Maine Sports Hall of Fame: Bancroft rode passion, competitive spirit to two Olympics

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Leslie Bancroft Krichko skis at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Leslie Bancroft’s emotions finally caught up to the whirlwind that took her from Oxford Hills High School to the 1980 Winter Olympics as she entered the stadium during the opening ceremonies of the Lake Placid games.

Just shy of her 21st birthday, Bancroft, who is now Leslie Bancroft Krichko, walked into the stadium with the rest of Team USA as part of the traditional parade of nations. With hopes of getting on the television broadcast, she and a friend on the U.S. Nordic team stayed close to Beth Heiden, a medal-winning speedskater perhaps better known as the sister of legendary speedskater Eric Heiden. 

While joining her fellow American athletes in tipping their cowboy hats to Vice President Walter Mondale in his stadium box, the enormity of what the Paris native had already accomplished finally sank in.

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“I just started bawling,” Krichko recalled. “I could hardly walk and I’m leaning on my friend. And she looks over at me and says, ‘That’s a great idea. If we start crying, we’ll get on TV.’ And I’m, like, ‘No, I’m really crying. These are real tears.'”

The Maine Sports Hall of Fame will honor Krichko’s unlikely journey to the Lake Placid Olympics, her similarly remarkable comeback that propelled her to the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, and her role as one of high school girls’ cross country’s pioneers in Maine, when she is inducted with the Class of 2017 on Sunday.

In Krichko’s words, she was a greenhorn when she competed in three Nordic events at the 1980 Olympics. She grew up in an Alpine skiing family and didn’t take up cross country skiing until her freshman year at Oxford Hills, which also happened to be the year the school started its girls’ Nordic program.

Krichko was recruited to the team by sisters who had moved from Andover and wanted to start a team at Oxford Hills. It was clear from the start that the Vikings would be starting from scratch.

“Our coach was A.J. Walker, and we were so lucky he was up for the task,” she said. “These girls wanted to start a team, and he knew nothing about the sport. And none of us knew what we were doing. But he worked hard and made it a lot of fun for us. We wore long underwear and cutoff shorts. We had no technique. We just took up our skis and ran.”

Despite limited training, Krichko excelled at the sport right away. She also continued to Alpine ski, and won a couple of skimeister (combined alpine and Nordic) competitions her freshman year.

By her sophomore year, she was a state champion in Nordic. Oxford Hills’ boys coach, Gary Worthing, saw her potential, and told her he would like to help her fulfill that potential through training and competing outside of school.

“He really changed my life that day,” Krichko said. “I don’t know if that opportunity would have come along without him. He really took me under his wing and introduced me to a world that I might not have known.”

She started traveling around New England for races and eventually joined the Eastern Cup circuit. It wasn’t long before she made the junior national team, and she competed in the national championships in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Still using skis on loan from the school, Krichko finished 13th at nationals. She’d hoped to finish in the top five and was disappointed. But Worthing put her performance in perspective and said it was a great start for someone who had just started competing at a national level.

“He really encouraged me, and I trained really hard that summer,” she said. “I got my first pair of roller skis and really worked year-round. In the fall, I started running cross country instead of field hockey.”

The training paid off. Her senior year, she won a couple of junior national races, including one in Fairbanks, Alaska, where it was 55 degrees below zero when she stepped off the plane.

‘Moose on skis’

It was in Fairbanks that U.S. ski team coaches started to take notice of her.

“My mother (Mary-Alice) overheard one say, ‘Who is that moose on skis? She doesn’t really have any technique, but she’s beating all of my girls,'” Krichko said.

The U.S. ski coaches invited her to join the team for some races in Quebec. Sufficiently impressed, they then invited her to train with the team.

Krichko didn’t agree immediately. She couldn’t. She was planning to attend Middlebury, and Mary-Alice and her father, Al, had always made their intentions for her to attend college very clear.

Back home in Paris, Krichko tentatively brought up the subject to them over dinner, trying to make them think that she thought it would be crazy to try skiing over college.

“It was such a foreign concept at the time. If you were college-bound, you just went to college after high school and that was it,” she said. “But I knew the minute I said it that that’s what I wanted to do.”

“And Dad said, ‘I don’t think that’s such a crazy idea,'” she added.

The next thing she knew, Krichko was in Norway and later, Austria, as the team searched for snow. At that point, she was just enjoying the experience.

“I was just so green. It was so great,” she said. “I just had no expectations of myself or anything else. I was just this wide-eyed kid.”

The coaches seemed to get a kick out of how green she was, too, because most of the other team members had been skiing cross country their entire lives. But she progressed quickly in training and on the World Cup circuit. So quickly, in fact, that while home on Christmas break and preparing for Olympic trials, she was told that she had already made the team and wouldn’t have to worry about trials.

