The veteran US Nordic combined team made history again at the Vancouver Olympics today by winning the country’s first-ever medal in the team event. But it wouldn't have been possible without the dedication and extraordinary performance of a relative newcomer.
Teammates Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong, and Johnny Spillane have long been the three musketeers on a mission for Olympic medals. Last weekend, Spillane snagged silver in the first individual event, with Lodwick fourth and Demong sixth, showing America had what it took to win on the world’s biggest sports stage.
But when it came to the team event, there was just one problem: you need four people. Today, Brett Camerota of Park City, Utah – part of a rising generation hungry to fill the musketeers’ shoes – stepped up to the plate and delivered the race of his life when it mattered most.
“I know it’s not the easiest thing to live up to Bill, Johnny and Todd … but he did it with grace,” says veteran Lodwick, who made his debut at age 17 in the 1994 Lillehammer Games. “People are saying, ‘Boy, Brett really has you to thank.’ But we’re the ones that are going to be thanking him for the extraordinary effort today.”
Camerota's strong ski jump in the morning helped put the Americans in second place going into the 4 x 5 km cross-country relay. In a race that had people on the edge of their wet seats – if not standing up and screaming – from start to snowy finish, he got the US off to a great start, staying ahead of the chase pack. After an aggressive attack on the final climb, which was lined with spectators waving American flags and rattling cowbells, Camerota came into the stadium in the lead.
In the end, the Austrians – with six-time Olympic medalist Felix Gottwald and very fast skis – were just a little too strong for the Americans, who finished five seconds behind.
“We were gunning for gold,” acknowledged Lodwick. “But we WON silver today.”
The best part, he added, was not the color of the medal, which he plans to take to bed with him tonight.
“The greatest thing about this medal,” said Lodwick, “is that I get to share it with my teammates.”
That’s especially true for Demong, who lost his racing bib at world championships last year, disqualifying the team from competing in the team event and preventing what could have been a complete US sweep of every single race. When he won individual gold later in the competition, it was bittersweet.
“I was wishing I could have broken that medal in four pieces at that point,” he said today. “But this medal is so much sweeter because we’ve waited that long.”
'Brett did something special today'
Leading up to the Olympics, the US team emphasized that while they had been hoping for a medal in previous Games – particularly the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where they finished fourth – this time was different.
“We’re not hopefuls, we’re medal contenders and that’s a great feeling. It’s not a nervous feeling,” said Lodwick upon arriving in Vancouver. “It’s a long road to here. In 1998, I put way too much pressure on myself. In 2002, we were hopefuls not contenders. And in 2006, we were sick. This Olympic Games feels different.”
If they performed the way they had been performing all season on the World Cup, they would almost certainly get a medal. But the Olympics tends to bring out something extraordinary in people, said Lodwick today, speaking of his fourth teammate.
“We said nobody needs to do anything special, but Brett did something special today,” agreed Demong. “Ultimately, [his race] really made the difference between us getting sucked into those five [chase] teams and making it the race it was … He kept us out front with Austria.”
“Since I’m the fourth guy, there’s a lot of pressure,” acknowledged Camerota after pulling off his longest jump all week this morning. “I think this will be a good day.”
It was a great day, but one that was a long time in coming, says head coach Dave Jarrett, noting that the team got fourth in a team event in 1995 but had never quite been able to pull through.
“It’s always been right there. But we had more success in individual events than team [events],” Jarrett says. “Certainly you can’t do it with 75 percent of the team.”
Fierce competition for fourth spot
Knowing that the musketeers had a good shot of making history at these Olympics with a first-ever medal, the competition was fierce for that fourth spot – with some guys coming out of retirement to try to make the team, Jarrett says.
That not only brought out the best in Camerota, but in the veterans.
“It raised the level of Brett and everybody else around him to have that kind of daily competition [on the team],” explains Jarrett. “It helped Bill and Todd and Johnny, too, because it made them better as well.”
In fact, it made them Olympic medalists.
Staff writer Mark Sappenfield contributed reporting from Vancouver, British Columbia.