Archive for August, 2010

U.S. medal moment historic in nordic

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By John Meyer of The Denver Post
Published 2/26/10

WHISTLER — After winning two silver medals in two events here — the first Olympic medals in U.S. nordic combined history — there were only two ways the team could top what it had already achieved.

Claim two medals Thursday in the final nordic combined event of the Vancouver Games, or capture the team’s first gold medal.

United States' Bill Demong, United States' Johnny Spillane and Austria's Bernhard Gruber, from left, ski during the Cross Country portion of the Men's Nordic Combined Individual event from the large hill at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010. (AP | Elaine Thompson)

To the astonishment of those who have followed the team’s slow but steady rise over the past 20 years, they did both. Bill Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., claimed gold in the large hill event and Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs collected his third silver medal of the Games (one came in the four-man team event).

No American had ever won an Olympic gold medal in any nordic sport — combined, cross country or ski jumping — until Demong did it Thursday.

“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that,” Demong said when asked to reflect on the significance of his achievement. “I’ll let you know in 10 or 15 years from now.”

No American had won a world championship gold medal in any nordic sport until Spillane did it in 2003. Since then, Demong has one gold and teammate Todd Lodwick has two.

“It’s not possible to watch this and put it into words,” said one of the program’s key architects, former coach Tom Steitz. “What do you say? You just watch.”

Spillane had the second-best mark in the morning ski jump competition and Demong was sixth. Spillane started the 10-kilometer cross country race 34 seconds behind Austrian Bernhard Gruber, with Demong 40 seconds behind. The Americans quickly ran Gruber down and then worked together to wear him out.

“About midway through the second lap (of four), we knew we were pretty well clear and it was going to be a fight between three people,” Spillane said. “We kept trading the lead and kept doing big accelerations and slowing down, working together like a bike race. We did have some room to play with.”

Meanwhile, Lodwick, who was 14th in jumping and started 73 seconds back, made a pest of himself in the chase pack and made sure no one came free.

“Once I knew third place was out of reach,” Lodwick said, “I wasn’t going to help anybody get up there.”

Steitz called Lodwick “the ultimate team player” for the way he played his role.

Johnny Spillane celebrates on the podium Thursday after winning the silver medal in the nordic combined. (Franck Fife, Getty Images )

“Hats off to Todd, because he slowed those guys down a couple of times,” Steitz said. “There were times when he just slowed down and the gap got bigger.”

With about 800 meters to go, Demong put in a hard sprint to break Gruber. Spillane followed and Gruber let them go. Demong won by four seconds.

“I don’t think either of us care who was first and second, as long as we were first and second today,” Demong said. “We did the job and reaped the benefits at the end.”

Spillane said he was “completely satisfied” with silver — and his role on a team that made so much history. Steamboat has produced dozens of Olympians, but Spillane will be the first skier to bring home three Olympic medals.

“It’s just amazing,” Spillane said. “I don’t think it’s sunk in. I feel that a lot of hard work in a lot of years put myself in as good a position as possible to come into this Olympics with high confidence. I’m skiing well, I gave myself the best possible chance, and was fortunate enough to take advantage of it.”

John Meyer: 303-954-1616 or jmeyer@denverpost.com
Read the original article at The Denver Post

Management Lessons from a Triumphant Olympics

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By: Nanette Byrnes of Business Week
Published on 2/26/10

Members of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team won gold and silver yesterday in the sport’s final Olympic event. It was the culmination of an amazing winter games for the team, which won medals in all three of the sports’ competitions. It was also one of the more amazing turnaround stories of the Olympics.

How Nordic Combined went from dead last in the world in 1988 to regular trips to the podium is a lesson in slow, deliberate growth managers at struggling US companies like General Motors, Delta, or even the New York Times Co., might take a page from.

Tom Steitz, who we first wrote up on the blog last week, took over as Head Coach for the team in those dark days of 1988, inheriting little money or athletic talent to work with. But he set a methodical approach to turning the team around, and set ambitious goals that put it on the path that would lead to Vancouver.

On February 14, one of the skiers he recruited and helped develop, Johnny Spillane won the silver in the first of three events, the first American ever to win a medal in the event. On February 25, Spillane repeated his silver finish in the large hill Nordic Combined, crossing the finish lines seconds behind teammate Bill Demong, who’s gold medal makes him the nation’s first ever champion in the sport. In between four of the American team, including Spillane and Demong, won the silver in the Nordic Combined team competition.

