Tactical team skiing helps Demong win historic individual gold medal
Billy Demong gave the U.S. its first Olympic gold medal in a Nordic event
Johnny Spillane earned the silver medal, coming in four seconds behind
Teammate Todd Lodwick helped by slowing the group chasing the leaders
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A great Nordic combined team requires speed, stamina, strategy and sacrifice. The U.S. squad can put a big check mark in all four categories. That was never more apparent than on Thursday, when the American men capped their Olympic coming-out party by taking the top two medals in the individual large hill/10K event. Billy Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., became America's first Olympic gold medalist in Nordic combined, finishing the cross-country portion of the competition in 25 minutes, 32.9 seconds, four seconds ahead of silver medalist Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Demong and Spillane, who won what became a three-man race with bronze medalist Bernhard Gruber of Austria, provided the speed, stamina and strategy. The subtle sacrifice came from Todd Lodwick, the third member of the trio that has made Nordic history for the U.S. Lodwick, part of the six-man group that was chasing the three leaders for most of the race, did his best to keep the posse at a pace that was well behind his two teammates.
Asked if he was "blocking and tackling" that second group, Lodwick nodded. "Once I knew third place was probably out of reach, I wasn't going to help those other guys by pushing the pace," he said. "I know some of the guys from other countries aren't too happy with me right now. I told Billy and Johnny beforehand, 'If I'm going to come, I'm going to come alone.' I wasn't going to bring the pack with me."
It might not have mattered, because Demong and Spillane had a good thing going up at the front. They were at least 30 to 40 seconds ahead of everyone except Gruber during the second half of the race. But it symbolized what the Americans have been saying throughout these Games -- that they take the word team seriously. "Todd did a really good job today in kind of giving himself up to help keep the wolves off our heels," Demong said. "It's not surprising. Any one of the three of us would do that for the other two."
A gold medal in the final Nordic combined event was really the only way the Americans could have topped themselves after the first two events, in which they fulfilled their goal of winning the first U.S. medal in the sport -- Spillane's silver in the individual normal hill/5K -- and then took another silver in the normal hill/4x5K team competition. In both races they were overtaken down the stretch to fall short of the gold, but not on Thursday. It must have been music to the U.S. team's ears when Gruber, after not being able to stay with Demong and Spillane as they pushed toward the finish, said: "The Americans were just too strong."
"In a lot of ways you saw the complete growth process here in the Olympics," said U.S. coach Dave Jarrett. "From getting on the medal stand to competing for the gold to finally winning the gold."
The entire U.S. Olympic team is the beneficiary of that maturation. "People said if the U.S. wanted to win the medal count, the Nordic sports had to step up," Lodwick said. "I'm not sure if we could have stepped up any more than this."
While Lodwick was helping keep the pursuers at bay, Demong and Spillane worked as a two-man team up front -- exchanging the lead so they could draft off each other and talking constantly to keep each other apprised of Gruber's position. "It was like a bike race in a lot of ways," Spillane said. "Same kind of strategy. Everything came together perfectly."
The same could be said of the Vancouver Games as a whole for the Nordic combined team, which not only surpassed its goals with four medals in three events, but undoubtedly inspired some future competitors watching at home. "There are going to be a lot more little kids jumping off couches now, saying 'Look at me, mom,'" said former U.S. coach Tom Steitz. "Some of those kids might wind up winning more medals for us someday."
That may be the lasting legacy for Demong, 29, and Lodwick and Spillane, both 33. That, and the way they exemplified teamwork, not only in these Games but throughout their careers, in which they trained and competed together, pushed and inspired each other for years. As Demong took his last few strides toward his golden finish, he was clear of the pack, although he wasn't aware of it. "I didn't know until I crossed the line," he said. "In my head I was imagining that there was somebody right next to me, keeping me going."
In a sense, there was -- his team. Just like always.