PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Ryan Cochran-Siegle became aware of the connection between his family and the Olympic Games when he was 3 or 4 years old.
His mother, Barbara Ann Cochran, “always would travel and show off her gold medal,” he said, “so I knew she was an Olympic gold medalist. But after being on this world stage and understanding how big a deal it can be, I’ve slowly understood just how much that moment meant to her.”
Now Cochran-Siegle’s own moment has arrived. He will race in the combined and potentially giant slalom at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as the sixth member of his family to become an Olympian.
Barbara Ann, her sister Marilyn and brother Bob were all members of the 1972 U.S. Olympic alpine team.
Barbara Ann won the slalom in Sapporo by .02 seconds to become the first U.S. Olympic champion in alpine skiing in 20 years. Their sister, Lindy, made the 1976 Olympic team. Bob’s son Jimmy was the first of the next generation to reach the Olympic summit, racing in 2006 and 2010.
Known as the “Skiing Cochrans,” the family also includes several of Ryan’s cousins who skied at the national team level.
Barbara Ann taught Ryan, now 25, how to ski when he was about 2 at Cochran’s Ski Area, the family-run non-profit in Richmond, Vermont. Founded by his grandparents, it is a small area – about 300 vertical feet – with a tow rope and T-bar, but no chairlift.
“Even though my mom and her siblings were all so successful once upon a time, they really encouraged just having fun with the sport – and not even only skiing,” Cochran-Siegle said. “We all grew up playing soccer, baseball and whatever other sports we wanted to. It was definitely pretty casual and as I progressed through the sport, there was just continuous support from everyone.”
He didn’t specialize in skiing until after high school, but his family knew he was fast from an early age. Kids in the ski club ended their day at Cochran’s Ski Area with “the bombing run,” Cochran-Siegle said, where they would go to the top and “just tuck straight down to the lodge.”
Because the lodge is situated on a little hill, the goal was to ski up instead of stopping at the bottom and hiking up.
Cochran-Siegle, who was then 8, went first. The temperature had gone from warm to cold, so the track was a sheet of ice.
“I ended up tucking down and I was going way faster than I realized,” Cochran-Siegle said. “And so when I got on the first little rolls, I started catching air and on the second roll I actually caught enough air to go ‘Supermanning’ into the window.”
The window shattered, but he ended up only with a little scratch on his rear end. He didn’t even need stitches.
“My uncle taped a little bandage on it and I was OK,” Cochran-Siegle said. “I was pretty shook up.”
But he didn’t get in trouble. “They were all just thankful that I didn’t get hurt,” he said.
While Uncle Bob was also a speed racer, Barbara Ann and her sisters preferred the more technical events. “They were definitely terrified of speed,” Cochran-Siegle said.
He said the only time his mother did well in a speed race was the day after she was in a car wreck going up to a training run.
“She was still like in shock when she raced, and so she raced without fear,” Cochran-Siegle said, “and then she didn’t realize it until after the next time that she tried racing and the fear was back. She realized she was more in control when she was racing GS and slalom.”
But her son was comfortable pursuing the speed events. “It was a combination of enjoying it and working at what I was good at at the time,” Cochran-Siegle said.
He scored his first world cup points in 2011 and won the gold medal in both the downhill and combined at the 2012 junior world championships.
Then Cochran-Siegle’s promising career came to a sudden halt at the 2013 world championships in Schladming, Austria. While the event is known for Lindsey Vonn’s horrific crash, Cochran-Siegle also had a crash in the downhill portion of the combined that severely damaged his left knee.
“Before his injury he was on his way to being one of the best super-G and giant slalom and downhill skiers out there,” said teammate Ted Ligety, the Olympic gold medalist who is competing in his fourth Olympic Games. “His knee injury was the kind of knee injury that most guys don’t come back from. So it’s impressive that he’s able to come back strong and be healthy and to have him here at his first Olympics is great.”
Cochran-Siegle, who had been encouraged by his 15th-place finish in the super-G at the world championships, said that to be injured in the second event, “I was pretty heartbroken. I at first was just told it was an ACL and lateral meniscus tear, so I wasn’t too concerned. The rehab went well and I skied the next year.”
However, he re-injured it, which was much more significant. He had two surgeries, one a lateral meniscus transplant, and was off the snow for 17 months. He took his mind off his physical challenges by working on a degree in physics at Westminster College.
“Being so close to being at the Olympics and then having to take a step away took its toll,” Cochran-Siegle said, “and I’m still trying to get over that.”
He came back for the 2016 season, making his giant slalom debut on the world cup circuit.
“He’s one of all of our all-time favorite teammates, so it’s been fun to have him on the road and have him skiing fast again,” said Ligety.
“We call him kind of our puppy dog because he’s such a good guy.”
Cochran-Siegle’s best result this season is 14th place in combined in Bormio, Italy.
While he said that unfortunately his mother and other family members will not be able to make the trip to PyeongChang, he expects a viewing party back home in Vermont.
Cochran-Siegle had a going-away party a couple of weeks ago at Cochran’s Ski Area where friends and family “just showed their support and gave me big hugs,” he said.
His mother wrote him “this really sweet card.” He said she told him “to take it all in for what it is. I think it’s definitely a privilege to be here and to just try to do my best and see what I can make of it.
“She’s a really sweet woman and I’m thankful for her to be my mom.”
Cochran-Siegle is carrying a taste of home with him. Family members started a maple syrup business in 2010 called Slopeside Syrup and he has packets with him.
He’ll return to Vermont with ski bibs that he expects to hang in the Cochran Ski Lodge with those of his family and some from his early successes.
“It just kind of shows that our heritage in our family is still alive and that we all are still so involved in ski racing,” Cochran-Siegle said. “And it’s a cool legacy to be a part of and to be able to contribute to.”