How do you get from dead last to dominating at the most important contest in the world? Steitz seems some lessons in the team’s transformation that can be applied to business. No longer the team coach, Steiz is now a leadership consultant who works for big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Hewlett-Packard. Be he’s still a welcome adviser to the athletes, and spent February at the Games.

Here are some of the lessons he learned from Nordic Combined that he thinks apply to businesses looking to win.

* Move the unproductive out quickly – Right away Steitz overhauled the coaching staff and started to hunt for promising athletes who had good team spirit, who wanted their teammates to do well.

* Set big goals, and plan to build to them – Just attending an Olympics couldn’t be anyone’s goal, Steitz says. They had to want a medal, and every athlete had to be improving whether they were already easily going to make the team or not. Steitz tied those goals to fund raising. He asked sponsors for modest contributions up front, but a promise that they’d give more if the team rose in the world cup rankings. That strategy took them from the worst funded team to the best competing in the 2002 Games.

* Spend time together — Steitz relocated the whole team and all their coaches, nutritionists and medical staff from all over the country to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He lost a third of his athletes and staff, but he knew those who stayed were committed.

Not everything from sports transfers to business, of course. A coach will invest 10 to 15 years into training an athlete, Steitz notes, only to find that competitor’s age start to slow them down. Corporate managers face a different problem: the chance their great talent will jump ship for another company.

How likely someone is to pick up a headhunter’s call is one of the metric’s Steitz recommends managers track. And it’s one he uses to measure his own performance. Of course there’s no goal medal for coaching.

Read the original article at Business Week

Tactical Team Skiing Helps Demong Win Historic Individual Gold Medal

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated
Published on 2/25/10

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A great Nordic combined team requires speed, stamina, strategy and sacrifice. The U.S. squad can put a big check mark in all four categories. That was never more apparent than on Thursday, when the American men capped their Olympic coming-out party by taking the top two medals in the individual large hill/10K event. Billy Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., became America’s first Olympic gold medalist in Nordic combined, finishing the cross-country portion of the competition in 25 minutes, 32.9 seconds, four seconds ahead of silver medalist Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs, Colo.

With help from his teammates, Billy Demong ended America's golden goose egg in Nordic sports at the Winter Olympics. (Carl Yarbrough/SI)

Demong and Spillane, who won what became a three-man race with bronze medalist Bernhard Gruber of Austria, provided the speed, stamina and strategy. The subtle sacrifice came from Todd Lodwick, the third member of the trio that has made Nordic history for the U.S. Lodwick, part of the six-man group that was chasing the three leaders for most of the race, did his best to keep the posse at a pace that was well behind his two teammates.

Asked if he was “blocking and tackling” that second group, Lodwick nodded. “Once I knew third place was probably out of reach, I wasn’t going to help those other guys by pushing the pace,” he said. “I know some of the guys from other countries aren’t too happy with me right now. I told Billy and Johnny beforehand, ‘If I’m going to come, I’m going to come alone.’ I wasn’t going to bring the pack with me.”

It might not have mattered, because Demong and Spillane had a good thing going up at the front. They were at least 30 to 40 seconds ahead of everyone except Gruber during the second half of the race. But it symbolized what the Americans have been saying throughout these Games — that they take the word team seriously. “Todd did a really good job today in kind of giving himself up to help keep the wolves off our heels,” Demong said. “It’s not surprising. Any one of the three of us would do that for the other two.”

A gold medal in the final Nordic combined event was really the only way the Americans could have topped themselves after the first two events, in which they fulfilled their goal of winning the first U.S. medal in the sport — Spillane’s silver in the individual normal hill/5K — and then took another silver in the normal hill/4×5K team competition. In both races they were overtaken down the stretch to fall short of the gold, but not on Thursday. It must have been music to the U.S. team’s ears when Gruber, after not being able to stay with Demong and Spillane as they pushed toward the finish, said: “The Americans were just too strong.”

“In a lot of ways you saw the complete growth process here in the Olympics,” said U.S. coach Dave Jarrett. “From getting on the medal stand to competing for the gold to finally winning the gold.”

The entire U.S. Olympic team is the beneficiary of that maturation. “People said if the U.S. wanted to win the medal count, the Nordic sports had to step up,” Lodwick said. “I’m not sure if we could have stepped up any more than this.”

While Lodwick was helping keep the pursuers at bay, Demong and Spillane worked as a two-man team up front — exchanging the lead so they could draft off each other and talking constantly to keep each other apprised of Gruber’s position. “It was like a bike race in a lot of ways,” Spillane said. “Same kind of strategy. Everything came together perfectly.”

