SOCHI 2014

Will Nordic Combined Dominate In Sochi?

By Peggy Shinn | June 13, 2013, 3:30 p.m. (ET)
Team USA (L-R: Brett Camerota, Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane, Billy Demong) celebrates winning the silver in the Nordic combined team relay at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 23, 2010 in Whistler, Canada

Bill Demong leads Johnny Spillane over the finish line during the
Nordic combined individual LH/10 km at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic
Winter Games on Feb. 25, 2010 in Whistler, Canada.

When Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane went 1-2 in the large hill competition at the 2010 Olympics, they wrapped up the most successful Olympic Winter Games ever for the U.S. in Nordic combined. The sport, combining ski jumping and cross-country skiing, has been on the program since the first Winter Games in 1924. But in the 20 Winter Olympics prior to 2010, the Americans had never won a medal. By comparison, skiers from the Scandinavian countries had captured almost half of the Olympic medals between 1924 and 2010.

The American performance in Vancouver was a rout. The U.S. team medaled in all three Nordic combined events — normal hill, large hill and the team relay — and took 44 percent of the Olympic medals on offer in Vancouver. The Scandinavian countries, where Nordic combined is practically a national sport, came up empty. It was as if a Norwegian baseball team had beaten the Yankees in the World Series.

But it was no fluke. The four medals won by Demong, Spillane, Todd Lodwick and Brett Camerota were a goal toward which the U.S. team had steadily worked for over 15 years. They were a deserved reward in a sport where financial gain is not a driving force, at least not in this country.

In the past three years, much has changed for these four men. They all continued to compete after the 2010 Olympics but did not enjoy the same results as they had leading up the Vancouver Games — when Demong and Lodwick won two World Championship medals each. Camerota retired in spring 2011, and this April, Spillane retired.

So heading to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, what are the chances that the U.S. team will enjoy the same Olympic dominance?

Dave Jarrett, current Nordic combined coach and a former combiner himself, is optimistic. Even without Spillane, two former world champions — Demong and Lodwick — lead the team. And the Fletcher brothers from Steamboat Springs, Colo., have both stepped on the World Cup and World Championship podiums this year.

Demong, 33, committed to train for his fifth Olympics in 2010 shortly after he carried the U.S. flag into the Closing Ceremony in Vancouver. He wants the chance to defend his Olympic gold medal, and he also wanted to help develop the next generation of U.S. combiners.

But he struggled with ski jumping this year. Known as one of the fastest skiers on the World Cup tour, Demong had in the past relied on his skate-skiing speed to catch back up to the leaders if he had a poor jump. Now, the sport has become faster.

“There’s a lot more guys who can ski,” explained Demong. “As the sport has tightened itself and its formats, it’s given people more opportunity to ski with other people, and they’ve gotten better at it."

But Demong said his jumping is close: “Now it’s just a matter of dialing in that last little bit."

To help Demong and the rest of the team improve their jumping, Marc Nölke recently joined the U.S. Nordic combined team as the head jumping coach. From Germany, Nölke competed in the 1992 Olympics, and as a coach, helped the Austrians win gold just ahead of the U.S. in the team event at the 2010 Olympics.

Joining Demong in Park City, Utah, for training this summer is Lodwick, who at age 36 is aiming for his sixth Olympics.

When asked if the U.S. Nordic combined team is as strong as the team that went to the Vancouver Olympics, Lodwick answered without hesitation: “Yep, it is."

Todd Lodwick competes in the Nordic combined team HS134 ski
jumping competition during the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships
at Holmenkollen on March 4, 2011 in Oslo, Norway.

Lodwick went to the Vancouver as a reigning world champion in two events (mass start and normal hill). Although he has struggled recently with exercise-induced asthma and the FIS’s new rule requiring “close-fitting” ski jumping suits (rather than looser suits that act as airfoils), he helped the U.S. win a medal (bronze) in its first World Cup team event this past January. He then helped the team take bronze at the 2013 World Championships.

“Todd definitely stepped it up when we needed him this year,” said Demong. “He is a super talented guy, and if he focuses for six months, he’s going to be incredibly dangerous. That’s a good thing for our team strength."

Also training in Park City this summer are the Fletcher brothers — Bryan, 26, and younger brother Taylor, 23. They are the strongest skiers on the team now, said Demong, with Bryan pushing the team in jumping and Taylor pushing them in cross-country.

Last year, Bryan won the famed Holmenkollen World Cup, considered the Super Bowl of Nordic combined events. For his part, Taylor made the 2010 Olympic team, but just this year began making his mark on the World Cup. Often the fastest cross-country skier on the Nordic combined World Cup circuit (a role he has taken over from Demong), Taylor took third in an individual World Cup in January, shortly after helping the team take its first World Cup team bronze. He also finished in the top-10 six times this season.

“Taylor’s super fast, and I’m about as fast as I ever was, but he’s definitely one step farther most days,” said Demong. “He’s an endurance talent. He’s like one of those guys you hear stories about. He went out as hard as he could until he blew up, and it happened again and again. Eventually, he started blowing up later in the race and finally he stopped blowing up. When you watch him ski, he’s not holding anything back."

The youngest skier currently on the Nordic combined’s A team, Taylor was 3 years old when Lodwick first competed in the Winter Olympics in 1994.

The team, though, will definitely miss Spillane. The three-time Olympic silver medalist was beset by injuries after the 2010 Olympics and never achieved the same results he had enjoyed earlier in his career, such as in 2003 when he won the first World Championship title for a U.S. combiner. With two young kids at home in Steamboat Springs, he called it a career in April.

Coach Jarrett said Spillane’s retirement leaves “a huge hole in the roster."

“He’s a world champion and a three-time Olympic medalist,” said the coach. “We don’t have somebody waiting in the wings who has those same palmares."

Lodwick will miss having “a competitor as competitive as Johnny was around the team” to push everyone. But he is looking forward, not backward.

“Johnny left a legacy behind,” said Lodwick. “It’s fantastic and something we can build on, and it’s up to us to carry that on. We get to do the exact same stuff in the next Olympics."

“We would have more matches to burn if Johnny was around,” Jarrett added. “But that doesn’t mean that some of these younger guys couldn’t step in and be the next Johnny."

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.

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