In the weeks before Billy Demong leaves for Sochi to defend his Olympic gold medal in the Nordic combined large hill competition, he stopped at the YMCA in Taylorsville, Utah, to speak to about 500 elementary school students and donate a wide variety of sporting equipment.
On behalf of Team for Tomorrow, the United States Olympic Committee’s humanitarian program, Demong gave a lot of jump ropes, cones, Frisbees, hula-hoops and other gear — even a digital camera. But he specifically asked for some special hurdles to be part of the package. They mean a lot to him.
Demong selected Team for Tomorrow as his Team Citi sport program. Through Citi's Every Step of the Way — an initiative that benefits U.S. Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls as well as athletes of all ages in communities across America — Team USA fans can visit citi.com/everystep and help allocate a portion of Citi's $500,000 total donation specifically to Team for Tomorrow. The funds will allow Team for Tomorrow athlete ambassadors to continue promoting an active and healthy lifestyle to young people across the country and also fund donations of much-needed sport equipment to local communities.
There was a fun aspect to Demong's visit, which began at Fremont Elementary and moved to the nearby YMCA. Kids’ eyes lit up at the school as Demong gave a demonstration of bunny hopping over the hurdles that sat about a foot off the ground. He wanted them to enjoy the activity, and the journey — working on coordination and agility. But there was also a deeper message: Yes, the hurdles in the metaphorical sense that challenge improvement.
|Nordic combined Olympic champion Billy Demong leads kids in an exercise routine at the YMCA Community Family Center on Jan. 6, 2014 in Taylorsville, Utah.
“Giving the demonstration, and then letting the kids try, was a way to get a little more one-on-one time with them,” said Demong, who spoke to the group two days before heading to France for world cup competition in the lead up to Sochi in February.
If he is named to the team, it will be the 33-year-old Demong’s fifth Winter Games. After the crushing disappointment of not medaling in his adopted state of Utah at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Demong found redemption with a gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver. Demong became the first American Nordic combined athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
The kids, and even some parents that were on their way to pick them up, enjoyed seeing the fruits of Demong’s labor.
“He talked about how it’s all about the journey,” said Adrienne Shaw, who works for the Taylorsville YMCA that has had also had a Team for Tomorrow presentation from Keith Gabel, a snowboarder hoping to be nominated to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team. “Kids can understand that the Olympics is basically one big event. But you have to stay humble and focused to get prepared for it. ... It’s about setting goals.”
Demong, who has been competing on the world cup level since age 17, said he’s basically been able to think in Olympic increments. Sure, obstacles — hurdles, if you will — have existed along the way. But after the 2010 success, he didn’t think of his next move in terms of how to handle 2011, 2012 and so on.
It was either quit after the gold medal, or give it the same level of tenacity for the next four years.
“I like to plan pretty far ahead,” Demong said. “Certainly, I never planned on reaching five Olympics at age 17. In 2003, I knew for sure I could get through to Vancouver. But I didn’t want to just think one year at a time after that.”
Demong told the children specifically, “It’s about enjoying what you do. Having a passion for it. Small goals go a long way.”
Leading up to Sochi, Demong spent the summer trying to become a more technically sound jumper. His hope is to use those new skills to complement what he believes will be peak conditioning in the cross-country portion of the event. He believes his experience and previous success will be his guides to another medal.
Demong said the 2014 Winter Games are it for him in regard to international competition. He’ll have about a 10-day span back home after this trip to Europe to train at altitude for Sochi. His wife, Katie, teaches at Salt Lake Community College, and the New Yorkers have plans to stay in Utah after his competitive career.
Being on the road for six months a year is taxing, Demong said, but it’s his success in sport that gives him the platforms to not only talk to big groups of kids, but also steer their attention spans.
Demong signed an autograph for each child. There were also some wide-eyed parents who were interested in getting autographs after they saw the medals. Demong got a kick out of parents that at first seemed in a hurry to pick up their kid and get out, but then slowed down to say hello to him.
Demong was proud of his ability to speak “off the cuff” to the students, after some audio-visual materials went haywire. He was able to demonstrate with his own body what kind of strength and agility it has taken to earn four world championship medals, including a gold medal in 2009. He also told the children one of his keys to winning medals is not getting wrapped up in winning them.
Demong said that even months after the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, “I was so disappointed ... I was literally not happy.”
His realization: The sun still came up. Mom still loved him. Point blank: “The results don’t define me as a human being.”
Go figure that massive mental breakthrough started a journey to a lot more school assemblies.
“I certainly can still have some really rough days in training,” he said. “But you have to let those also be inspiring.”
Jason Franchuk is a writer from Salt Lake City. He is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.