For the first time since 1976 – and the second time in Winter Olympic history – an American on cross-country skis has won a medal.
That Johnny Spillane's silver in the Nordic combined 10 kilometer race Sunday comes with a twinge of disappointment is a measure of how far the men's Nordic combined program has come. It was America's first-ever Olympic medal in the sport. Yet Americans Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong finished 4th and 6th, respectively. For a time during the race, an American sweep of the medals did not look out of the question.
Still, the 2-4-6 result was the best for any country in Olympic Nordic combined since 1984, when Finland went 2-3-4. The finish of Sunday's race, with Spillane 0.4 seconds behind France's Jason Lamy Chappuis, was the closest Nordic combined finish in Olympic history.
The result has been coming for more than a decade. America's current generation of skiers in a sport that combined ski jumping and cross-country has reached unprecedented heights. In the 2009 World Championships, US skiers won every individual gold medal.
"It’s great. Obviously we’re very excited to have three guys, .. in the top six is amazing," Spillane told NBC-TV after the race. "This is such a strong team now. We’ve worked really, really hard for a lot of years. To have it finally coming together for everybody at the right time is awesome."
For 25 minutes Sunday, the big three of American Nordic combined gave the US a glimpse at what it has been missing since the beginning of the Winter Games in 1924. America's recent success in the Winter Olympics is built primarily on new sports such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing.
Before Sunday, America had won only one medal – Bill Koch's 1976 silver – in the three cross-country sports that make up the core of the Winter Olympic program: cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, and biathlon.
Among America's Nordic big three, Spillane came in to the race most under the radar. After being the first American to break through on the world stage – with a gold in the 2003 World Championships – his career largely stalled. A knee injury this year could have added to his frustration. But instead, it gave him time to step back.
"I had to use a lot of effort not to get better but just to get back to where I was," he said in the pre-Olympics press conference. "So I didn't put extra pressure on myself."
The fourth American racing Sunday, Brett Camorata, finished 36th. On Feb. 23, they will compete in the team event. The third and final event on the Nordic combined calendar, the 7.5 km race, is scheduled for Feb. 25.