Behind the breakthrough performance of Johnny Spillane, long-dismissed Team USA has become a serious medal contender in the Nordic sports and could be at the start of something big
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 2010 issue
Like many things in life, the Winter Olympics can be viewed as just another version of high school. Figure skating and ice dancing are members of the drama club, graceful, artistic and a little high-strung. Downhill skiing and snowboarding are the cool crowd, daring and dynamic. Then there are the Nordic sports—biathlon, ski jumping, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined. They're the quirky kids who don't quite fit any niche. They are mostly odd disciplines and in the U.S. at least, largely ignored. It's hard to find an American athlete in the Nordic combined, for instance, who hasn't been asked: Combined what?
The answer is, combined ski jumping and cross-country skiing, a dual pursuit in which the U.S., as in the other Nordic sports, has a long history of being not just unnoticed but until recent years, embarrassingly unsuccessful. The medal stand has been such foreign territory to the Americans that a gold by Bill Koch in cross-country skiing in 1976 and a bronze by Anders Haugen in ski jumping in 1924 were the only two medals the U.S. had won. That's why the Americans' breakthrough in Nordic combined on Sunday at Whistler Olympic Park was so significant. Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs, Colo., took the silver in the normal hill, not only becoming the first U.S. athlete to win a medal in the sport in the 86 years it has been in the Games, but also striking a blow against the two problems that were once the Americans' constant adversaries in Nordic events—futility and obscurity.
In a dramatic sprint finish Jason Lamy Chappuis of France overtook Spillane on the final straightaway of the cross-country portion of the competition to snatch the gold in 25 minutes, 47.1 seconds, just .4 of a second ahead of Spillane. But that didn't dampen the Americans' enthusiasm over their historic performance, which included a fourth-place finish by Todd Lodwick of Steamboat Springs, and a sixth-place for Bill Demong of Vermontville, N.Y. For Demong and Spillane, both 29, and Lodwick, 33, who have 13 Olympics among them, the medal was the culmination of more than a decade of training together and pushing each other. "The three of us have all carried this program at different points over the years," Demong said. "I couldn't be happier for Johnny. This feels like a victory for all of us."
The silver medal is the latest step in the U.S.'s improvement in Nordic sports over the last few Olympiads, a process which in itself has been a kind of Nordic combined—a combination of a cash infusion from the sports' governing bodies, an overhaul of training programs and, not least, the dedication of a collection of U.S. athletes who stuck with Nordic sports over more popular Olympic events. "It takes a certain mind-set for an athlete to choose Nordic," says Tom Steitz, the former coach of the U.S. combined team who is widely credited for beginning the Americans' rise. "In many ways it goes back to the original idea of true amateurs. You can make a good living in the Alpine sports, but you don't go into Nordic for the money, and in this country you don't go into it for the attention."
But more attention may be coming, as well as more medals. There are two remaining Nordic combined events in these Games, the large hill and the four-man team competition, and Spillane, the normal hill silver medalist, considers himself even better suited to the large hill. The Americans' strong showing on Sunday makes them a serious threat to win gold in the team event as well. The U.S. had a milder breakthrough in the biathlon, the combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting, with Jeremy Teela finishing ninth in the 10K sprint, the Americans' best Olympic result in any biathlon event. In cross-country, Kikkan Randall, who won a silver medal in the 1.3K sprint freestyle at the 2009 world championships, is the strongest Olympic medal contender the U.S. has ever had in the women's competition.
In the old days of U.S. futility, Nordic athletes endured harsh criticism. Steitz brought his team to a meet in Norway in 1989, the year after the U.S. had finished so far behind in the team event at the Calgary Olympics that the medalists' press conference was over while his skiers were still on the course. When he discovered that the event organizers hadn't provided the Americans with the usual heated huts and waxing facilities to prepare for the competition, he says the Norwegians scoffed at him, saying that the best accommodations in the world wouldn't make the U.S. competitive. "They said, 'What does it matter? Go wax in the parking lot,'" Steitz says.
Steitz had been the coach less than a year at the time, but he had already embarked on a plan to overhaul the program. He began as most struggling programs do, by appealing to the governing body for more money. But he also promised that the team would show improvement. If it didn't, he would not expect the cash flow to continue. He delivered on his promise and so did the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Steitz added more support staff, so the athletes, for instance, wouldn't have to wax their own skis. Today, the USSA spends roughly $1.5 million on Nordic combined, which is more than four times what U.S. teams were given in the dark days, but according to USSA spokesman Tom Kelly, is still "significantly less" than those of some Nordic powerhouses.
Steitz also altered the training program. Instead of coming together for sessions at various intervals throughout the year, the athletes trained together year-round under the supervision of the organization's coaches. "But a big part of it was changing the attitude," Steitz says of the program's turnaround. "We weren't achieving much, and we weren't being expected to achieve much. We had to get rid of the mentality that if we finished in the top 30, we had done a good job." That task was made easier by Demong, Lodwick and Spillane, three relentless competitors who couldn't get the sport out of their system even though they have walked out (Lodwick retired in 2006 but couldn't stay away and returned two years later), been knocked out (Demong was forced to take a year off from competition in '02 when he fractured his skull diving into a pool that was shallower than he thought) and been wheeled out (Spillane has had four shoulder surgeries and two knee operations).
It's fitting that all three of them appeared to be medal-bound at different points on Sunday—Lodwick led at the 7.5K mark, and Demong, who started the cross-country portion of the race in 24th place because of a subpar ski jump, mounted a stirring comeback to join the lead group—since they have been a sort of tripod, propping up the program for so long. "This is really what we were in it for all along," Spillane said, referring to the Olympic medal. "We could feel it getting closer and closer as the years passed, and I don't think any of us could leave before we accomplished that. It's a satisfying feeling to know that we finished the job." But considering the Americans' prospects for greater glory before the Games are over, not to mention the solid foundation that has been laid for the future, Spillane and his teammates may be remembered not so much for what they finished on Sunday, but for what they began.