Let’s Win the Oddball Events, Too

August 9th, 2010 by Dawn

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

The Vancouver Games, two days away, may be remembered as a major turning point for the U.S. Winter Olympic movement. Specifically: the moment when this nation of 304 million got over itself and learned how to compete in offbeat sports like Nordic combined.

The emergence of gold-medal contenders Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane in this unheralded sport—a combination of ski jumping and cross-country skiing—and Andy Newell, Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall in cross-country skiing, is the result of a plan scratched out nearly 20 years ago by a winter-sports coach named Tom Steitz.

Bill Demong of the U.S. during the ski-jumping event.

Bill Demong of the U.S. during the ski-jumping event at a World Cup Nordic combined in Italy in January.

Mr. Steitz, who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., knew that Americans could compete in these events. But to do so, he figured he had to lay waste to the oldest Olympic cliché in the books: the ascetic athlete who toils in solitude for years practicing some obscure sport in the hopes of achieving one singular moment in the spotlight.

His plan was a system of constant oversight and accountability that was uncompromising and almost Orwellian in its outlook but has, so far, shown great promise as a way of boosting the U.S. medal count. “These kids don’t have any more talent than the guys who came before them,” said Mr. Steitz, who coached the U.S. Nordic combined team from 1988 to 2002. “We just had a better system and a better plan.”

Mr. Steitz is a management consultant now, but he remains a godfather figure to the Nordic combined athletes he first got to know as pimply teenagers, as well as to much of the staff at the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, which later adapted his plan for Nordic combined success as the template for success in all sports. (Tim Burke, who’s a contender in biathlon, and Erin Hamlin, a contender in women’s luge, were developed under a system similar to what Mr. Steitz developed for the Nordic combined).

When he came up with the idea of beating the Austrians, Norwegians and Germans who literally grow up on Nordic skis, Mr. Steitz was one of the only believers. Luke Bodensteiner, the vice president of athletics for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, competed for the U.S. in the 1992 and 1994 Olympics in cross-country skiing. In 1993, he met a Norwegian woman he later married. “Her mother knew more about cross-country skiing than any coach I’d ever had,” Mr. Bodensteiner said.

At that time, investment in Nordic sports by the USSA and the U.S. Olympic Committee was minimal, and respect abroad was even harder to come by. In the early 1990s, Mr. Steitz said the USSA gave him $50,000 to cover expenses from October through March, when his 20-member team spent most of the time training and competing in Europe. They traveled with sleeping bags and had a rotation of who would sleep on hotel-room floors. At one event in Norway, organizers didn’t even bother to give the U.S. squad a heated tent like all the other teams received to tend to their equipment.

“When we complained they told us it wouldn’t matter in terms of the results anyway,” Mr. Steitz recalled.

Mr. Steitz knew it was absurd to think that a cross-country-skiing prodigy would appear out of the blue. So he decided to create a factory, albeit a small one, where the focus would be on finding and bringing together raw teenagers, then teaching them a largely obscure skill over the course of a decade the way the former Soviet machine did.

When Mr. Steitz found Mr. Lodwick, the Vancouver medal contender, he was a fearless 15-year-old who liked to hang around the Howelsen Hill ski jump in downtown Steamboat. He had no idea how to race on cross-country skis. During Mr. Lodwick’s first summer of training, Mr. Steitz made him trek on his dry-land skis to the ski jump each morning to hone his racing technique while everyone else rode in the team van.

“I didn’t get into the sport to make a billion dollars, it was something to do to have fun, and I just ended up doing it pretty seriously,” said Mr. Lodwick, now 33.

Todd Lodwick at a Nordic Combined in France in January.

Todd Lodwick at a Nordic Combined in France in January.

Mr. Steitz found another of this year’s contenders, Mr. Spillane, in Steamboat—living just six houses down the street from his own home. He said Mr. Spillane, now 29, didn’t have a lot of natural talent but trained harder than any young teenager he’d known. Another member of the team, Mr. Demong, was a solid 15-year-old junior level cross-country skier from upstate New York when Mr. Steitz found him—but he wasn’t much of a jumper.

Mr. Steitz made everyone on his team move to Steamboat, where he found host families for the kids (in 2002 the team moved to Park City, Utah). Training took place all year, instead of during periodic camps.

Each athlete’s progress was carefully measured and tracked. Simply being the best American at the discipline wasn’t enough to maintain a spot on the national team. If an up-and-coming athlete wasn’t progressing at the same rate as the up-and-coming athletes in Europe, Mr. Steitz would cut him, along with the coaches whose charges weren’t producing required results. Searching for the right mix, Mr. Steitz churned through 10 coaches in 10 years and dozens of athletes. “We placed bets on a few young guys, and fortunately they paid off,” Mr. Steitz says.

Mr. Steitz’s Nordic squad had little money, especially when compared with the government-funded programs in Europe. But in 1996, Mr. Lodwick, then 19, scored Nordic combined’s first breakthrough with a win at the junior World Championships in Italy. Later that year, Bill Marolt began his tenure as chief executive of the USSA, and during his first week, Mr. Steitz drove to Utah and, over sandwiches, outlined his program on a luncheonette napkin, showing how the success and progress could be measured from an early age. A day later, Mr. Marolt signed on. By 2000, the USSA was spending about $600,000 a year on Mr. Steitz’s Nordic combined squad and using the basic underpinnings of his system as a model for other sports. Mr. Steitz augmented that funding with a half-million dollars in private donations.

After seeing Mr. Steitz’s success, the USSA in 2000 developed a residency program near its headquarters in Park City for its cross-country team. Ms. Randall and Messrs. Freeman and Newell all moved there as teenagers and spend much of the next eight years training under the close supervision of USSA coaches.

Depending on sponsorships, the USSA now spends $550,000 to $850,000 a year on Nordic combined, according to Mr. Bodensteiner, and has about 80 kids, teenage and younger, in a development pipeline. In addition, team members benefit from some $800,000 the USSA spends each year at its Center of Excellence in Park City.

“If you’re young and on the way up,” says John Farra, the current Nordic director, “we’re going to want to be with you every day.”

Just as Mr. Steitz would have it.

Write to Matthew Futterman at matthew.futterman@wsj.com
Read the original article at The Wall Street Journal

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