The same could be said of the Vancouver Games as a whole for the Nordic combined team, which not only surpassed its goals with four medals in three events, but undoubtedly inspired some future competitors watching at home. “There are going to be a lot more little kids jumping off couches now, saying ‘Look at me, mom,’” said former U.S. coach Tom Steitz. “Some of those kids might wind up winning more medals for us someday.”

That may be the lasting legacy for Demong, 29, and Lodwick and Spillane, both 33. That, and the way they exemplified teamwork, not only in these Games but throughout their careers, in which they trained and competed together, pushed and inspired each other for years. As Demong took his last few strides toward his golden finish, he was clear of the pack, although he wasn’t aware of it. “I didn’t know until I crossed the line,” he said. “In my head I was imagining that there was somebody right next to me, keeping me going.”

In a sense, there was — his team. Just like always.

Read the original article at Sports Illustrated

Americans Win Gold And Silver in Nordic Combined

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal
Published on 2/25/10

Johnny Spillane, left, and Bill Demong during the cross country portion of the men's Nordic combined

Johnny Spillane, left, and Bill Demong during the cross country portion of the men's Nordic combined

WHISTLER, British Columbia — With 600 meters to go, Billy Demong decided it was time once and for all to make the U.S. takeover of Nordic combined official.

With four quick strokes of his poles on a nasty uphill stretch at Whistler Olympic Park, Mr. Demong surged into the lead in the 10-kilometer cross country race that marks the culmination of Nordic combined.

The surge marked the end of the challenge for Austria’s Bernhard Gruber, who had started the race in the lead after winning the morning jumping competition and skied gallantly with Mr. Demong and his teammate, Johnny Spillane, throughout the race. But within seconds, Mr. Gruber was drifting backwards and Messrs. Demong and Spillane were searing along the final downhill into the stadium for a historic gold-and-silver finish to the roars of fans from nations that once scorned American efforts to compete in Nordic sports.

“When you go there is only one way to go,” Mr. Demong said minutes after the race. “We show up on days like today with the expectation to do well and knowing that results like this are a realistic possibility.”

Mr. Demong finished the race in 25:32.9 after finishing sixth in a jumping competition marred by wind and poor weather. That relegated him to a start 46 seconds behind Mr. Gruber. Mr. Spillane finished four seconds after Mr. Demong after starting 36 seconds behind Mr. Gruber.

The two medals, combined with a silver in the team competition and another silver in the normal hill-10 kilometer event, gave the U.S. 44% of the medals in the discipline, one of its best showings in any sport at the Winter Games. And with Germany nipping at Team USA’s heels in the overall medal count, if the U.S. prevails, Nordic combined will have played a major role.

Suggesting such an outcome 10 or 15 years ago to anyone with a scintilla of knowledge of this sport’s history would have seemed at best silly and more likely absurd. In 1988, when Nordic combined first became an Olympic sport, the U.S. finished at the bottom of the heap, and the team operated on a shoestring budget for years after that.

Bill Demong of the U.S. competes in the Nordic Combined individual large hill.

Bill Demong of the U.S. competes in the Nordic Combined individual large hill.

But former coach Tom Steitz started focusing on developing a few promising athletes, and among the first were Messrs. Demong and Spillane, along with Todd Lodwick, who finished 13th Thursday and in the ultimate team-first move, spent much of the race holding off the chase-pack, giving his teammates the comfort of knowing they were skiing only against Mr. Gruber for position on the podium.

“Everyone always said for the U.S. to win the Winter Games the Nordic sports would have to step up,” Mr. Lodwick said. “We can’t step up any more than we did.”

At World Cup events in the 1990s, organizers would make the Americans change and prep their skis in the parking lot. European competitors would conspire to give them only a few shots at training on the ski jumps. Shortly after Mr. Demong crossed the finish line he grabbed Mr. Steitz and reminded him of the training trip 15 years ago when they spent the night in an East German mental institution because it offered a bed and a meal for $14.

“That’s what we had to do back then,” Mr. Steitz said Thursday. “We didn’t have any choice.”

But Thursday’s win was a long way from those grubby beginnings.

Thursday the only choice left for Messrs. Demong and Spillane was when to put away Mr. Gruber. The teammates talked to each other throughout the race, taking turns in the lead, speeding up and slowing down the pace, teasing Mr. Gruber along. Then came the final hill and Mr. Demong’s last surge, one final message that this was his team’s event.

“We wanted to be alone, just the two of us,” Mr. Demong said. “I don’t think either of us even cared who finished first, just as long as we were one-two.”

