PARK CITY, Utah – At the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Nordic Combined on Saturday, the oldest man in the field was nervous.
It didn’t matter that Todd Lodwick had competed in more than 175 world cup events, nine world championships and five Olympic Winter Games. When the 37-year-old father of two zipped up his yellow padded ski jumping suit, his teammates could sense the tension.
Lodwick had a lot on his mind — from family, to bills, to his health (last year he was diagnosed with gluten intolerance) to the new, tighter-fitting jumping suits that changed the whole feeling of the jump. He was also thinking about his legacy.So when Lodwick had the best jump of the day, he clutched his daughter Charley and said he was “thrilled,” adding, “It was my last competitive jump ever in the U.S.”
The flight also offered him a rare moment of freedom.
“When you let go of the bar [at the top of the jump], everything disappears,” he said. “That’s the reason I do it. For 10 seconds of my life, everything disappears. It’s a huge adrenaline rush.
“But we still have a cross-country race. It isn’t over,” Lodwick said.
Three-and-a-half hours later, the clouds vanished and the athletes moved down the road to Kimball Junction to ski four 2.5-kilometer loops in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd to conclude the event. The winner would earn an automatic nomination to the Sochi Games. If Lodwick could keep his lead, he would also make history. No American has ever competed in six Olympic Winter Games.
In the staggered start of the skiing portion, Lodwick’s first-place jump translated to a 36-second head start over 2010 Olympic gold medalist Bill Demong, who had the second-best jump of the day. Demong, 33, knew the ski portion would be a battle. “I still have a chance,” Demong said. “It’s going to be four four-minute climbs.”
Behind the Olympians, in third, was Bryan Fletcher, who had won the prestigious Holmenkollen in 2012. In fourth was Nick Hendrickson whose younger sister, Sarah, is the reigning world champion in women’s ski jumping.
Surprisingly, the fastest skier on the team, Taylor Fletcher (Bryan’s younger brother), started nearly two minutes behind Lodwick due to a disappointing jump that ranked eighth among the 10 competitors.
On landing, Taylor Fletcher said, “My binding popped out and my [right] heel slipped a bit.” The skid cost him valuable style points. (Ski jumping scores are based on form as well as distance.)
As the race unfolded, however, Demong never gave chase and Lodwick knew that if he was the first to reach the top of the hill on the final lap, he would clinch the victory.
After claiming the $10,000 winner’s check and handing his bouquet to his daughter, Charley, Lodwick said, “To say I am going to my sixth Olympic Games is daunting and humbling.
“I haven’t been this nervous at a race in a long time, and it’s probably what’s been missing on the world cup tour.”
Lodwick was the first American to win a world cup race in Nordic combined, in 1995. He also won two world championship titles in 2009 and an Olympic silver medal in 2010. But his best finish on the world cup so far this season has been 11th.
In the end, Bryan Fletcher passed Demong to place second, 17.3 seconds behind Lodwick. Demong placed third, and Taylor Fletcher passed four racers to finish fourth overall. The U.S. will likely send the maximum five Nordic combined athletes to Sochi, as it did in Vancouver where it claimed four of seven potential medals. The rest of the team will be named on or before January 22.
On Sunday, the Utah Olympic Park will host the men’s and women’s ski jumping trials. The winner of each will earn automatic nomination to the Games. Sarah Hendrickson (whose brother, Nick, placed seventh in Saturday’s Nordic combined trials) will not compete, however. On August 21, the world champion tore two ligaments in her right knee and severely damaged her meniscus while landing a jump in Germany.
Still, Nick felt her presence on Saturday.
“I know she’s there supporting me,” he said, “even if she’s not on the edge of the barrier screaming.”
Aimee Berg 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.