RCS, as he’s known on the slopes, was supposed to be in Italy last month as the top American men’s speed racer at the biennial Alpine world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. But one untimely slip and a scary crash in Kitzbuehel, Austria, in January left Ryan Cochran-Siegle with a minor cervical fracture and abruptly ended the best season of his decade-long career on the US ski team.
“In a way, it seems like I left a lot on the table,” said the 28-year-old from Starksboro, Vt., whose Super G victory in Bormio and second-place finish in the Val Gardena downhill set him up for potential podium finishes in both events at Cortina. “But you can’t have too many regrets. I was skiing well, and that’s what I need to focus on.”
Cochran-Siegle, who competed in four events at the last Winter Olympics, is gunning for another shot at next year’s Beijing Games and another opportunity to add to the legacy of the country’s First Family of Alpine skiing, which goes back for more than half a century.
Ryan’s mother Barbara Ann won the slalom at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, where her brother Bob and sister Marilyn each competed in three events, and sister Lindy raced at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck. Their children continued the star-spangled tradition. Jimmy Cochran competed in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, and Tim, Robby, and Jessica Kelley and Roger Brown all raced on the national team.
“One thing that amazes me is how much a part of the ski history we are,” said Barbara Ann.
Ryan is the youngest member of the second generation.
“My grandmother used to always say that he was the one to watch,” said Jimmy. “He was so talented compared to the rest of us.”
Ryan began skiing at 2 at the family’s modest ski area in Richmond alongside the Winooski River where in 1961 grandfather Mickey built a rope tow.
Jimmy recalls having dinner at the farmhouse and wondering where his 10-year-old cousin was.
“He was practicing his starts out on the snowbank,” he said. “It was pitch black and he had skied all day. There was never a doubt that Ryan was going to ski until the lifts close.”
That was the Cochran Way as defined by Mickey, who later directed the US Alpine team. Skiing was supposed to be fun, but you practiced hard so that you could have fun when you competed.
“The message I got from my parents was that I didn’t have to be the best, that I only had to put my best effort into it,” said Barbara Ann. “Dad would say, ‘Concentrate on the skills and let the results take care of themselves.’ ”
She never pushed Ryan to compete.
“We wanted our kids to ski because it was such a big part of our lives,” Barbara Ann said. “If they didn’t want to race, that was fine with me. I didn’t care. It had to be their choice.”
Ryan wanted to race on the national team because his older cousins did.
“The coolest thing for me was getting their hand-me-downs, the ski team jackets and helmets,” he said. “Knowing that it was possible for me to do what they were doing.”
Cochran-Siegle made his World Cup debut at 19 and the following season was named to the team for the 2013 world championships in Austria, where he blew out his left knee in the combined downhill. The question wasn’t whether or not he would put himself through multiple surgeries, including a meniscus transplant, plus several years of arduous rehab.
“I always wanted to come back and I always believed in myself,” Cochran-Siegle said. “But it was, I don’t know if my body will let me.”
He was back on the full Cup circuit for the 2017 season and has been a regular ever since, competing in two more world championships.
“He’s like a dog that’s meant to run,” observed Jimmy, who runs Cochran’s Ski Area. “Ryan was meant to be a ski racer. That’s what he’s always wanted to do. It’s built into the fabric of his being.”
Last season provided signs that Cochran-Siegle could be a podium contender after he finished sixth in the Beaver Creek downhill and fifth in the Bormio combined. But after this season began with several disappointing giant slalom results, he pondered a reset.
“OK, what am I doing here?” he asked himself. “This doesn’t seem worthwhile.”
So he switched his focus to the speed races and adopted a go-for-it approach.
“In the start gate, letting everything go, letting everything run smoothly and fluidly, and not holding on,” Cochran-Siegle said. “I have a tendency when I don’t feel totally confident in my ability that I’ll try to force things to happen. You edge too hard and you fight the turn. That just adds time to the race.”
The trick was to ski the same way on race day that he does in practice.
“The way to ski loose is as if you don’t care,” Cochran-Siegle said. “Obviously, you care tremendously. Your career’s on the line. But it’s being able to ski loose in the right way.”
His breakout came in December with his runner-up effort in the Val Gardena downhill, his first career podium, setting the stage for his Bormio triumph 10 days later, the first in the event by an American since Bode Miller in 2006.
“I never felt like I was the favorite,” said Cochran-Siegle, who has two other top 10 placements this season. “My experience is so much less than the top skiers right now. But I know that my best day will be just as competitive as anyone else’s best day.”
He was the leader up top in the Kitzbuehel downhill on the infamous Streif course but came to grief in the traverse about 10 seconds short of the finish. He went down on his hip and slid through the fencing. The crash ruled him out of the world championships, and although he’d hoped to be back this month for the final three weeks of World Cup competition, prudence dictated otherwise.
“I think I just have to move on and get ready for next year,” concluded Cochran-Siegle, who has resumed his mechanical engineering studies at the University of Vermont to fill the gap. “It’s not realistic to hold on to that at this point.”
The important thing is that the breakout has been achieved. The challenge is to pick up where he left off once the Olympic season begins in the fall.
“Part of me is still very hungry,” Cochran-Siegle said. “It’s hard in February to have to hold onto that hunger to the start of next year. I have to figure out a way to do that.”
The best way is to remember that he has been to Olympus before and knows the road.
“It’s like having that weight off your back,” said Cochran-Siegle. “Knowing that you’ve been through it and understanding what it will take to get there, understanding the event itself and everything that surrounds it being more familiar.”
That and remembering the note that his mother gave him before he left last time for Korea: “Enjoy the moment. Have fun with it.”
Six decades later, that remains the Cochran Way.