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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.