He came out of the hills and the woods of Vermont four years ago and skied the race of his life to win a silver medal -- the first ever by an American in cross country Olympic skiing -- at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck.

But there was no Mark Spitz or Bruce Jenner in Bill Koch, a private man who steadfastly refused to cash in on the instant fame an Olympic success can provide.

Bombarded by requests for interviews and photo sessions, to speak at high school graduations and Rotary lunches, to appear with Merv and Johnny and Good Morning-Today-Panorama, Koch took another road, back to Vermont, back to being "just me."

Koch quit competitive skiing in 1977. At that time, he thought he would never race again.

"I was an unknown before 1976," Koch was saying today, "and then I won a medal and all of America loved it. I was America's hero, and everybody wanted a piece of me.

"I had to get out of it. I had to get away from it. So I got rid of my telephone number and I tried to live a normal life, just like I had before Innsbruck, before anyone knew who I was."

When reporters tried to track Koch down, they were told he was not available. His father screened his telephone calls, and his son rarely got the messages.

"Some people may think that I was hiding," Koch said today. "But I wasn't. I was just living like a normal person.

"I just felt my family comes before my skiing. They've been so supportive.

But when I quit, I was fed up at that time. I'd had it with everything. Sure, I'm a little bitter about it.

"I just wish people would look at sports for what they are. I wish people could see beyond winning a gold medal. there's a lot more than just winning."

After a year away from competition Koch decided to come back. "I guess I did it because I really didn't know after 1976 whether I had reached my full potential. That's why I decided to try again."

It has been a struggle, with poor results early in the comback. But Koch once again must be considered as a possible contender for a medal in the 30-kilometer and the 50, a race he led for 30 kilometers at Innsbruck before "I just ran out of gas." Now, he says, "I'm in the best shape I've ever been in."

Koch is still a quiet soul, one who showed up for a press conference today at the Lake Placid press center noticeably nervous and ill at ease occupying center stage.

Asked about his aspirations for the 1980 Games, Koch said simply, "I'm going to do my best, that's all."

Is he under any pressure?

"Yes, considerable pressure."

End of answer.

But later during the session, Koch loosened up and elaborated on how the silver medal had changed his life so dramatically.

"Nineteen seventy-six was my first Olympics," he said."I was a greenhorn, I didn't have any expectations for myself. I was a little naive. Now things are different. I've been coming back now for three years. Now I'm there now, just barely in time.

"As far as the pressure, I realize that everyone in the United States would like to see me win another medal. But for me, that's not the pressure I feel. I feel it from myself to do well. To me, that's a bigger pressure. iI've put aside the external things. As long as I've done my best, I'll consider that good enough for me.

"Our sport is different, too. If you take Alpine skiing, you can probably pick four or five guys and they'll probably win the medals. You can't do that in cross-country skiing. There's 30 people who can realistically win medals. Last year, 53 different people finished in the top 10 of the World Cup races.

"I can also tell you something I've always said: It's a lot easier getting there than staying there, a lot easier."

Still, Koch's stature as a spokesman for his sport has grown increasingly since his performance at Innsbruck. There are many people who believe the current popularity of cross country is directly attributable to Koch.

His teammates seem to hold him in awe, and they all believe his presence on the U.S. team had made them all better racers.

"It's helped us knowing how well we ski against Bill," said teammate Doug Peterson. "We use him as a yardstick, and he helps make all of us better."

Koch says he is willing to accept that role. He has no qualms about expressing his opinion on other subjects, either.

Someone asked him today about his thoughts on amateurism, and he never hesitated. "I just don't think the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is progressive enough to make a change in their rules," he said.

"Amateurism is one of the biggest jokes of all time. I don't consider myself an amateur or a professional. I consider myself an athlete, and how much money we make is totally irrelevant.

"If I couldn't make money doing this, I couldn't be here. I have to feed my family, I have to feed my daughter. If you want high-quality sports in this country, you had better accept money as a fact of life. That's how it should be."