For Steitz, Nordic Team’s Success is Personal

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By John F. Russell for Steamboat Pilot
Published on 2/23/10

Whistler, British Columbia — There was no possible way Tom Steitz could hide his excitement as he watched the Feb. 14 Nordic combined event unfold inside the cross-country venue at Whistler Olympic Park.

“I was losing my mind during the race,” Steitz said. “We were finally going to get the job done.”

Tom Steitz cheers at one of the Nordic combined first World Cup events in the 1990s.

Tom Steitz cheers at one of the Nordic combined first World Cup events in the 1990s.

Steitz, who coached the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team from 1988 to 2002, paced back and forth as his former athletes raced toward Olympic glory and American sporting history. He pumped his arms in the air, and he tried to provide cell phone play-by-play to his wife back home in Steamboat Springs.

By the time the Americans came around for the second lap of the race, the smile on Steitz’s face stretched from ear to ear.

The Americans were 1-2 at that point, and all the years of hard work, planning and more than a few setbacks were about to pay off. The former coach and longtime supporter of one of America’s least understood sports was elated.

“He was supposed to be telling me what was going on, but he just couldn’t do it. He was way too excited, and the race was way too close to call,” said Kathy Steitz, Tom’s wife. “He was like, ‘Johnny’s in the lead, he’s going to win … wait … he just got passed … wait …’”

Steitz retired as head coach of the team after U.S. Ski Team officials chose to move the Nordic combined program from Steamboat Springs to Park City, Utah, after the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. But the former coach has never wandered too far from the project he helped start.

He served as a private coach to Todd Lodwick leading up to the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and he’s spending the 2010 Olympics working as an analyst for NBC and Universal Sports.

Although current Nordic combined coach Dave Jarrett and a host of other club coaches and others have helped the U.S. team achieve the success it’s currently enjoying, Steitz deservingly gets much of the credit for getting the ball rolling in the 1990s and turning around a struggling program.

It was Steitz who convinced Lodwick, then a 16-year-old debating between Nordic combined and special jumping, to join the team despite having never really cross-country skied.

“I said, ‘Hey kid, I’ll hand you this U.S. Ski Team jacket and take you to Europe in two weeks, but if things don’t work out you’re gone,’” Steitz recalled. “He learned to cross-county ski at a training camp in Innsbruck, Austria. I would roller ski with him to the jump hill while the rest of the team rode in the van.”

Steitz said Lodwick had a gung-ho, take-no-prisoners attitude that he liked. He was great on the jump hill, and the coach thought he was just what the team needed to get on its feet. Teaching him to cross-country ski, well, that would be the easy part.

During the next decade, Lodwick grew into the most consistent Nordic combined skier in U.S. history, and he formed a foundation for the developing American team and the future stars Steitz was working to recruit.

Steitz pulled together a group of development skiers that included Johnny Spillane, Billy Demong, Carl Van Loan, Jed Hinkley, Matt Dayton and Kris Erickson.

The team had great success at the Junior World Championships, bringing home gold and silver in the team event for the United States. Van Loan competed at the 2006 Olympics, Spillane won a World Championship in 2003, and Demong earned several World Championship medals, including a gold, in 2009.

At the time, Steitz said he was hesitant to give the team an official name.

He said the U.S. Ski Team had named several development teams in the past, and they went on to little or no success. He told this group that if they wanted a name, they would have to earn it.

“I told them they were a blob of talent but that they had not done anything yet. When they did something, then they would get a name,” Steitz said.

That blob included Demong, a strong cross-country skier from New York, and Spillane, who Steitz said didn’t exhibit a lot of natural talent but had one of the best work ethics he had ever seen. Demong and Spillane eventually separated from the blob, and along with Lodwick have formed the core of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team.

Demong remembers those early days and recognizes the role they played in where the team is today.

“I think for sure it started even back in 1996, when Bard Elden came over and coached what we called the ‘blob team,’” Demong said. “They brought a bunch of juniors together to follow in Todd’s footsteps and to help build a team for Todd. I think that was the original intention, but we quickly bonded to become one big team and all push each other.

“The last eight years it has definitely been a team that has just bonded together and helped build off each other’s results in both training and competition. … I think Tom (Steitz) made us buy into the team approach way back when, and we have all sort of embodied that in our careers as skiers. We are all devoted to the team effort and the team results.”

Through it all, Steitz had to fight for funding. At times, he said he was getting more money from private donors — unlikely sources such as Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., an Alpine ski resort company — than he was from the U.S. Ski Team.

He said the team also received tremendous support from the community of Steamboat Springs and the city of Steamboat Springs. He also went through a number of coaches and athletes as a head coach — he demanded hard work, dedication and results. If the team wasn’t earning top results, it moved on, trying to find the right formula.

Steitz even put his own fate on the line many times, often getting funding with a promise of top results. He implemented one of the first residency programs, which required that athletes, coaches and staff live in Steamboat Springs to be closer to the Nordic combined team, which had adopted a year-round approach to training. Steitz said it wasn’t a popular move but that it has since been adopted by many of the U.S. Ski Team’s programs.

