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Spillane's silver brings validation to U.S. Nordic combined team

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- They were in this together. Johnny Spillane, Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong have been the Big Three of the U.S. Nordic combined program for years, slowly but steadily elevating the U.S. from the depths of the world rankings to respectability on the international stage. They won world championships. They rose individually in the World Cup rankings. All that was missing was an Olympic medal.

Until Sunday. Spillane finally earned the hardware -- a silver medal in the 10km normal hill event -- that the Americans had vowed to win. It was the first Olympic podium appearance for the U.S. in the history of the sport, and it represented validation not just for Spillane, whose time of 25:47.5 was 0.4 of a second behind gold medalist Jason Lamy Chappuis of France, but also for Lodwick, the fourth-place finisher, and Demong, who came in sixth. Sunday was one of those rare moments when two athletes who just missed the medal stand were completely credible when they said they were ecstatic for the teammate who did medal. "I'm thrilled for Johnny, and I'm thrilled for all of us, everyone in the U.S. system," said Demong. "This is the monkey off our backs. It was the final step in the process. Over the last 10 years each of us, Johhny, Todd and myself, has carried this program at some point. So today it feels like we all won."

And there may be more victories to come. Placing three finishers in the top six on Sunday bodes well for the Americans in the team event on Feb. 23. Two days later comes the individual large hill competition, in which Spillane, for one, considers himself more proficient. "The confidence we got from today is huge," Lodwick said. "There's no more thinking that we can medal. Now we know we can."

Suddenly the U.S. goes from having never won an Olympic medal to contending for multiple trips to the podium. To appreciate how remarkable that is, you need to understand how far the Americans had to come to achieve Sunday's silver, and we're not just talking about the 44-second lead Spillane overcame at the start of the cross-country skiing portion of the competition. (In Nordic combined, each of the competitors performs one ski jump, which is scored on the basis of distance and technical merit. Then comes a 10-kilometer cross-country race, with the highest-ranked jumper starting first and each successive competitor starting at various intervals behind him, depending on how many points he earned on his jump.) The U.S. was once the 98-pound weakling of Nordic combined, with the likes of Finland, Norway, Germany and Austria kicking snow in their faces. In the team event at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the Americans finished last -- so far behind that they were still out on the course after the medalists' press conference had ended.

Former coach Tom Steitz remembers a meet in Norway in 1989 in which he discovered that the event organizers hadn't provided the Americans with the usual heated huts and waxing facilities to prepare them for the competition. "They said it didn't matter because we weren't going to come close to winning anyway," Steitz says. "They told us to go wax in the parking lot."

Not long after that, Steitz discovered the athletes who would help lead the transformation of the U.S. program: Spillane and Demong, both 29, and Lodwick, 33. They all entered the U.S. system as teenagers and endured the bumps and bruises -- literally -- that led to Sunday's triumph. Demong was forced to take a year off in 2002 after he fractured his skull and facial bones diving into a shallow pool. Lodwick was cycling in France last summer as part of his training when he collided with a car. No one was seriously hurt, but the bike was totaled and the car's windshield shattered.

None of that compares to the injury problems suffered by Spillane, who has had four shoulder surgeries and two knee operations. "There are orthopedic surgeons who are set for life off Johnny alone," says Steitz. How bad was Spillane's luck? After coming home from one of his surgeries, he found that one of his dogs had died, and as he dug the grave for the pet he ruptured a disc in his back. "There are definitely times you feel dispiritied," he said. "There are times you wonder if you're ever going to get where you want to go. But you just keep pushing on, because you love it."

That's exactly what the three Americans did on Sunday -- they kept pushing on. Demong, 24th after the jumping competition, mounted a stirring charge in the cross-country, closing the gap from 1:20 behind the lead to less than :08 at one point before running out of gas. Lodwick, who was second at the start of the cross-country, 34 seconds back, held the lead for much of the race and was in front down the homestretch before the 23-year-old Chappuis -- who was born in Missoula, Mont., and moved to France at age 5 -- overtook him down the stretch. It was the culmination of a smart tactical race by Chappuis, who drafted behind the various leaders and conserved his energy for the final push.

Spillane, in the lead with about 100 meters to go, appeared destined for the gold medal until he too was passed by Chappuis as the pair desperately streaked to the finish. It might have been devastating under other circumstances, but not on Sunday. "You have to understand -- we've lived and trained together for 300 days a year for about the last 10 years," said Demong. "We've pushed each other for it seems like forever. A day like today makes it all worth it."

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