Around the final curve they came, Austrian skier Mario Stecher and American Bill Demong, battling for Olympic gold in the Nordic combined team event. The Austrians, a longtime Nordic power, were chasing their second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the four-man competition. The Americans, just rising to prominence in the Nordic, were trying to fulfill a fantasy. As Stecher shifted into a higher gear and pulled away from Demong to win the gold, it was clear that although the U.S. can run with the big dogs now, the Americans aren't quite ready to be the leader of the pack.
But hey, they have to leave themselves something to shoot for, right?
The team of Demong, Brett Camerota, Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane won the -- do not dare say "settled for" in their presence -- silver medal on Tuesday, further cementing the U.S.'s arrival as a major force in the sport after decades of being far behind the leaders, eating the rest of the world's snow. Austria, on the strength of two strong final legs by Stecher and one of the legends of the sport, 34-year-old Felix Gottwald, took the gold in the event, which consists of ski jumping followed by a five-kilometer relay, in 48 minutes, 55.6 seconds, 5.2 seconds ahead of the Americans. Germany took the bronze, 14.3 seconds in back of the U.S. "The end didn't go exactly as we wanted it, but there's no bittersweet feeling at all," Demong said. "I don't think any of us could possibly be disappointed with the result today."
The Americans had already broken through with their first Olympic medal ever in the Nordic combined last Sunday, when Spillane won the silver in the normal hill individual event. But he considered Tuesday's medal more satisfying, because it symbolized the across-the-board improvement of the U.S. team. "It took everybody," he said. "You can't win a medal in this event with one good skier or two good skiers. It took all of us doing our jobs. On all four legs we were right there, at or near the lead. No weak links. That's where we are in this sport now. No weak links."
There was a time when the U.S. was all but laughed at in the Nordic combined. Former U.S. coach Tom Steitz remembers the late '80s, when the Americans sometimes finished so far behind powers like Germany, Austria, Finland and Norway that he was afraid event organizers would have taken down the clocks and wiped away the finish line before his team got there. But they have risen steadily since then, albeit with a few bumps in the road. At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City they finished fourth, a little more than a minute away from the bronze. Four years later in Turin they fell back to seventh, which led to some sniping within the team when Lodwick confronted teammate Carl Van Loan, calling him the team's weakest link.
At the 2006 World Championships, things turned bizarre. The U.S. was in position to medal, and perhaps win, the team event when Demong couldn't find his bib during the ski jumping phase and the Americans had to drop out. He later discovered that the bib was inside his uniform. "Have you ever looked all over for your car keys and finally realized they were in your hand?" he said. "Feels kind of like that, only way worse."
The team silver, then, was redemption for all of that. "Mission accomplished," Spillane said. "After all we've been through, especially Billy, Todd and I, to hang a silver medal around our necks is just unbelievable."
As satisfying as the silver was, the Americans realize that they almost had a do-you-believe-in-miracles moment. They were in second place, narrowly behind Finland, after the ski-jumping portion, and began the cross-country phase with a major boost from Brett Camerota, the only first-time Olympian among the U.S. four. The U.S. was hoping that Camerota could stay within reasonable distance of the lead, but he actually handed Lodwick a 2.6 second lead for the second leg. Lodwick maintained a slight edge, handing a .4 second advantage over the Austrians to Spillane. But Gottwald, whose seven Olympic medals (including three gold), are the most by any Nordic combined athlete, turned the race in Austria's favor on the third leg. His power on the uphill portions of the course helped him pull away for a 14.1-second lead over the U.S.
That meant Demong had to work to make up ground against Brecher on the final leg and would not be able to conserve energy for the dash to the finish, which was not good news for the Americans, since Brecher has historically had a better finishing sprint than Demong. "Mario has beaten me in other sprints this year and I knew that his glide was going to be a little bit better than mine coming on the downhill," Demong said. "I tried my best on the uphill to get a gap and hold on, but I just couldn't put much distance between the two of us."
The U.S. has on more chance to go for gold in the large hill event on Thursday, where Demong is the reigning world champion. Maybe the best measure of how far the U.S. program has come is that now the medal stand is expected. Aspirations and expectations have been stepped up to the golden level.
That's fine with the American team, but they also want to savor what they've done so far. "I can't wait to go to bed tonight," Demong said, "with that silver medal around my neck."