How it happened
The Americans and their positions at each leg of the 10-kilometer race Thursday
Leader: Austria’s Bernhard Gruber
2. Johnny Spillane, +34 seconds
6. Billy Demong, +46
13. Todd Lodwick, +1:13
46. Taylor Fletcher, +5:56
■ 1.7-kilometer mark
2. Spillane, +23.9
3. Demong, +24.4
8. Lodwick, +58.6
■ 2.5-kilometer mark
2. Spillane, +13.7
3. Demong, +14.0
8. Lodwick, +51.1
46. Fletcher, +5:33.5
■ 4.2-kilometer mark
2. Demong, +0.8
3. Spillane, +1.3
8. Lodwick, +45.4
■ 5-kilometer mark
2. Demong, +0.6
3. Gruber, +1.0
8. Lodwick, +41.3
45. Fletcher, +5:45.2
■ 6.7-kilometer mark
2. Demong, +0.3
3. Gruber, +0.8
4. Lodwick, +46.2
■ 7.5-kilometer mark
2. Spillane, +0.3
3. Gruber, +0.8
5. Lodwick, +49.4
■ 9.2-kilometer mark
2. Gruber, +0.3
3. Spillane, +0.8
11. Lodwick, +49.2
2. Spillane, +4.0
3. Gruber, +10.8
13. Lodwick, +1:10.3
45. Fletcher, +6:40.6
Whistler, British Columbia The sun peeked through the clouds Thursday just in time to see the best Nordic combined skiers in the world take their place on the podium in Whistler, British Columbia. Two of those skiers were Americans.
Thursday’s cross-country race at the 2010 Winter Olympics included veteran Todd Lodwick being the consummate teammate, doing what he could to hold back the chase pack.
In front, there were two buddies, guys who have spent the better part of the past 15 years together for 300-plus days a year, doing what they’ve done so many times in so many places on so many trails.
So mark this one down, Steamboat Springs.
On Thursday, Billy Demong won a gold medal in the individual large hill Gundersen event, Johnny Spillane took a third silver, and two skiers from the once underfunded and uncompetitive U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team solidified their spots among the best on the planet.
Demong finished in 25 minutes, 32.9 seconds, just four seconds ahead of Spillane and 10.8 in front of Austria’s Bernhard Gruber. Lodwick was 13th, 1:10.3 back, and Taylor Fletcher, competing in his first Nordic combined event at the Olympics, finished 45th, 6:40.6 back.
“It all worked out,” Demong said. “Johnny might be the only person in this room that believes this, but I don’t think either of us cared who got this. … I think it has been building over the past five to 10 years. We knew we had three guys who could medal on any given day. What started it off was Johnny’s silver (on Feb. 14).”
Spillane broke the curse Feb. 14, winning the first U.S. Olympic medal in a Nordic combined event. His silver came in the normal hill individual Gundersen competition.
That might be the thing about this U.S. Nordic combined team. Sure, it’s an individual sport, but the skiers have gone from afterthoughts to gems of the 2010 games as a team. Demong, Spillane and Lodwick battled through adversity in recent years, and they came out better for it. The three, along with Brett Camerota, won silver in Tuesday’s team event, finishing just behind Austria.
“I was somewhat of a leader in my early days,” Lodwick said. “But we’ve definitely passed the torch around. It’s one big torch we all hold. It’s a torch of high expectations, and we’ve lived up to those expectations.”
Spillane was second after Thursday’s jumping portion and would start the 10-kilometer cross-country race 34 seconds behind Gruber. Demong was in sixth and 46 seconds behind, and Lodwick was tied for 13th, 1 minute and 13 seconds back.
Lodwick said he took a gamble with his skis and that when the sun came out on the second lap, he knew a top-three finish was out of his reach. So instead of letting the second lead pack piggyback on him, he held back and helped keep the race a three-skier contest.
“Once I knew third place was out of reach, I wasn’t going to help anybody out,” Lodwick said. “Some of the other countries aren’t happy with what I did, but I’m going to run my race. I told those guys, ‘If I come, I’m coming alone. I’m not going to help out the pack.’”
The weather was a devil during the jumping portion. Swirling winds forced officials to restart the jumping portion after 29 of the 46 skiers already had gone.
Spillane and Demong each had to step off the start block once during their jumps to wait for the wind to get within the correct parameters.
“It’s like driving home roads in icy conditions,” Lodwick said after the jumping portion. “When you’re on the pavement, you know exactly what the car is going to do. Throw ice on it, you don’t know what’s around the next corner.”
In the cross-country race, Spillane and Demong — Spillane says the only person who knows him better is his wife, Hilary — worked together, likening their tactics to a bike race.
“We talked a little bit about it before,” Demong said. “We definitely wanted to go 1-2. And we knew the key would be with teamwork.
“I wanted to start easier and have that speed at the end. On the third lap I asked (Spillane) if he was OK and he said, ‘Give me a little bit,’ so I went in front.
“We wanted to keep it a two- or three-man race and keep it from a 10-man race. So we just did that and reaped the benefits at the finish line.”
By the halfway point, the two knew they’d win medals. All that was left to decide was which colors.
Then, in the eighth kilometer, Spillane fell while rounding a corner, allowing Gruber to take second. But Spillane quickly recovered and got back on Gruber’s heels. Demong sprinted on the last hill, and Spillane did his best to follow suit, passing Gruber in the process and making it clear the Americans would finish 1-2. With 800 meters to go, it was a race between the friendliest of rivals and not too different from the thousands of times the two have battled in the past 15 years.
“Where it comes down to the last portion of a race and we’re sprinting against each other, man, it was fun.” said Spillane, who joined Finland’s Samppa Lajunen, Germany’s Georg Hettich and Austria’s Felix Gottwald as the only Nordic combined athletes to win three medals at the same games since a third event was added in 2002.
So the three skiers at the core of a sport that most Americans knew little about before these games are now part of a remarkable revival. They didn’t just come to these Olympics to compete.
They turned the tide of Nordic combined in the United States — simply, emphatically and with absolute dominance.
“It hit me for two seconds,” Demong said about becoming the first American to win a Nordic combined gold medal. “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that, and I’ll let you know in 10 to 15 years.
“Our team has reached new heights.”