Krichko’s rapid ascension created some friction and jealousy with the lifers and some of their families (she remembers being uninvited for a birthday party by the spiteful parent of one teammate). But she developed a few close friendships on the team, and she always had her parents to fall back on for support.

Krichko soon found that she had more than just her family backing her up. At Lake Placid, and later in Calgary, the Leslie Bancroft Fan Club turned out in droves, cowbells in hand, to cheer her on.

“I just had an army of supporters at both Olympics,” she said. “That was really important to me because it felt like the state of Maine was my fan club.”

The pressure of expectations still hadn’t caught up to Krichko at Lake Placid. She finished 33rd in the 5-kilometer and 28th in the 10-kilometer, and third among American skiers in both events. Skiing the third leg of the 4×5-kilometer relay team, she helped the USA finish seventh.

Overall, she was pleased with how she had fared against the best of the best.

“I felt like I had given it all I can,” she said. “I remember I didn’t goes as fast as I should have on the downhills, which was disappointing given my Alpine experience.”

Two things did anger Krichko about her Olympic racing experience. One was some negative press coverage of the Nordic team, which was perhaps the victim of Americans performing so well in other sports, such as speedskating and alpine skiing, on their “home” turf. 

The other was the blood doping of her Soviet and Eastern bloc competitors, a sore subject that followed her to the 1988 Olympics and still rankles her to this day.

“(The athletes) talked about it. It wasn’t like it was a secret,” she said. “I’m so sorry for all of the grief it’s caused so many people, but it’s about time people are getting caught doing that.”

Krichko didn’t dwell on the cheating while in Lake Placid, though. She was determined to take in the entire experience, which included being in the arena for the “Miracle on Ice,” USA’s legendary ice hockey victory over the USSR, on her 21st birthday. She also remembers the camaraderie among American athletes at the Olympic village and events.

“It was like we were one big happy family,” she said. “You felt every joy and every disappointment (of the other athletes).”

She accompanied the American contingent on a visit to the White House and met President Carter. At that point, Krichko was ready to take a break from international competition and start college.

She enrolled at the University of Vermont and starred on the Nordic team, earning All-American status and leading the Catamounts to the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championship by winning the final leg of the final relay race (and pulling a Utah racer with her to second place so that Middlebury couldn’t displace her and thus win the title).

An overuse injury to her foot required surgery and Krichko retired from competitive skiing in 1983. She went to Oregon to complete her degree and got married to her first husband.

Selling passion

Returning to competitive skiing rarely crossed her mind early in her retirement. But while working at a ski shop, the owner noted how she had quickly risen through the ranks to become his top salesperson, despite having no experience in sales.

“He called me into his office and said, ‘Have you ever thought about skiing competitively again?'” she said. “And I said, ‘Not really. Why?’ And he said he’d watched me working with customers and how good I was at it, and that it wasn’t because I was selling skis but because I was selling a passion for skiing, and he thought I still had the passion to do it. And that made me think.”

She started training with her then-husband on weekends, and by 1986 she was skiing competitively again. In 1987, she earned a spot on the national team and returned to the World Cup circuit.

For the 1988 Olympics, she had to go through the trials to get her spot on the team, which she did. Now 28, she was the only member of the team with Olympic experience. 

From greenhorn to grizzled veteran, Krichko became a team leader, or as she put it, “the mother hen,” watching over her teammates and serving as a liaison with coaches.

“It put more pressure on me (compared to 1980) because I knew what was expected of me,” she said. “But that team was a little more cohesive, more of a team. I had learned at UVM what it meant to ski together as a team, and we started to work more as a team, which I loved.”

Her fan club followed her to Calgary, as did a contingent of alleged blood-doping competitors, and she finished 31st in the 5k and 36th in the 10k (and first among Americans in each).  A bout with the flu prevented her from competing in the 20k, but as the anchor of the 4x5k relay team, she crossed the finish line in eighth.

Though she was disappointed she didn’t finish higher in the 5k, Krichko otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the Olympic experience from a different, less wide-eyed perspective. But she also could feel it was time to hang up her competitive skis, especially after she learned on the way home that she was pregnant with the first of her (now four) children.

She announced on her second trip to the White House that she would retire again, this time on her own terms.

“I still loved to ski but I hated to travel,” she said. “It was almost like I went back so I could retire correctly. I wanted to finish off differently than I had before.”

She’s found plenty of other outlets for her competitive drive, including working as an agent for Sotheby’s Realty for the last 15 years. She continues to ski and run, and recently, at the urging of her daughter, took up competitive rowing.

“It is ridiculous how competitive I still am,” said Krichko, who is remarried and living in Ridgefield, Connecticut. “It’s over the top. I still catch myself sometimes and laugh about it.”

Leslie Bancroft Krichko skis at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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