Note: This preview has been updated to include comments from Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane.
The way U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett sees it, why tweak something that works? Last year was a success by many measures with four athletes interchangeably placing in the top 20, some often in the top 10.
Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong hit the podium in his comeback season after taking some time off to raise a baby, and one of the team’s most promising up-and-comers Bryan Fletcher won the one-jump, single-race World Cup Final at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.
That kind of momentum carried into the offseason with most of the team training in Park City, Utah, and a few others, like veterans Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick, living in Steamboat Springs, Colo. In July, the team jetted to Europe for its annual Tour de France camp, riding their bikes to catch parts of the multi-stage cycling race through the French Alps and Pyrenees. When that was over, they headed to Sochi, Russia, to test their jumping and rollerski skills at the International Ski Federation (FIS) Summer Grand Prix.
In the first competition, Lodwick, a three-time Olympian with his sights set on another in Sochi in 2014, finished second to Austria’s Bernhard Gruber. He had hardly been back in the game for more than a month after struggling with health issues – which turned out to be gluten intolerance – for the last two years. His lungs became so irritated by the allergy that he stopped racing last December, but by spring he determined the root of his troubles and mostly eliminated gluten from his diet.
On Day 2 in Sochi, Lodwick won the competition ahead of Gruber, who ranks seventh on the World Ranking list compared Demong (20th), Fletcher (24th) and Spillane (29th).
“It wasn’t a fluke,” said Lodwick, who ranked 54th after essentially two off-winters following the 2010 Olympics.
He peaked to place fifth at 2011 World Championships and notched two other top 10’s that year, but didn’t do many other World Cups leading up to it.
“Some people might think it could’ve been one way or the other, but they guy that went on to win [the Grand Prix] was the guy that I was dueling with from the get-go,” Lodwick added. “I take it as a huge confidence builder, I think for the team as well; we did very well there. We traveled and trained hard right before that. We went into it full-steam and we had that to build on for the rest of the year. I’m very pleased with the way I competed and I still have a lot to train for.”
So yes, it’s fair to say that Lodwick’s back. Even with a 7- and 4-year-old at home, the man who turns 36 on Nov. 21 is shooting for his first individual medal – this season at World Championships and/or at Sochi next winter.
As for the rest of the team, most of the A- and B-team and National Training Group flew to Europe in mid-October for a jumping camp in Oberstdorf, Germany, and Val di Fiemme, Italy. It was the first time they traveled overseas to work specifically on jumping about a month before the competition season, but it was something the coaches felt was necessary. With all the equipment and rule changes over the last few months, athletes still needed to get comfortable with their jumping skis, bindings and suits. Jarrett said the late-season trip to Europe was about building confidence.
“We’ve been somewhat reactive to everything instead of proactive so we’re trying to get ahead of the curve now,” Jarrett said of the latest equipment and modifications to FIS jumping rules.
“Our model is to put ourselves in a position to win going into the cross-country race; we don’t necessarily have to win the jumping in order to win the whole nordic combined competition,” he said.
But it helps to do better on the hill in the first place. If a skier fails to make the top 50 in a World Cup jumping competition, they’re ineligible for the following skate race.
“If you don’t even make it in the cross-country race, it doesn’t matter how good of shape you’re in,” Jarrett said.
On Saturday, the team leaves for Lillehammer, Norway, where they’ll get a week of training in before the World Cup opens there. Until last weekend, neither the skiers in Park City nor Steamboat Springs had much snow to train on, and they hadn’t been able to jump on snow at home.
Things seemed to be changing for the better. On Monday, Taylor Fletcher wrote in an email that they had about two feet of new snow and hoped to be jumping Wednesday or Thursday. Lodwick planned to ski Rabbit Ears Pass outside of Steamboat on Monday afternoon.
With five men on the A-team this year, including Bryan’s younger brother Taylor, Jarrett said they’ll spend next week in Europe selecting the top four to fill their quota spots.
“We only have four start rights so we’ll have to make some decisions leading into the first comp,” he said. “We didn’t have enough tryout competitions to actually make it an objective decision of who we would leave home so we’re going to take five. Hopefully we can maximize the rotation with it and get some guys scoring points.”
In all, the team is looking for at least three medals to rival their performance at the 2010 Olympics (where Demong won gold, Spillane took silver in two events, and the team placed second in the relay). That’s number one, Jarrett said.
In the process, they want to increase their World Cup quota to at least five, which requires Lodwick to lower his world ranking within the top 50 in the first period (by January). The team is also hoping to gain wild cards with top Continental Cup finishers (like B-team members Brett Denney, Nick Hendrickson, Adam Loomis, Erik Lynch and Michael Ward) when it hosts those races in mid-December at Soldier Hollow in Utah. At most, the U.S. could potentially shoot for eight quota spots in a non-domestic World Cup race.
If they reach their goal of five this season, that carries over into the following year, which means they could take five guys to the Sochi Olympics.
“That’s going to require more different guys scoring World Cup points consistently,” Jarrett said. “On the surface it looks pretty nondescript but it’s pretty in depth when you think about what it’s going to take to do that.”
