PARK CITY, Utah – Billy Demong was a first grader the last time a North American city hosted the Nordic Junior World Championships in 1986.
Now Demong is the USA Nordic executive director and an Olympic gold medalist, and this week he leads the U.S. junior squad to its first junior worlds on home snow in more than a generation.
The event, which is held almost exclusively in Nordic countries, is expected to draw 500 athletes from almost 40 countries to compete in ski jumping, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined in Demong’s adopted hometown of Park City, Utah.
As an opportunity for U.S. athletes to compete at venues that are so familiar to them, it’s as much as a home field advantage as Nordic athletes have ever had.
And the U.S. athletes hope to capitalize on the opportunity.
“It’s awesome,” said ski jumper Casey Larson, 18, from Illinois. “We all know Park City because we’ve been coming here spring, summer and winter. It’s a hotbed. We all know the (venue) really well, and it’s one of the very few ski jumps at this high of an altitude. So that affects the air pressure and jumps, and we understand that.”
Larson was the top U.S. qualifier and he has high hopes, as well as Olympic aspirations.
“We all have the opportunity to do really well here,” he said. “Right now, I definitely think anything is possible.”
From the ski jumping contingent, Larson and Logan Sankey of Colorado also represented the United States at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
The U.S. Nordic combined team is a mixture of newcomers and veterans. Leading that team is Ben Loomis of Wisconsin, the Youth Olympic silver medalist.
There are 12 members of the U.S. cross-country team — six men and six women. Two of those athletes were members of the Youth Olympic team: Hunter Wonders of Alaska, and Hannah Halvorsen of California.
“I think it’s really fun to have all the hometown fans,” said Halvorsen, 18. “That’s really special. A lot of times, we fly over to Europe, and there is the time change, the food is different. My grandparents are here, my whole family, my friends have driven out, it’s really exciting.”
The Truckee, California, native said the relay team has a real shot at a medal, and skiing at home adds fuel to their fire.
“It would be really cool to do it on home turf,” she said of earning a podium spot.
Demong said this year’s U.S. contingent is “the most diverse” ever assembled in the Nordic disciplines, representing three of the country’s jumping regions.
Competitions will occur on the 15th anniversary of the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games and will utilize Olympic venues like Soldier Hollow (cross-country skiing) and Utah Olympic Park (ski jumping).
The opening ceremony is Monday at 7 p.m. at Zermatt Resort in Midway. A complete schedule of events can be found at Utah2017.com.
Bryan Fish, U.S. development cross-country coach, said Park City’s willingness and ability to host the world championships isn’t just an opportunity for athletes, it’s a credit to the entire community.
“The size and scale of something like this is huge,” Fish said. “It’s tremendously great that our community was willing to take on this task. … It allows our parents, skiers, coaches to be able to see this level of skiing.”
Fish said the athletes are looking forward to familiar conditions and more support than usual.
“We’re very excited,” Fish said. “Classically, we’re a program that’s been slightly an underdog, so we’re one of the smaller nations. Now having it in our own backyard, it maybe reshapes our focus.”
The athletes, he believes, will rise to the challenge of showing the world how competitive the United States is in Nordic sports.
“It’s a unique opportunity that our athletes have,” Fish said. “We are a European sport, so the ability to race and compete in front of our families, friends and community is really exciting.”