BY PEGGY SHINN I MAY 7, 2013
|Todd Lodwick competes in the Nordic combined team HS106 ski
jumping competition during the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships
at Holmenkollen on Feb. 28, 2011 in Oslo, Norway.
In 1994, Todd Lodwick marched into the Opening Ceremony of his first Olympic Winter Games and saw a commotion in the stands. The Nordic combined athlete, 17 at the time with tussled blonde hair, looked up to see a woman pushing people out of the way to reach the aisle, then the parade of athletes. It was his mom.
“She ran through the security guards to give me a hug,” Lodwick said. “That’s one of my best memories from my first Olympic Games.”
Now, 19 years later, Lodwick is a father himself and at 36, the oldest guy still competing on the Nordic combined World Cup tour. Already a legend, he is the first U.S. Nordic combined skier to win a World Cup (back in 1995) and is credited with starting the U.S. team’s success in Nordic combined.
“He broke through and said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to win World Cups,’” said teammate Billy Demong. “He stopped playing that game of [thinking] the U.S. isn’t good enough.”
Since his first World Cup win, Lodwick has been on the World Cup podium another 27 times, is a two-time world champion, and an Olympic silver medalist. But he has also experienced the other side of glory — the what-more-could-I-have-done devastation of finishing fourth twice at two separate Olympics. And Lodwick believes that “fourth is the same as 50th in the Olympic Games.” The U.S. took fourth in the team relay at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, a pain he helped ease by taking the silver medal in the team event at the 2010 Olympics. At the Vancouver Games, Lodwick also finished fourth in the Olympic normal hill competition after leading for much of the 10km cross-country ski race.
“That one still stings,” he said recently. “As a little kid, you write down that you want to be an Olympic medalist. You train 20 years to get to that point, and you then come up 7/100ths of a second short.”
Despite his age, the pull of family at home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. — daughter Charley is in first grade and son Finn is four — and recent struggles with his health and a changing sport, Lodwick is still competing. He loves his sport and wants to help develop the next generation of American Nordic combined skiers. He also feels the pull of another Olympics and a chance to finally win an Olympic medal in an individual event. If he makes it — and barring illness or injury, he’s a likely candidate for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team — Lodwick will be the U.S.’s first six-time winter Olympian.
Lodwick decided to push on to the 2014 Olympics two years ago at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, where he finished fifth in the large hill competition and eighth in normal hill.
“That just fueled me,” he said. “It was only two-and-a-half seasons to get back to the Olympic Games. I made that mental commitment to continue all the way to 2014.”
But Lodwick’s health was not as committed as his mind. By the end of the 2011 season, exercise-induced asthma began causing trouble. He has always suffered from asthma, but this time, it wasn’t responding to his inhaler. The asthma worsened when personal issues at home demanded his attention.
“It became a mental struggle to keep training when every time I would go out, I felt bad,” he said. “It definitely wore on me.”
|Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick, Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher
pose with their bronze medals for the Nordic combined team
4x5km at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on Feb.
24, 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
In January 2012, after finishing no better than 23rd on the World Cup, he called it quits for the season and flew home. After a series of CAT scans and blood tests, doctors discovered that he has a gluten intolerance. He cut wheat from his diet and immediately felt better.
“I got my pizzazz back, I guess you could say, my energy, my desire to train and be an athlete again,” he said.
But a new rule soon squelched some of his pizzazz. In July 2012, the FIS (International Ski Federation) released new specs for ski jumping suits. The rule mandates that suits must be “close-fitting in any body part.” Gone was the relatively loose-fitting six-centimeter tolerance in suit dimensions (and 10 centimeter tolerance that Lodwick and other jumpers enjoyed in earlier days).
“Back then, they were trash bags, now they’re skin-tight wet suits,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of changes, but this change was by far the most drastic that I’ve ever experienced in my career skiing.”
Rather than flying through the air with his suit acting like an airfoil, Lodwick felt like a stone hurled from the end of the jump. Without a headwind, his jumps often fell short.
“With the tighter suits, you’re not aerodynamically creating as much lift,” explained Alan Johnson, USA Ski Jumping’s athletic director. It’s now up to the athlete to develop a technique to create the lift that he or she needs, he added.
For a veteran like Lodwick, who has honed his jumping technique over two decades, the adjustment has been difficult. “There’s not a lot of feeling anymore,” he said of jumping in the new suits.
Head Nordic combined coach Dave Jarrett believes that Lodwick’s issues with the new suits are as much mental as physical and can be overcome with consistent training in the suits, and accepting the fact that the suit rule isn’t going to change.
“He doesn’t need to necessarily change his technique or reinvent the wheel on the jumping hill,” said Jarrett. “It’s just a matter of feeling comfortable. I think in the back of his mind, he thought that they were going to say, ‘This is the wrong direction, we’re going to change back.’ They’re not going to, I don’t think. He just needs to face up to that and move forward.”
Thanks in part to the new suits, Lodwick’s 2012-13 season was a roller coaster. He struggled in training last summer but then was encouraged by two podium finishes at the Sochi Grand Prix in July. He came home and won nationals, skiing the fastest he’s ever skied and calling it one of the top five best races of his career. Then in November, he scored points in the first World Cup, finishing 24th and skiing the ninth fastest time.
But in training for the next World Cups, he was jumping 40-55 meters shorter than his competitors on the large hill (e.g., 85 meters versus 140). He searched for jumping skis that felt right and struggled to eat gluten-free food while on the road.
Again he left Europe, returning to Steamboat to be with his kids and regain confidence and form. He finally found redemption in two team events. In early January, he helped the U.S. team earn its first medal in a World Cup team event — a bronze. Then at the World Championships in February, he laid down a strong jump and helped the U.S. take third in the team event. It was “icing on the cake,” he said.
Unlike four years ago when Lodwick looked toward the Vancouver Olympics as a reigning world champion, he will head to Sochi as more of an underdog — and a 37-year-old underdog at that, but a hungry one too. An Olympic medal in an individual event is the one trophy missing from his extensive collection.
“I’m still one of the fastest guys, and everyone knows I can jump, including myself,” Lodwick said. “I feel 100 percent confident that I have a legitimate chance of an individual medal in the Olympic Games in Sochi.”
To achieve that goal, Lodwick needs focus on training and jumping consistently in the next 10 months, said Jarrett, and remain healthy.
“There’s no question in my mind that he can do it,” said Jarrett. “He’s one guy that you don’t want to bet against.”
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.