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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.

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“Bill was a huge support to Johnny last year – it was not a good season, and he was really disappointed,” says Hilary Spillane, his wife.

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That, of course, all changed today.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” says US Nordic director John Farra, noting that Spillane also notched a historic first with his medal at the 2003 World Championships. “He’s the one that made everyone believe.”

Sowing the seeds of today's victory

When Coach Jarrett was racing, that conviction was missing. He and his teammates labored in obscurity on the World Cup with only one or two coaches and no one to wax his skis – except himself. Now, the team travels with a full coaching staff, a service team to take care of all the equipment and waxing needs, a full-time physical therapist, and has an in-house sports science department back at their home base in Park City, Utah.

“Our investment in Nordic combined started in 1997,” says Bill Marolt, CEO of the US Ski and Snowboard Association. “We brought in really good sports science, sports medicine, technology, nutrition, [sports] psychologists, equipment – everything.”

As the increased funding gave the top skiers more opportunities and support, they in turn were able to help the younger athletes coming up.

“When I first came onto the team, Todd Lodwick … had just come off some great World Cup results. He kind of set the bar for some youngsters like myself and Johnny Spillane to follow … and it wasn’t long before we both had the desire to beat him,” explained Demong in an interview before the Games.

After Spillane won an historic medal at 2003 World Championships, Demong won silver in 2007, then teamed with Lodwick to sweep all the individual events at 2009 Worlds. “There results have come little by little, with us pushing each other and training and kind of being a little band of brothers that travels around the world, a group of Americans that compete against countries that televise this sport every week.”

Demong knew Nordic combined had made huge strides when a security officer in LAX, one of America’s busiest airports, asked, “Are you Bill Demong, the famous cross-country skier?”

Finally, a team with depth

Still, despite the excitement in Whistler of winning America’s first Olympic medal, the Nordic combined team expressed a tinge of disappointment. A fading Spillane lost a gold that had looked like it was in the bag, five-time Olympian Todd Lodwick missed the podium by a hair, and Demong – who made up an astounding one minute on the lead pack in the first 2.5 km (1.5 miles) of the 10 kilometer cross-country race – couldn’t recover enough to make a real push at the end.

Still, says former team coach Tom Steitz, the fact that the US had three guys in the top six shows just how far the team has come.
“That’s the great story – we went into so many Olympics relying on one athlete,” says Steitz. “If he fell short, the whole team suffered.”

Demong agrees.

“To be almost disappointed with second, fourth, and sixth is a testament to the strength of the team,” he says, adding he’s thrilled nonetheless. “I’m really, really happy that Johnny got silver.”

But, as excited as he is about his own golden generation, he already has his eye on the new crop of athletes coming up.

“One of my big focuses is to take the program and sort of the legacy of results we’ve built in Nordic combined over the last 15 yrs and make the US a superpower in this sport forever,” he says.

They’re off to a good start here in Whistler.

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