — may be the most meaningful lesson. Ryan’s ascent to ski racing’s mountaintop is also a tribute to the strength and influence of a caring community, in this case a close-knit little town 50 miles from the Canadian border.

There was, for example, the time Barbara Ann received an email congratulating Ryan, who was nationally ranked despite skipping many major races, for being selected to the U.S. ski team’s developmental team, a big step toward the highest levels of the American ski racing hierarchy. The email came with the usual invoice for training and coaching of $5,000.

Barbara Ann laughed when recounting the story.

“I said to myself, ‘Yep, that’s not happening,’ ” she said.

Barbara Ann wrote back to the U.S. Ski Team and declined the invitation. She didn’t have the money, Ryan had committed to playing his senior year of high school baseball (which he did), and he had high school final exams coming up.

The ski team, Barbara Ann said, wrote back to tell her they had come up with grants and scholarships so that Ryan could eventually join the team.

Just as significant, there was help arriving in many other forms, and not surprisingly, it revolved around the epicenter of ski life in Richmond, Cochran’s Ski Area, built on a slope behind the two-story house of Ryan’s grandparents, Mickey and Ginny Cochran. Educated as a mechanical engineer, Mickey Cochran installed a rope tow and affixed floodlights to adjacent trees to turn his rural hillside into a round-the-clock winter playground. For a decade, Mickey and Ginny provided free, hands-on ski instruction to thousands of local schoolchildren and their parents.

Barbara Ann Cochran teaching kids to ski in 2012.Credit…Caleb Kenna for The New York Times

“It was a magical place,” said Bob Cochran, Barbara Ann’s brother, who like his sisters Marilyn and Lindy also made the U.S. ski team and raced in the Olympics. “Like a big party at your house every night.”

A generation later, several of Mickey and Ginny Cochran’s grandchildren also made it to the U.S. ski team, which led to armfuls of ski equipment and other winter gear hand-me-downs for Ryan and his sister, Cate.

Then, as Ryan moved up the ladder with the national ski team, the extended Cochran ski racing family pitched in again, with Ryan staying with cousins or an aunt to save on lodging at national ski team training settings. That kind of generosity was founded in the spirit of Cochran’s Ski Area, where a lift ticket is only $19 and many introductory lessons remain all but free. The ski area was also a second home to Barbara Ann’s children since they were toddlers, and the place that townsfolk would babysit Ryan and Cate in the modest one-room lodge while Barbara Ann gave lessons.

“I’ve always said that both of my kids were really raised by the community,” Barbara Ann said. “So many people helped out over and over. My family has been very generous, too. That’s a big part of this whole story here.”

About a mile from Cochran’s Ski Area, planted in the grass of a village green, there is a four-foot stone tablet commemorating the Cochran family’s presence and impact in Richmond, where the population is roughly 4,000. It includes the image of a ski racer and makes a reference to Barbara Ann’s victory in the slalom at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics in Japan.

Asked about that tribute in December as she sat in the quiet of her family’s ski area lodge, Barbara Ann did not predict an Olympic medal for her son. But she said: “You know they left extra room on that stone to add more names.”

Barbara Ann Cochran won the gold medal in women’s slalom event in 1972.Credit…The Associated Press

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