VANCOUVER (AP) -- Growing up in Vermont, Andy Newell and his buddies were inspired to take up cross-country skiing by native son Bill Koch, the lone American to win an Olympic medal in the sport.
Newell was the only one among the group of pals who stayed with it. As an adult, he still idolizes Koch, and is still chasing the standard he set.
Newell is one of the U.S. team's hopes for an Olympic medal in a sport dominated by Europeans. He is considered by many to be among the top five sprinters in the sport since finishing fifth in the individual sprint at the 2007 world championships.
Brash and athletic, Newell brings an X-Games sensibility to a sport with a staid reputation in the United States. At Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, he drew stares for taking on the halfpipe on his skinny cross-country skis.
Sporting tattoos and the skull-and-crossbones logo of his "Xski films" company, he's also been known to do gravity-defying backflips on those same skinny skis, with heavy metal blasting all the while on his iPod.
It all started in Shaftsbury, where Newell dedicated himself to the sport while his friends moved on to other pursuits. Koch's specter loomed large.
"He's been the No. 1 inspiration for me," Newell said in Vancouver on Wednesday before heading up to Whistler for competition.
Koch, who is from Battleboro, won the silver medal in the 30K at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. He is also known for his development of the freestyle technique.
"He was the young-gun American," Newell said. "He demonstrated Americans can be successful at a European sport."
When Newell made his first Olympic team in 2006, Koch called Newell's home in Vermont to congratulate him.
More recently, Koch was skiing with Newell's father and passed on some advice. Newell, however, hasn't been able to talk to his dad about it because things have been so hectic heading into the games.
U.S. coach Pete Vordenberg said that four years ago the U.S. team talked a lot about Koch and what his legacy meant to the team. This season, Vordenberg said, the vibe is different.
The team is intent on establishing its own standard, and Newell seems poised to do just that. This season he had six straight top-15 finishes in World Cup racing.
"I think we're setting the ceiling for ourselves and the next generation," Vordenberg said.
The Vancouver Olympics and the medals race both finished in spectacular fashion for North Americans. The United States won 37 medals and Canada finished with 14 gold medals. Both are the best of these games and part of the greatest hauls ever at a Winter Olympics.
With one more perfect run down sliding's most difficult track, Steve Holcomb drove USA-1 to the Olympic gold medal in four-man bobsledding on Saturday, ending a 62-year drought for the Americans in the event.