As Billy Demong gets ready to compete in his fifth Olympic Winter Games, he knows he has a tough act to follow: his own.
At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Demong became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in Nordic combined, taking first place in the individual event that combines the large-hill ski jump with a 10-kilometer cross country ski race. Earlier, he had been part of the U.S. four-man group that won silver in the Nordic combined team event.
And, on the night he won the gold, he proposed to his girlfriend, Katie Koczynski, and later found out he’d been selected to carry the American flag in Closing Ceremony.
So as Demong, 33, heads into what he says are his final Winter Games this month in Sochi, he knows that topping Vancouver or winning a second gold will be a challenge.
“Winning a gold medal is a special thing,” he said. “But defending it, now that’s really hard.”
Successfully defending his gold medal has been one driving force for Demong since Vancouver. As he moves toward the end of his competitive career, however, he has been driven to leave his legacy in other ways. One of those ways is through his leadership; Demong hopes to leave the U.S Nordic combined program in position to continue thriving. Another mission that is important to Demong is his work to help the Olympic and Paralympic Movements in the United States.
To that end, he’s been part of the Every Step of the Way program by Citi, which provides funds to Olympic and Paralympic programs to support the training and preparation of athletes. The program was launched in 2012 and will go through 2016. Demong was selected in 2013 as one of nine American athlete ambassadors to help the program.
Demong’s specific role has been as an ambassador for the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program that connects U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes with local youth sport and community organizations to share inspirational stories and discuss the importance of living an active and healthy lifestyle. As an ambassador, Demong has worked with Olympic and Paralympic athletes to teach Olympic values to boys and girls across the United States. (Click here to help Demong reach his goal of inspiring the next generation of Olympians.)
“Let’s face it, the kids that are inspired by the Olympic athletes of today are who become the Olympic athletes of tomorrow,” he said.
In the meantime, however, Demong is focusing on his other goals: Going out on top and leaving the U.S. program in good shape. He has certainly done his part.
In 2013, he helped the United States win bronze in the team event at the world championships in Italy, the first time an American team ever has medaled at a world championships. He also won the U.S. individual Nordic combined championship in 2012, the eighth U.S. championship of his long career.
Along the way, he’s competed in every Winter Games since Nagano in 1998 and won four medals at the world championships, including a gold in 2009 in the large-hill event.
Demong goes into the Sochi competition with longtime teammate Todd Lodwick — the 2014 Opening Ceremony flag bearer who will be competing in his sixth Games — and brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher. The large-hill event is set for Feb. 18 with the team event two days later. Since Vancouver, he’s been working hard to go out on top.
Demong is eager to push for a medal himself, but he also wants to see his teammates thrive.
“I have a really good, strong, young team coming up behind me, guys that are starting to beat me on both the jump and cross-country — not together, hopefully, but you know we built a really strong team and the future is very bright,” Demong said. “So while I’m a contender this time around, I feel very confident in retiring in the future and having the sport continue to be successful for the United States.”
Demong goes into his final Winter Games as the 24th-ranked athlete in the FIS Nordic combined world rankings, No. 2 on the U.S. team to Bryan Fletcher (13th). But in six world cup events this season, he has two top 10s, with three other finishes in the top 13.
So, if things go the right way again in Sochi as they did in Vancouver, Demong could find himself among the medal contenders. But, no matter what happens, Sochi will be his Olympic farewell.
“This is just kind of an amazing year right now because this will be my fifth Olympics, and it’s been such a journey … since I even started skiing, let alone since 1998 (in Nagano),” he said. “It’s something where I’m in kind of the twilight of my career — not necessarily my fitness, because I think I’m very fit — and had I only been to one or two Games, I may even continue now.
“But I’m ready. I’m looking forward to life after the Olympics and after competitive skiing.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.