By John Meyer of The Denver Post
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.
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.
“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.”