Their plan had been so simple. Stay loose, ski strong and play the first World Cup penalty race by ear.
The two Americans that qualified for Sunday’s competition in Lillehammer, Norway, Billy Demong and Bryan Fletcher found that worked well considering the circumstances.
As they completed the first of five laps on the 10 k course, Demong and Fletcher watched dozens of skiers take their penalty loops at once. Depending on how they jumped on the large hill earlier that morning, competitors were penalized with a certain number of 150-meter loops. The 41 athletes could complete them as they pleased during the first four laps of the mass start.
Some of the athletes, like German winner Eric Frenzel — the second-best jumper and top skier in 28:38.5 — had no penalty laps. Others, like Demong and Fletcher, had the maximum of four.
Ranked 32nd and 36th in the jumps, respectively, Demong and Fletcher took advantage of the mass start by moving immediately toward the front. About halfway through, they shared the lead. At some point, they’d have to take their penalties, but not yet.
Fletcher decided to complete his loops all at once on the third lap, which left Demong in front. Frenzel soon moved up to share the lead, and as Demong peeled off at the last possible moment to do the biathlon-like penalties on his fourth lap, he wished the German luck.
“I yelled at him, ‘Go win this thing,’ and he was like, ‘Thanks,’ and took off,” Demong said in phone interview from Oslo, Norway, where the Americans traveled to after Lillehammer.
With no loops to hold him back, Frenzel won it ahead of France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis (+17.4), who was who had two penalties. Bjoern Kircheisen (GER) was third (+20.6), and skied an extra 300 meters as well.
Fletcher ended up 16th (+1:28), his best result of the season, despite skiing an additional 600 meters, or 0.6 kilometers.
But Demong, who had the same number of penalties and appeared to have finished in 11th, miscounted. As he returned to the race with one lap to go, Demong noticed he was a little farther ahead then he expected, considering each penalty loop took about 20 seconds.
As far as he could see or hear from spectators, he was in the clear. Soon after finishing, Demong learned he was disqualified for skiing three laps, not four.
“I kind of had this inkling that I didn’t do enough,” Demong said, adding that he counted the laps in his head initially and believed he had done four. “I don’t know how I miscounted. I couldn’t tell you now.”
While he took full responsibility for the mistake (coaches are not allowed near to penalty loop to assist athletes, and technology ensures there are no officiating errors), Demong was pleased with his performance. Considering his jump had not gone as planned, he was happy to have a strong race after placing 25th Saturday’s race.
“I just totally didn’t play it right, didn’t have a smart race, and I paid for it,” Demong said of starting too hard and losing energy halfway through on Saturday. “After you have a race where you blow up that hard, it’s just good to get a good feeling again.
“Finishing on a good race, even if it wasn’t the result I was looking for, gives me confidence,” he added. “I’d rather get disqualified when I get 11th place. … If I was on the podium and got disqualified then I would be super upset.”
Fletcher, for one, was pretty excited. He started the day with the notion that he needed a solid jump, with only one or two penalties at the maximum, to be in contention for top 20. When he ended up 36th, he wasn’t thrilled.
“I kind of thought the worst and went out thinking it would be a good race to get in the top 30,” Fletcher said. “Shortly thereafter, I found myself in the hunt for a top 20 and was kind of surprised by that. … I was just really happy that I had a good race.”
He said skiing with a teammate in Sunday’s race was especially helpful. He strategized with Demong and skied a similar race — except Fletcher took his penalties sooner.
“I knew I wanted to go in there when my legs were still fresh,” he said. “It’s actually pretty tiring going around those circles. It really works your legs quite a bit.”
U.S. head coach Dave Jarrett explained the format was confusing, even though they raced it before in the Summer Grand Prix. Demong and Fletcher used Alessandro Pittin (ITA) as a benchmark on Sunday as the best skier with four penalty laps. While Jarrett wasn’t sure when Pittin took his loops, Pittin ended up 10th and Fletcher was just 20 seconds behind him.
“So I think the strategy worked,” Jarrett said.
“It’s pretty difficult to know what’s going on, who’s doing what,” he added. “The only information we had was from the coaches in the stadium watching the scoreboard and kind of watching the T.V. coverage.”
While the jumping had been a sore point for most of the Americans — with Taylor Fletcher and Johnny Spillane failing to qualify with a sufficient jump lengths in Sunday’s trial — Demong said they were all improving and had done better outside of competition. A strong and variable tailwind on Sunday morning didn’t help.
“Jumping is something that you build on in confidence more than anything,” Demong said. “And I think we can just get better and better on both the jump hill and in cross country.”