U.S. breaks out in obscure sport

Four medals in Nordic combined

VANCOUVER, B.C. – For the briefest moment, Billy Demong stood absolutely still, closing his eyes, exhaling.

Only then did he step onto the highest part of the podium, the spot reserved for the winner.

“I didn’t expect to win the medal until it was over,” he said. “I’m just starting to let it sink in a bit.”

Let it sink in that he had won gold in the large hill event of the Nordic combined at Whistler Olympic Park on Thursday.

Let it sink in that his victory, along with a second-place finish by teammate Johnny Spillane, capped a historic two weeks for the U.S. in this obscure sport that combines ski jumping with cross-country skiing.

Once a joke in the world of Nordic combined – and 0-for-history in the Winter Games – the Americans come away from Vancouver with a startling four medals in three events.

That includes three silvers for Spillane, who became only the fourth athlete to reach the podium in his sport’s three events at the same Olympics.

“It was something we always knew would happen,” he said. “It was just a matter of getting it done.”

Demong, Spillane and teammate Todd Lodwick had toiled at Nordic combined for more than a decade, living and training together some 300 days a year, enduring what Lodwick’s wife, Sunny, described as “a degree of frustration.”

“Over the last 10 years, all of us have carried this team at some point,” Demong explained. “We all drag each other along wherever we go.”

The trio began winning internationally over the last few years, raising hopes for something big in Vancouver.

Spillane started with silver in the normal hill event last week. Then the trio, with help from relative newcomer Brett Camerota, took silver in the team event on Tuesday.

They might have won gold, but Demong was outsprinted by Mario Stecher of Austria in the home stretch of the cross-country relay.

It wasn’t the first time the New York native had dealt with disappointment.

A diving accident in Germany left him with a fractured skull and caused him to miss the 2003 World Cup season. At the world championships last year, he misplaced the numbered bib all competitors must wear and was disqualified, costing the Americans a shot at team gold.

“It’s my fault,” Demong told reporters. “I’m an idiot.”

So Thursday offered a shot at redemption in an event in which everyone figured to be chasing Jason Lamy Chappuis of France, who had won gold in the normal hill.

But Lamy Chappuis and other favorites fell behind in the ski jump, undone by shifting winds.

“It’s like a lottery,” Lamy Chappuis said. “Some guys got good conditions, other guys got bad conditions.”

By finishing first in the jump, Bernhard Gruber of Austria earned more than a 30-second head start over Spillane, in second, and Demong, in sixth, for the ensuing staggered-start race.

But the Americans quickly made up ground, joining Gruber in an exclusive pack that broke away from the field.

“We just kept taking turns, waiting, and we shared the lead,” Spillane said of the fast-and-slow strategy against Gruber. “We did some big accelerations and eventually he was going to break.”

The turning point came just before the last hill, when Demong sprinted furiously. Spillane, in third after a slip, followed but Gruber – on his way to bronze – had no answer.

This time, Demong sailed into the stadium with a full head of steam, winning by four seconds, explaining: “I left enough in the tank.”

Enough to put a winning end on an unexpected two weeks.

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