What Billy Demong accomplished on a pair of skis at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games will always brand him an American original. Yet, to many, he is best known for the morning after.
“Men remember the race,” Demong joked. “Women remember the proposal.”
The race was the 10-kilometer conclusion to the men’s Nordic combined, in which Demong erased a 46-second deficit on the cross country course, following his jump off the Large Hill. Pushing past close friend Johnny Spillane, he became the first U.S. skier ever to win gold in the event.
As for the proposal, it was intended to stay between Demong, girlfriend Katie Koczynski and an audience of family and friends celebrating his victory. But when he arrived on the set of NBC’s Today the next day, Demong was greeted by Al Roker, bearing a dozen roses. Word obviously got out, and millions woke up to news of Billy and Katie’s pending nuptials.
More than two years later, Demong is working toward his fifth Olympic Winter Games, in Sochi in 2014. He and Katie, now husband and wife, are raising a son, Liam. And we are learning that the best way to think of him has less to do with that past than milestones in someone else’s future.
This Thanksgiving, due in part to the efforts of Demong, young dreamers can realistically envision stepping onto Olympic podiums, wounded warriors are given hope and parents of once-sick children look forward to the day their sons and daughters stand at the altar.
When Billy made his Olympic debut at Nagano, Japan, as a 17-year old in 1998, success on Nordic trails was exclusive domain of Europeans.
“In the 90s, it was unheard of for Americans to do well,” Demong said by phone last Saturday, waiting to board a plane in Salt Lake City. “When I was a kid, I thought there was something in the water in Norway.”
Back then, Trisha Worthington worked to fund the efforts of Demong and his teammates for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team Foundation (USSTF). Worthington recalls both the intensity of someone “very focused on becoming a world-class athlete,” and the sensitivity to volunteer for the national team cause.
Demong regularly attended fundraising events, as the baby face of America’s cross country skiing aspirations. By Vancouver, he and his teammates had grown up. Demong earned a team relay silver to go with his gold, while Spillane brought back three silvers.
Such success broadened their sport’s popularity. It also led to a widening gap between an increasing number of talented junior skiers and the money needed to pay for the expensive pursuit of becoming world-class. As always, Demong got out front in the effort to make up the difference.
Even while tending to his own goals, he works with the U.S. Ski Team and National Nordic Foundation to help kids from Alaska to Maine pay for training and international travel.
“Those athletes don’t get there on their own,” Worthington said. “It’s always refreshing to see someone who understands that and then gives back. Billy kind of always got it.”
Demong never forgot the support he received as a self-described middle-class kid from the truly upstate New York town of Vermontville. Nor does he expect today’s up-and-comers to ignore tomorrow’s.
“Absolutely, during my career I have observed too many people simply move on in life and not give a thought to how they got to where they are and how much it takes to do that,” Demong wrote in an email following Saturday’s conversation. “The athletes I work with already understand what’s at stake and have a commitment to supporting those coming up.”
Demong’s example extends to more than skiing’s would-be elite. He gifts time, passion and more to a world far wider than that of his sport. Granted, sport often provides his means of giving.
“Billy gives a ton back to programs with kids in skiing, many just to help kids get out there to ski, and be outdoors,” added Katie, a former U.S. skeleton racer who has settled with Billy in Park City, Utah.
“It’s pretty cool to be involved in helping to change people on the local level,” Billy said. “Adaptive sports have become a passion of mine.”
Inspired by first-hand accounts, Demong has invested himself in organizations like Wasatch Adaptive Sports and Wounded Warriors. Motivation is derived from individuals like a friend who lost a leg in a skiing accident, as well as returning veterans scarred both physically and emotionally.
“Wounded Warriors are afflicted with so many negatives when they come home,” explained Demong, who traveled with teammates to Iraq following the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “Hearing some of the stories of Wounded Warriors, it’s just about spending time with them. Obviously, it’s a life-changing experience.”
Meanwhile, Demong’s experience, as a locally popular and universally likable Olympic champion, allows him to change lives. Simply consider the words of Worthington.
After a dozen years at USSTF, she became executive director of the Park City Foundation, which aids more than 80 charitable organizations. Recently, through an endeavor known as “Live PC, Give PC,” Demong helped Worthington’s group raise nearly $600,000.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Worthington said. “I feel like he’s one of the athletes we can always count on. I have my finger on the pulse of the non-profit community here, and his is a name that continues to pop up.”
“Winning a gold medal is amazing, and it opens a lot of doors,” Demong admitted. “It pays dividends to open doors and better the lives of others. I’ve definitely been able to help a lot more people because of that success.”
Owed largely to the afternoon of Feb. 25, 2010, the golden culmination of a lifetime in training, which was, as Demong characterized, “a great day in a line of great days.”
For Billy and Katie, however, their worst days as parents led to still greater involvement on behalf of others.
In June 2011, their infant, Liam, fell ill. As his condition worsened, despite reassurances of several physicians, Billy and Katie brought him to Primary Children Medical Center (PCMC) in Salt Lake City. Diagnosed with botulism, Liam spent two weeks on a respirator and a month with a feeding tube.
Initially, the Demongs were unable to hold their son for days on end. They watched the Primary Childrens’ staff nurture him to a full recovery. A year later, Liam is, in his father’s words, “intensely energetic” and “right where he should be.”
Sometimes that means being in a chariot pulled by his dad on skis or a bike. But as Liam moves on, Billy and Katie can’t get past what they observed during his stay.
No children’s hospital in the continental United States serves a greater geographical area — roughly 400,000 square miles from Denver to the West Coast — than PCMC. According to KSL-TV, the hospital spent more than $14 million last year to cover nearly 14,800 hospital visits by needy children.
The Demongs were struck by the hardships of so many families; often of little means, traveling long distances. Many, Katie notes, were torn in “touch-and-go” circumstances, between the need to work and longing to remain by their child’s bedside.
So she is organizing an effort to raise awareness and money for such cases. And Katie and Billy, who once had an uninvited national TV audience intrude on their intimacy, now gladly share Liam’s story.
“We were there for awhile and saw what an amazing facility it was: the doctors, nurses, staff and social workers,” said Katie, a sociology instructor at Salt Lake Community College who was inspired enough to study nursing, with an interest in pediatric care. “There isn’t anything politicized about sick kids. It’s pretty easy to want to give to a place like that.”
“We feel so fortunate that we’re so close to the medical center,” Billy said. “It’s really powerful to follow the families and advocate for them.”
On this holiday, Worthington said she feels fortunate to be so close to such a powerful advocate.
“He’s the perfect person,” she said upon learning that Demong is the subject of a story about the spirit of Thanksgiving. “I can’t think of anyone more perfect.”