Every skier should have a victory lap. The way long-distance runners trot, wave and hold up a flag for an extra 400 meters after their races, there should be a triumphant way for champs on skis to do something other than wave their skis to fulfill a sponsor mandate. This should be a journey of well-earned joy.
That's kind of how Bill Demong sees his hopeful journey to his fifth Olympics at 33. No U.S. winter athlete in any discipline has been there more. "It's isn't quite carefree this season," Demong says, "but it's close."
Demong earned his chance to smell the roses by making history in Vancouver, where he became the first U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in the Nordic combined, the misunderstood event sport that combines scores from ski jumping and cross-country skiing. It tests athletes' ability to stay calm in moments of fear and to push forward when the limbs and internal fuel tank tell them to take it easy.
Not only did Demong become the first from his country to win his discipline at the Olympics, he pulled off his version of the Phil Mahre hat trick. The original triple read like this: On Feb. 19, 1984, Mahre was a veteran of the U.S. alpine team closing out a stellar career that included 27 World Cup wins and three consecutive overall season titles, while lacking only an Olympic gold medal. On what turned out to be the final Olympic race, Mahre won the slalom event at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, as his twin brother, Steve, took second. After he finished, Phil learned his wife, Holly, had given birth that same morning to a son back in Yakima, Wash.. To complete the hat trick several hours later, Phil carried the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies.
Demong's trifecta had a different twist in Vancouver. He rallied from sixth place after the jumping portion of the ten-kilometer large hill to win the competition by four seconds, ahead of teammate Johnny Spillane. Then soon after the medal ceremony, Demong proposed to his girlfriend, Katie Koczynski, and later in the day, he learned he would follow in Mahre's footsteps by carrying the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies just as Mahre had done 26 years earlier.
It seemed like an explosion of good fortune, but Demong earned it in an obscure sport with a gradual collection of baby steps.
"I don't really recall a time when I had one huge unexpected improvement," says Demong, a gold medalist at the World Junior Championships in 1999. "Progression was always slow and steady. I was never going to win a world cup without first being in the top ten. I needed to build a platform after 2002" -- he had a fourth place finish at the Olympics in Salt Lake City -- "In order to be a realistic medal threat, you need to work your way up. You don't just flip a switch."
Demong's climb had some slips along the way. After the Olympics in 2002, he fractured his skull while diving into a shallow pool in Germany and initially feared he had broken his neck. In the team event at the World Championships in 2009, he lost his racing bib and may have cost his team a shot at a medal.
But just two days later in the individual event at those championships, Demong erased a 52-second deficit to win the large hill competition there. He recalls telling himself: "Sometimes you take a step back to go forward. Be patient. Be willing to be in it for the long haul. Have a road map with you at all times that enables success. If it doesn't happen tomorrow, work hard for the next day."
After he became Olympic champion in Vancouver, Demong faced a choice about whether to retire or continue. "On the one hand there was nothing new to accomplish," he said. "But that's part of the reason why I wanted to stay with it, to enjoy it without having to prove something."
With the blessing of his coach Dave Jarrett, Demong stepped away. He threw out a first pitch at a Mets game in New York and visited military bases as part of the Armed Forces Entertainment's Heavy Metal Tour. He made frequent renovations to his house in Park City, Utah. He also rode in more than 50 bike races after getting introduced to the sport by a man who bought one of his racing suits on eBay. The man suggested the two athletes trade attire, and Demong was soon a convert. Demong gave participation awards to 200 kids who were starting out in the Nordic combined, a number that was unimaginable when he began competing in obscurity. When speaking of his sport, he never talks at length without breaking out the word "sustainability."
He and Katie are now parents to Liam, their first child, and Demong's jumps and split times are no longer his primary responsibility. "Honestly, I don't think I'd be able to train with the single-minded purpose I have in the past, when it seemed like nothing else mattered on certain days," he says. "Having Liam has made me much better with time management, which wasn't always my strong suit. Now I make training time, daddy time, husband time. I was used to just rolling out of bed."
Earlier this year, Demong and his teammates Todd Lodwick and the Fletcher brothers, Taylor and Bryan, took third in the team normal hill competition, setting up the U.S. squad for another run at medals in Sochi. That could add a final victory to his victory lap.