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US Nordic combined 'band of brothers' celebrate historic Olympic medal

Johnny Spillane's silver is the first US medal in Nordic combined skiing since the inaugural 1924 Winter Olympics. The US fourth and sixth place, too, makes this the most dominant team performance by any country in a quarter of a century.

By Staff writer / February 14, 2010

United States' silver medal winner Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick ski during the Cross Country portion of the Nordic Combined Individual normal hill event at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday.

Matthias Schrader/AP

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Whistler Olympic Park, British Columbia

Like the Red Sox breaking the curse after 86 years, US Nordic combined team today shattered an ice ceiling that’s been in place ever since the event was first contested at the inaugural 1924 Olympic Games. But while Johnny Spillane’s historic medal – America’s first in the sport – is indeed cause for celebration, perhaps the greatest feat is that any one of his band of brothers could have stood on the podium here tonight.

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And they almost did, with Todd Lodwick fourth, just a ski length out of bronze, and Bill Demong sixth – the most dominant performance by any country in a quarter of a century.

For Demong, who rallied back after a disappointing 24th in the jumping round, Spillane’s performance was as thrilling as if he had won the silver himself.

“I’m ecstatic right now – I was ecstatic even after the jumping,” says Demong, despite the fact that he woke up this morning planning on winning a medal himself. And he knows it would have been the same if he’d made the podium. “I would expect these guys to take a piece of any medal I won.”

The golden generation of US Nordic combined, Lodwick, Spillane, and Demong are an Olympic success story that was two decades in the making. It is the cumulative effort not only of the athletes, but of a tight-knit community that – in a country better known for the Super Bowl than ski jumping – helped bring everything together just as the sport’s elder statesmen reached their prime.

“It’s been a slow process,” says Head Coach Dave Jarrett, who competed in the early 1990s. “We’ve always known what we could be, who we should be, and now it’s coming to fruition.”

Spillane also pointed out that other Nordic teams in the US are coming along. "It's not just Nordic combined – it's ski jumping, cross-country, biathlon," he says. "We all kind of grew up together."

This week, the US cross-country team will have a shot at winning its first medal since 1976, with Andrew Newell and Kikkan Randall looking particularly strong ahead of the Feb. 17 sprints. Biathlete Tim Burke, ranked fifth in the world, is also a medal contender.

A unified US effort

With Demong making up an astounding minute on the pack in the first 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles), all three Americans were within striking distance of a medal by mid-way through the race. Lodwick did a lot of the heavy lifting, pulling the lead pack through the slow, slushy snow and serving as a wind break.

Spillane made a bold move in the final kilometer, causing the crowd to go wild as he shot around the last downhill corner into the stadium in first place with a comfortable gap. Though Frenchman Jason Lamy Chappuis, the No. 1 ranked skier in the world, snatched the gold away with a final surge, Spillane managed to hang on to silver – finishing just 0.4 seconds back, the closest Nordic combined race in history. Rising star Alessandro Pittin of Italy was third, 0.8 second back.

“I sacrificed a little bit of myself for the good of the team,” said a somber Lodwick after the race. “I pushed the pace to the point so Johnny could get ahead to the point where he could get a silver.”

But over the past 10 years, each of the three have carried the team at different points, says Demong.

In particular, he and Spillane – who have lived together for 300 days a year for 15 years – have leaned on each other.

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