Read the original article at The Wall Street Journal

US Nordic combined success decades in the making

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By Arnie Stapleton of Associated Press
Published on 2/24/10

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Former U.S. Nordic combined coach Tom Steitz was too wired to sleep after watching the three men he once recruited as pimple-faced teenagers inspect the sparkling silver medals around their necks.

Tom Steitz poses for a photo in front of the Olympic cauldron at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Tom Steitz poses for a Tom Steitz poses for a photo in front of the Olympic cauldron at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010. Steitz was too wired to sleep after watching the three men he once recruited as pimple-faced teenagers inspect the sparkling silver medals around their necks. Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane, along with teammate Brett Camerota, took second Tuesday in the 4-by-5-kilometer team relay. Ten days earlier, Spillane broke the Americans' 86-year Olympic shutout in Nordic combined with an individual silver. Steitz, who stepped down as U.S. coach in 2002 but served as Lodwick's personal coach at the Turin Games, now works as a management consultant. He remains a godfather figure to the American athletes and their families. (AP Photo/Marcio Sanchez)

Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane, along with teammate Brett Camerota, took second Tuesday in the 4-by-5-kilometer team relay. Ten days earlier, Spillane broke the Americans’ 86-year Olympic shutout in Nordic combined with an individual silver.

Steitz, who stepped down as U.S. coach in 2002 but served as Lodwick’s personal coach at the Turin Games, now works as a management consultant. He remains a godfather figure to the American athletes and their families.

“It kind of came to me at 2 in the morning,” Steitz said Wednesday. “I’m done. I can rest, finally, after 22 years. I don’t feel like I need to worry about this anymore.”

No longer will he wonder whether the path he forged so long ago would lead to the podium, as he had preached so often while seeking money and sponsors for a sport Americans knew little, if anything, about.

“We had to start from scratch in so many ways,” Steitz said. “We had to find the athletes, the coaches, the corporate partners, the sponsorships and put it all together. It takes a long, long time.”

Steitz figured it was folly for athletes in obscure winter sports such as Nordic combined — a ski jump followed by a brutal test of speed over a cross-country track — to succeed by training on their own.

So he developed a program that borrowed heavily from the old Soviet Union’s doctrine: Identify talent early on, move the athletes to a central training facility wean out those who don’t show consistent improvement.

Tough love for a tough task.

His system has been used as a blueprint for other sports, including cross-country skiing, where top athletes Kris Freeman, Andy Newall and Kikkan Randall were recruited as teens to train in Park City, Utah. America’s best biathlete, Tim Burke, is another a product of this pipeline approach.

“That’s the model that we’d like to have for all our sports,” said Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. “You train harder when you train together. You just push each other harder.”

“Tom Steitz was the guy who built the team we have today,” said Demong, now 29. “He also made us buy in to the team approach, and that has become our motto — that we are a band of brothers that feed off and share each other’s successes in training and competition.”

To start out, Steitz insisted all his athletes move to Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he lined up host families.

He discovered Lodwick, now 33, as a local 15-year-old daredevil who was fearless on the jump hill but had never skied a cross-country course in his life. Demong, who was a cerebral 15-year-old from upstate New York, had tremendous endurance and aerobic capacity — but he had never ski jumped. Steitz promised to teach them both.

He didn’t have to go far to find Spillane, now 29, who lived just six houses down from him in Steamboat. Spillane skied and jumped but wasn’t as talented as the others. What he had was an unmatched work ethic.

Good thing, too, because Steitz was about to put them through hell.

“We tried to have the best minds in exercise science come up with the hardest physical training possible,” said Steitz, who also developed performance-based metrics to measure the progress of both athletes and coaches.

He went through dozens of athletes and numerous coaches who couldn’t cut it.

“In professional sports, the first thing we do when a team loses to go get a different coach,” Steitz said. “I brought the same thing to the Olympics.”

In the early days, Steitz found opposition at every corner.

He remembers taking one ragtag bunch to Norway in 1989 and receiving neither a warm welcome nor a dry wax cabin to service the team’s skis, as required. Complaining to his hosts, he says he was told, “You’re Team USA. It’s not going to make a difference. Go wax in the parking lot.’”

It’s a tale he relished relaying to Norwegian King Harald V nine years later, in 1998, when his efforts began to pay off and the Americans won the prestigious King’s Cup.

