Go For The Gold: Billy Demong

 Go For The Gold

BY PEGGY SHINN I MARCH 26, 2013

Bill Demong in action during the men's Nordic combined HS106 on Feb. 22, 2013
in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

At the 2013 World Nordic Ski Championships, Billy Demong looked like nothing had changed in the past three years. He skied the fastest anchor leg of the Nordic combined team relay at worlds — just as he had at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games — and put the U.S. on the podium in third. It was the first time that U.S. Nordic combined skiers had medaled in a team relay at worlds.

The bronze medal was a bright spot for Demong, who started his 14th World Cup season with pertussis — a month of “cough til you gag whooping cough” he wrote on his blog. Other season highlights included anchoring the U.S. to its first World Cup team relay podium in January. But in individual World Cup competitions this season, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist’s best result was 12th.

It wasn’t aerobic conditioning that kept Demong from reaching the World Cup podium. In a sport that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing, Demong has long been one of the fastest skiers in Nordic combined. Jumping was his Achilles heel this season.

“It makes it pretty clear what my tasks are for next year,” he said.

Now home in Park City, Utah, Demong, 32, is looking ahead to next season. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi will be his fifth Olympics, and he aims to defend his Olympic gold medal in the large hill event and help his teammates again medal in the team relay.

But much has changed in Demong’s life since the 2010 Olympics. He has become a team mentor, and a husband and father, and assumed the responsibilities that go with those roles — such as passing along his race secrets to his younger teammates. And sitting crib-side in the ICU for days with his infant son.

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Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick, Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher pose with their
bronze medals at the medal ceremony for the Nordic combined team 4x5km at the
FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on Feb. 24, 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

Demong’s life took its first big turn on Feb. 25, 2010 — the day he won the Olympic gold medal in the large hill competition. That evening, while celebrating with the U.S. team, he proposed to his girlfriend, Katie Koczynski.

They were married on July 11, 2010, in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Summer 2010 was busy with more than wedding planning. Demong also raced his road bicycle in several multi-day races that attracted the nation’s top cycling talent. And he embarked on a major home improvement project.

“This past summer I rebuilt my WHOLE house in Park City,” he wrote on his blog in October 2010, “New windows, doors, floors, additions, decks all day, every day for many, many days.”

The next big change came on Jan. 12, 2011, when son Liam was born, a happy blonde-haired baby boy who looks remarkably like his dad.

The Demongs began adapting to family life, new parents torn between their careers and the desire to be with Liam.

“I’d go out the door to train and get two hours into a three-hour workout and be worried, I need to go home,” said Demong. When his training plan allowed, he would pull Liam around in a bike or ski trailer.

Then, when Liam was five months old, Katie noticed that their normally happy baby was crabby, crying and not eating. Soon, he became floppy and weak, and their life devolved into every parent’s nightmare. The Demongs rushed Liam to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where he was diagnosed with infant botulism, caused by a spore-forming organism found in both soil and food. Symptoms include trouble breathing and paralysis that spreads downward from the neck.

In the intensive care unit, Liam was hooked to a ventilator and a feeding tube. They were relieved to learn that infants who receive early treatment for botulism recover fully. But they were unable to hold him for two weeks, so took turns sitting by his crib, watching their little baby. After seven or eight days, Liam began showing signs of improvement and has, as doctors predicted, recovered to his happy self.

Liam now leads the life of a busy 2-year-old, with daycare, friends and activities, like skiing with his dad, and Katie teaches sociology at Salt Lake Community College. “We’re in a good rhythm,” reported Demong.

 
Bill Demong celebrates receiving the gold medal during the medal ceremony for the
men's individual large hill 10 km Nordic combined at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic
Winter Games Feb. 25, 2010 in Whistler, B.C.

With the family life/training equilibrium achieved, Demong has been building toward the 2014 Olympics in Sochi — a goal he set shortly after the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“Two things motivated me to keep going,” he said. “One was the opportunity to try to defend my Olympic gold medal. Two was to try to help build the team into a stronger team and bridge that gap.”

The Olympic medals that Demong and his teammates, Johnny Spillane, Todd Lodwick, and Brett Camerota, won in Vancouver were a long time coming. Until 2010, no U.S. Nordic combined athlete had ever won an Olympic medal. The mentality shifted in 1995 when Lodwick won his first World Cup. Then up-and-comers Demong and Spillane realized that they had a chance in the European-dominated sport. Spillane won a world championship title in 2003, and Demong and Lodwick collected world titles in 2009. In Vancouver in 2010, they finally achieved their primary goal: Olympic medals. In fact, they medaled in all three Nordic combined events (silver for Spillane in the normal hill competition, gold for Demong in the large hill with Spillane right behind with another silver, and silver in the team relay).

Rather than retire after the Vancouver Games, Demong felt strongly about staying in the sport so he could pass on his hard-earned knowledge to the next generation of U.S. Nordic combined skiers.

The next generation has included Brian and Taylor Fletcher, who in the past two years have become the strongest Nordic combined skiers on the U.S. team — especially Taylor who has surpassed Demong as the fastest on the team. Now that both Fletchers have reached the World Cup podium, the veteran said good-naturedly that he “can be done giving away secrets.”

In many ways, it’s a relief for Demong.

“Now I know for this next year, I don’t have to show up to training and try to be the best I can be to show the way for everybody else,” he said. “I have to show up to training to try to just be the best for myself.”

He also wants to train “outside the box” again this summer. Turning a European training camp into a mini Tour de France with his teammates or bike racing in the U.S. are training tactics that have helped Demong gain confidence in the past.

“[Bike racing] pushed me mentally in ways I wasn’t strong at,” he said. “It opened new doors tactically, and physically; it was so hard that it gave me a lot of confidence. If I could put up with that pain, then I could be the toughest guy on skis.”

Demong also plans to dial back in his jumping technique this summer.

“[Ski jumping] is a lot like a golf swing,” he said. “You can train it and try and do better. But until it starts to click, you can look perfect and still hit it into the weeds every stroke or not know where it’s going.”

He’s close, he said. He was excited with how good his jumping felt near the end of this season.

As Demong said during the 2013 World Championships, “If I continue to improve on jumping, I can fight for the podium again.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.