Americans Win Gold And Silver in Nordic Combined

August 9th, 2010 by Dawn

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.

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

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