Bill Demong’s historic Winter Olympics gold medal stirred a buzz among recreational nordic skiing junkies throughout the country, especially in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley.
Demong’s gold was the first for the United States in any nordic event - cross-country, ski jumping, biathlon or Nordic combined. And teammate Johnny Spillane won an unprecedented three silvers.
“I went to the bank and they were talking about it,” said Kristen Smith of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association. “At one ski shop, everybody was reliving it play by play. The games aren’t shown live, so we had to wait to see it on TV. And the waiting killed us.”
America’s small but avid Nordic skiing community has been waiting a long time for that moment.
Enthusiasts hope the four Nordic combined medals, including three silvers, won by Americans at the Vancouver Games will kick off an interest in the sport similar to what Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins did for cycling.
“I think people have really found out how exciting our sport can be,” Demong said, “and these games have been a fantastic way for everything to come to fruition.”
The United States had won only two Nordic medals before the Vancouver Games — a silver by Bill Koch in cross-country in 1976 and a bronze by Anders Haugen in ski jumping in 1924. (And Haugen lived and trained in Norway until he was 20.)
“I always say Americans like sports we win at, and we haven’t won in the Nordic sports for a long time,” U.S. cross-country Olympian Kris Freeman said.
While she does not have precise numbers, Smith said the Web site for the MVSTA, an association that maintains 120 miles of cross-country ski trails, saw a significant spike in visitors since the start of the Olympics.
Nordic skiing has long been overshadowed by its high-speed cousin, alpine skiing. American alpine skiers won a record eight medals to outpace the Nordic athletes at the Vancouver games.
But Smith and Nordic athletes believe the time is right to broaden their appeal.
In a time when the economy has reduced families’ recreation budgets, Nordic skiing is significantly cheaper than alpine skiing. In Washington, a season pass to the state’s groomed sno-park trails system is $80 and covers as many people as you can cram into a car.
A lift ticket for alpine skiing at state ski areas costs up to $60 per person a day.
And with the rise in popularity of fitness sports such as cycling, the cardiovascular benefits of cross-country skiing could intrigue the same crowd.
“The culture of endurance sports all tie together,” U.S. Olympic cross-country skier Kikkan Randall said. “We need to get those people who cycle in the summer to ski in the winter.”
According to fitwatch.com, a 170-pound cross-country skier burns 648 calories during an hour of moderate activity, while the same size alpine skier burns 486 in an hour when they aren’t sitting on the lift.
“Road cycling and cross-country skiing are very similar in the sensations you get,” Freeman said before the games. “You hammer everywhere up and down the hills. Lance Armstrong took cycling to the mainstream. If we can have a Lance Armstrong performance, I can totally see cross-country doing the same thing.”
Caveats to ponder: America’s fascination with cycling didn’t happen overnight. Greg LeMond broke trail for Armstrong’s cycling phenomenon by being the first American to with the Tour de France in 1986. Armstrong’s victory over testicular cancer was as essential in building his following as winning the tour a record seven times.