There is a simple and blessed purity to the story of the ski racing Cochrans of Vermont. More than a six decades ago Mickey and Ginny Cochran bought a home in Richmond, Vermont, 13 miles southeast of Burlington, and built a tiny ski hill on a ridge overlooking the Winooski River. Their four children took the rope tow to the top of hill and skied down endlessly, and became so skilled and fast that all four of them grew into Olympians, an astounding accomplishment, sprung from the womb of passion, in place where snow is a part of life and skiing not just a sport, but a lifestyle that bonds families across generations. It all happened in a time before youth sports were an industry and before sports were a revenue stream.
It is appropriate, then, that late Monday night, Barbara Cochran, 71, who 49 years and 354 days earlier had won the slalom gold medal at the 1972 Olympics, the first American alpine gold in 20 years, watched her son, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, 29, race the Super-G at the 2022 Winter Olympics far away in the mountains north of Beijing, not at a lavish watch party with guests adorned in branded gear, but alone in her pajamas, lying in bed in the first-floor bedroom of her home in Starksboro, Vermont, while her daughter, Cate (Ryan’s older sister by two years), was upstairs with her sons, Barbara’s grandsons, aged two and four.
Barbara watched on that laptop as Ryan, wearing bib No. 14, pushed out of the start house at the top of the craggy race course called The Rock, and delivered the performance of his life, carving magnificently down the perilous run to win a silver medal, just .04 seconds behind gold medalist Mattias Mayer of Austria. “The best second place I’ve ever had,” said Ryan. And then Barbara cried in those pajamas, in that bed. “I cried or a long time,” Barbara said in a telephone interview after the race was finished. “I just couldn’t stop crying.”
It was a performance that arced across a long history: A long-awaited second Olympic medal for the First Family of American ski racing, and one that will resonate with any family that has awakened in predawn darkness to haul skis, boots and poles to a mountain and carved turns and drank hot chocolate until darkness fell. But it was also a performance very much for this moment and this man – Ryan has been fighting to recover his touch and his courage since breaking his neck in a terrible fall 13 months ago on the Streif course at Kitzbuehel, the kind of injury that strips courage and ends careers, and not nearly his first serious injury.
“I knew he was capable of this,” said Barbara. “I wasn’t sure it would happen at the Olympics. Somebody said on the telecast, maybe it was Steve Porino or Ted Ligety, that Ryan wasn’t quite whole yet, with the injuries and the trauma. There were cells in his body and his mind that seemed to be saying, ‘Ryan, we’re not doing this again.’ But tonight they did it.”
Cochran-Siegle said after the race: “It’s a brutal sport, but it’s a beautiful sport.”
They talked on FaceTime not long after the finish. “My mom, it was just about how proud she was,” says Ryan. “I can’t even remember all of it. It was pretty emotional. My mother had success, and such a storied career. It shows that it’s possible for anyone.”
The legend of the Cochran Family is writ large across American ski racing history, dulled only slightly by the passing of years, and the gradual distancing from the simpler time it represents. Mickey and Ginny were in their 30s, with four children, when they built Cochran’s Ski Area. Truth be told, there were hundreds of similar small hills across New England, with rope tows powered by tractor engines. None of them produced four Olympians as the Cochran hill did: Marilyn, Barbara (known in her youth as Barbara Ann), Bob and Lindy.
Barbara won the slalom in 1972 by just .02 seconds over Danielle Debernard of France; no U.S. skier had won a gold medal since Andrea Mead Lawrence won the slalom and giant slalom in 1952. Barbara’s gold came at the age of 21, but before the age of professionalism; she retired from ski racing at 23. She married Drew Siegle and they had two children, before divorcing when Ryan was 18 months old, in 1993.
By then, the next generation had graduated from the little hill in Richmond; six would make the U.S. Ski Team, including Ryan’s cousin, Jimmy Cochran, who went to the Olympics in 2006 and ’10. Ryan joined the ski team in 2011, but has accumulated the ski racer’s cornucopia of injuries, including major surgeries on both knees. But he rebuilt himself and in December of 2020 won a Super-G race on the gnarly Bormio race hill. “He really was skiing super well at that time,” says NBC analyst and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ligety. “He was using his technical (slalom and giant slalom) skiing backgrounds and applying it to speed races (downhill and Super-G, which is a fast race with more turns than a downhill, literally, a Super giant slalom).That crash came just as he was really racing well.”
That crash was the one in Kitzbuhel, where Cochram-Siegle fractured a cervical vertebrae. He had surgery on Feb. 9, 2021, 364 days before his silver medal. “Full circle,” he said. But not quickly. His best finish since had been a fourth-place finish on that same Bormio hill in December. In China, he rescued himself from potentially terrible crash in the first downhill training run and was the top U.S. finisher in the downhill, in 14h place. But he seemed still short of his best.
That changed Monday night (Tuesday morning in China). “I was just trusting everything I’ve been though, and knowing I’m a good skier,” he said. “I executed how I wanted to execute,” he said. “Tried to push the line as hard as I was comfortable with. Fighting. Things were coming at me fast but I was in control. Special run… yeah.”
The medal was the first in alpine skiing for the U.S. at these Games. Cochran-Siegle is the fourth American male to win a medal in Super-G, following Tommy Moe (silver in 1994), Bode Miller (silver in 2010, bronze in 2014) and Andrew Weibrecht (bronze in 2010, silver in 2014).
None of those bear the historical weight of Cochran-Siegle’s. He says he has never felt pressure to fulfill the expectations created by his family name. “My family has always just said they’re proud of me,” he said. “I guess it might have been pressure-inducing for some people. For me, it’s been motivating.”
Thousands and miles and 13 times zones away, Barbara thought about her parents, who started with just their hands and a dream. “They’re looking down, and so proud,” she said. And there is also this: Cochran’s Ski Area is still very much in business, not just living history but a place to make more of the same. A lift ticket costs $19. “Two hundred, ninety-five dollars for a season pass,” says Barbara. “That’s for a family.”
Always, for a family.