“People thought I was insane,” Steitz recalled. “There were times when I would wake up in a hotel room somewhere in Eastern Europe — it seems like the low points always came in places like Austria, after we got our butts kicked — and thought that I must be insane.”

Steitz retired from coaching in 2002.

The team has had several coaches since then, including Elden, Lasse Ottesen, and now Dave Jarrett. Jarrett, who skied for the team under Steitz, worked his way up as an assistant and has been able to take the team to a new level since taking the lead in April 2008.

Todd Wilson, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s Nordic director and a former Nordic combined Olympian, said there were lots of people responsible for getting America’s Nordic programs back on track. But he said it was Steitz who played one of the biggest roles in getting it started.

That much seemed clear two weekends ago in Whistler as Steitz watched the Americans race toward the finish line in the first Nordic combined event of the 2010 Olympics. He said a sense of validation pumped through his blood as Spillane crossed the finish line in second. And he felt joy when he realized the plan he started back in the early 1990s finally paid off in silver.

Read the original article at Steamboat Pilot

Business Coach Returns to Olympic Roots

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By: Nanette Byrnes of Business Week
Published on 2/17/10

When Tom Steitz took over as Head Coach for the US Olympic Nordic Combined Skiing Team in 1988, it had just finished dead last that year’s Games. He had little money or athletic talent to work with. It was, as he says “a challenge”.

One his team has now met. 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.

Steitz is no longer the team coach. Now he’s a leadership consultant who works for big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Hewlett-Packard, applying the lessons he learned on the field of play to the board room.

He’s in Vancouver this month, and still a welcome adviser to the athletes if no longer their top coach. In the mornings, Steitz says he’s up early dressed in sweats giving speeches on communication to the athletes in the Olympic Village. By cocktail hour he’s in a sports jacket giving the same talk to the corporate executives and clients of two of his firm 3 Peaks Leadership’s major clients, Nortel and Avaya, the communications network provider of the 2010 Olympic Games.

Nordic Combined isn’t the best known of the winter olympic sports. It lacks the X-games aesthetic of snowboarding, the ambiguity of judged sports like figure skating, and even the frightening dynamic of Alpine skiers throwing themselves down the side of a mountain. But the team’s getting good air time in Vancouver. Steitz attributes that to the combination of “ski jumping’s power quickness and dare devil aspect with the rigors and endurance of cross country.”

“Building an Olympic team,” Steitz says, “is as complex in execution as any of the business plans I’ve seen in the Fortune 500.”

Looking back now he can identify a few key moves.

* Out with the old – 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. He recruited Tod Lodwick, a star of this year’s team, in 1993 though he’d never cross country skied in his life, because he fit in well culturally and was a promising athlete.

* Set goals – Just attending an Olympics couldn’t be anyone’s goal, 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.

* Togetherness — 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. 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. So when Steitz is working with a corporate client one of the metrics he uses to measure his own performance is how likely the talent is to take those headhunter calls.

Now Steitz is adjusting to his team’s success. “Emotionally I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said shortly after the first medal win in an interview by mobile phone from Vancouver. “It’s tough to summarize those emotions.” A few minutes after Spillane had crossed the finish line, his mother grabbed Steitz and they cried together, as the photographers covering the event snapped away. “It was as much a sense of relief as a high,” says Steitz. “For 22 years we’ve labored to get this job done.”

Read the original article on BusinessWeek

Let’s Win the Oddball Events, Too

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

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

Whipping boys U.S. ready for last laugh

August 9th, 2010 by Bridgette Christiansen

By David Ljunggren of Reuters
Published on 2/9/10

(Reuters) – Of all the humiliations the once hopeless U.S. Nordic Combined team had to endure some 20 years ago, it is an insult delivered by Norwegian officials that still rankles with former coach Tom Steitz.

At the time, the Americans were widely regarded as a joke in the sport that combines ski jumping and cross country racing.

Before one race in Norway in 1989, Steitz discovered the event organizers had not provided his athletes with the usual heated huts and waxing facilities.

“They looked at me and said ‘You’re the United States, what does it matter? Go wax in the parking lot,” he told Reuters.

Just to rub in the misery, it was raining.

The idea of the demoralized and underfunded U.S. team ever succeeding at Nordic Combined once seemed like a sad joke.

Yet now, after two decades of relentless hard work, the team boasts two world champions and finally looks ready to grab its first ever Olympic medals.

NO HOPES, NO MONEY

Steitz took over in the wake of the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, when the medalists’ news conference for the Nordic Combined team event ended before the Americans had crossed the finishing line.

“We had no hopes to do anything, we had no money, we had no plan. We didn’t have the right athletes, we didn’t have the right coaches,” said Steitz.

Just 11 days into his first trip with the team he flew home early, telling his bosses: “There is nothing I want to keep.”