Tom Steitz poses for a photo in the downtown district at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Tom Steitz poses for a photo in the downtown district at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010. Steitz was too wired to sleep after watching the three men he once recruited as pimple-faced teenagers inspect the sparkling silver medals around their necks. Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane, along with teammate Brett Camerota, took second Tuesday in the 4-by-5-kilometer team relay. Ten days earlier, Spillane broke the Americans' 86-year Olympic shutout in Nordic combined with an individual silver. Steitz, who stepped down as U.S. coach in 2002 but served as Lodwick's personal coach at the Turin Games, now works as a management consultant. He remains a godfather figure to the American athletes and their families. (AP Photo/Marcio Sanchez)

“I think anybody who knows Tom knows he’s passionate and fought tooth and nail to get every resource possible for the sport,” U.S. Nordic director John Farra said.

Dave Jarrett, whom Steitz recruited to ski for the team in 1992, is widely credited with taking the Americans’ training to new heights after succeeding Steitz, who left coaching in 2002 to become founding partner and CEO of Colorado-based 3 Peaks Leadership, a corporate consulting firm.

“I feel strongly that Tom was the foundation layer for our program,” Demong said, “but our recent success also draws a lot upon the physiological training methods and increasingly more efficient programs that Dave Jarrett has put together over these past eight years.”

Steitz concurs.

“He’s done a great job putting the roof over the house, if you will,” Steitz said. “They’ve continued to push and find better ways to do everything. That’s one of the things that we instilled in coaches and athletes, is that you always have to be on the lookout for a way to do your job better.”

Demong said the Americans have fundamentally changed their training techniques under Jarrett.

They do massive amounts of training on the cross-country course while other countries focus on the jump hill. They do weight-training at different times of the year from other teams, and they have adopted tapering schedules from endurance athletes, toning down the work before competitions so they can be at their peak.

“We don’t train like any other team,” Demong said. “They think we’re crazy.”

Spillane said the new training techniques played a major role in the Americans’ dominating the world championships last year and winning two silver medals at the Olympics heading into the third and final race Thursday.

And it bodes well for the future, he suggested.

“Our younger guys are training much more than we did at that age because we have proven that it is possible to do so without burning out,” Spillane said.

Steitz said he feels as though he’s handed things off to Jarrett in their own sort of relay. Only it’s not the last leg of their journey — just the start of something big.

Read the original article at Associated Press

USA Focuses on Medal in Nordic Combined Team Event

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By Vicki Michaelis of USA Today
Published on 2/23/10

Bill Demong

Bill Demong and his U.S. teammates have their eyes on a medal in the Nordic combined team event Tuesday at Whistler.

The U.S. Nordic combined team expected its Olympic medal breakthrough to come at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. And it nearly did.

The USA finished fourth in the team event, achingly close to finally winning the first U.S. medal in the sport, which combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing.

Today in Whistler, the team is heavily favored to win the second U.S. medal in Olympic Nordic combined.

“There is no such thing as a sure thing, but that’s as close as you are going to get here,” former U.S. Nordic combined coach Tom Steitz says.

Johnny Spillane made the U.S. Olympic medal breakthrough more than a week ago, with a silver in the normal hill individual event.

Somewhat overshadowed in the burst of celebration over his history-making performance were the finishes of his U.S. teammates. Todd Lodwick was fourth, Billy Demong sixth.

That two-four-six lineup bodes well for their prospects in the team event.

They also could earn more hardware in the large hill individual event, scheduled for Thursday.

“I know the USA are really good right now,” says France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis, who won gold in the normal hill. “They are in good shape.”

They are in much better shape than they were after their disappointment in 2002.

“It was a goal that we held so tightly to that when we came close to achieving it, instead of being happy that we’d done our best and been that close, we were devastated for months,” Demong says.

Spillane broke the funk with the USA’s first world title in 2003.

With Lodwick and Demong winning titles at last year’s world championships, it seemed the U.S. team also was positioned to do well in the team event at worlds.

But Demong lost his athlete’s bib before the jumping portion of the competition, so he couldn’t compete. The U.S. team was disqualified.

“Johnny laughed hard when I came into the wax cabin,” Demong says. “Todd, I think, was a little bit more miffed, but it was about 10 minutes and then he gave me a big hug. And then he laughed a little and he was like, ‘Let’s go watch this one on TV, it’s over.’

“That ability to get over that showed a level of maturity that I think speaks to the team spirit that we’ve built and also how far we’ve come since 2002.”

Far enough, perhaps, to finally stand on the Olympic medal podium as a team.

“It’s going to be exciting and we’re going to have to do our job,” Demong says, “but I think we have some confidence from the other day (when they finished two-four-six), for sure.”

Read the original article at USA Today