The United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) gave him a free hand and Steitz worked for almost 15 years to turn the no-hope Americans into real competitors.

“Tom took the bull by the horns after the Olympics in Calgary and started building this and had a take-no-prisoners attitude … a lot of credit needs to be given to Tom for setting the stage,” said John Farra, Nordic director at the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.

Steitz unearthed athletes such as promising youngster Todd Lodwick. He also set up a permanent training facility in Colorado and sought private funding to help cover the huge costs of training, equipping and preparing a top team.

“If you take an Indy car driver that works on his car by himself … it doesn’t matter how good a driver he is. He’s still going to get his butt kicked compared to the guys who have a bunch of money,” said Lodwick, 33, who won two golds at last year’s world championships.

Lodwick’s performance, along with that of fellow gold medalist Billy Demong, have boosted expectations to such an extent that failure to win a medal is almost unthinkable.

“To watch this team go from just kind of showing at up the big events to being contenders … it’s been a pretty incredible experience,” Lodwick told reporters on Tuesday.

Demong said that when he went to school “it was at that point where we were like ‘Americans aren’t good at this’ so if anybody ever popped the top 30 we were celebrating. Now … kids say ‘Oh, you got fourth, what’s your problem?”

Steitz will be in Whistler to support the team but is no longer in charge. He quit in 2002 and now coaches business leaders, often citing his sporting experiences.

One moment he cherishes was a reception hosted by Norwegian King Harald in 1998 to mark a notable U.S. victory.

Steitz bluntly told the monarch: “Hey King, do you want to know what one of my motivations was? Let me tell you what you guys did to me in 1989.”

Read the original article at Reuters

When the Competition is Least Expecting It…

March 2nd, 2010 by Tom Steitz

Gold for U.S. Nordic Combined - Bill DemongWhether you are an athlete, a corporate executive, or a fledgling entrepreneur, watching the Olympic games demonstrated – over and over again – the power of inspiration, commitment, and following your dreams.

One word that describes what the Olympics are all about: EMOTION.

I have seen athletes celebrate by expressing emotion long held inside.  I’ve seen moms and dads leap for joy and scream their lungs out.  I’ve seen grown men cry and weep like infants.

People I have not spoken with in twenty years have called me and broken into tears.  I’ve had athletes remind me of their Olympic moment (or near miss) more than 25 years ago and they still choke up when telling the story.

The playing fields of the Olympics are truly the sites of some of the most emotional experiences these athletes and their families will ever experience.

I recall one Olympian telling me, six months after the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 in a discussion filled with tears, that he would never allow anything in his life to matter that much again besides his family.  He won gold here in Vancouver!

And so it comes to a close.  We all go back to our day jobs and our day-to-day lives.  The 17 days when the world came together in peace and nearly 100 countries all ate and slept in the same place, comes to an end.  For many Olympians the good and bad moments will be vividly be remembered every day for the rest of their lives.  I know of very few things that matter so much to so many, and I feel privileged to have been part of it again.

I believe that these Olympics have somehow made the world a better place, and given us all more hope and optimism for the future.  Here in Vancouver the games lived up to the slogan that was created for 2010, “Go World!”  Now the torch passes to Russia, and we look forward to Sochi in 2014.

I walk away with “my boys” winning seven Olympic medals!  I can remember when the rest of the world thought the U.S. Nordic Combined Team was a funny joke.  Well, we sure showed them the U.S. team can laugh too – and compete with the best of them.

Still, it’s not the medals I will treasure the most, but the memories of the struggle and triumphs it took to get here.

I feel there is an important lesson for those of us in the business world to take away from these games:  Look what can happen when a team is inspired, goal-oriented, and committed to stay the course, even if the rest of the world is laughing.  When the competition is least expecting it, you may just pass them by.

Gold, Silver and Incredible Team Work

February 25th, 2010 by Tom Steitz

Bill Demong wins gold, Johnny Spillane silverAfter twenty two years, gold and silver on the same day.  Words can not capture it.  Four medals for the Nordic Combined in 10 days – after zero in the previous eighty-six years.

When I spoke to Billy Demong’s mom right after the race she reminded me of the time I sat her down and said that as a coach to her son “I am going to put you through the wildest emotional roller coaster you could possibly imagine.”  She then pointed out to me that I had also told her it was possible some day her son could win Olympic gold.

Today was perhaps the finest example of team work I have ever seen at the Olympics.  Bill Demong took gold and Johnny Spillane took silver in large part because Todd Lodwick led a pack of ten very strong skiers who were set to try to ski Billy and Johnny down.  Todd sacrificed his own medal chances by putting the brakes on that pack several times, by surging to the front and then slowing the pack down.  As Todd came into the stadium in a possible race for fourth, he then coasted in high-fiving the spectators in the crowd on his way to crossing the finish line.  Talk about commitment to the greater good!!

I don’t know if there is a gold bullet, but if there is I’ll find it and add it to my growing collection of “silver bullets” to commemorate this incredible day.

More to come…