For the Continental Cup skiers, that means getting good enough results to earn starts on the World Cup. On the World Cup, they’re shooting for the top 50. Last year, Bryan Fletcher led the team in 17th overall on the World Cup. Demong was 20th, Spillane was 28th and Taylor Fletcher was 36th. While the World Cup overall is something to strive for, it’s not the focus this year.
The team’s got World Championships from Feb. 20 to March 3 in Val di Fiemme (Predazzo), Italy, to think about.
“Our first goal is to win three medals at the Olympics and that starts this season,” Jarrett said. “We want to win three medals at the World Championships in Predazzo.”
Asked what they’ve done differently to achieve that, Jarrett said nothing. As usual, most of the team’s athletes live high, train high and then try to kill it at sea level in Europe.
“We’re applying the same model that we’ve used since 2006 and earlier with Bill, Johnny and Todd to Bryan, Taylor, and now all those [B-team] guys, too,” Jarrett said. “I think everyone’s pretty motivated for the next 15 months or so to do whatever it takes to be on the podium in Sochi and Predazzo. If they’re not, than somebody else on the team’s gonna pass them.”
That’s the fuel that’s fed their fire over the last several seasons. With veterans like Demong (age 32), Spillane (31) and Lodwick leading the way, younger competitors such as Bryan (26) and Taylor (22) Fletcher have worked hard to chase them down. In many instances, they’ve given their older teammates quite a run.
According to Jarrett, Bryan has been the team’s “measuring stick” in jumping for the last two years and Taylor’s been leading the pack in cross-country since the spring. Both have consistently challenged Demong, their main training partner in Park City, in time trials, testing and everyday training sessions. However, experience is also a key factor in racing, which should make things interesting when the teammates put their fitness and technique to the test in Lillehammer Nov. 24-25.
“There’s for sure frontrunners and we know who those are, but we have 10 guys fighting for five spots and that’s gonna make everybody better,” Jarrett said.
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 17th
Number of World Cup top 10’s last season: 5
Personal best: 1st at 2012 World Cup Final in Oslo
Personal goal: “Last year was a great result and an amazing way to end the season, but the hard work continues, and just because I’ve done it once doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen time and time again. I would feel much more confident getting on the podium a couple more times before World Championships or the Olympics; that would be huge.”
Coach’s comment: “The last camp in Oberstdorf, he was on fire,” Jarrett said. “I mean, jumping awesome, like winning-World-Cups kind-of jumping like he was in the middle of the season last year. It was good to see, I mean, he walked away from that with his equipment dialed in; he’s ready to go. The next step for Bryan, he knows he can be on the podium, so continue to get more podiums and then February 2013 [World Championships] and February 2014 [Sochi Olympics].”
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 20th
Number of World Cup top 10’s last season: 6
Personal best: Individual Olympic gold medalist (won silver with relay), 2009 world champion
Personal goal: ”My biggest goal is to win the Large Hill Individual and Team event in the World Championships in Val di Fiemme,” he wrote in an email. “Also to get one guy [who] has not podiumed at worlds to do so.”
“To be honest I am putting up bigger testing numbers and solid interval sessions than ever. I know that it is now more than ever about finishing races near or on the top!
Coach’s comment: “Bill is as fit and in good cross-country shape as I’ve seen him in a long time,” Jarrett said. “He’s still sorting out some equipment issues on the jumping hill. For whatever reason, we’ve just struggled finding him the right setup and we’re still working on it, and I think we’re on the right track. A lot of Bill’s success is gonna hinge on how well he jumps. … The reports [from the last jumping camp] were that Bill felt like he had a good setup and now he just has to trust it and go for it.”
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 28th
Number of World Cup top 10’s last season: 2
Personal best: Two individual Olympic silver medals (and another with relay), 2003 world champion
Personal goal: ”My main goals are focused on the World Championships,” Spillane wrote in an email. “I’m hoping to have both good individual performances as well as contribute in the team events.
“I am injury free and it has been a good summer of training because of that. Last season was tough, I had a hard time putting together a good competition, I was either jumping poorly and skiing well or jumping well and skiing poorly. This year I’m hoping for a little more consistency.”
Coach’s comment: “He was jumping really well in October, and he’s in good shape,” Jarrett said. “He’s injury free, healthy. I don’t see any reason why we can’t start in Lillehammer like we started in Lillehammer in 2009/2010 [where he was 4th and 6th in World Cup races.]
“Ironically last year Johnny started jumping really well, but he got sick in the middle of the winter and was not able to race the way he normally was able to. It was a virus that kind of killed him from mid-January to the rest of the year almost. He got really sick after the races in Chaux-Neuve [where he notched season-best results of 8th and 9th], and never really recovered. … When he’s been able to go into the season healthy and injury free, he usually does pretty well.”
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 36th
Number of World Cup top 10’s last season: 0 (as a member of the B-team)
Personal best: 14th at Val di Fiemme World Cup (Feb. 15, 2012)
Personal goal: Breaking through on the World Cup and improving on last season’s performances. “More top 15 and hopefully achieve a World Cup podium and help out at world champs,” he said.
“We just got done doing some physical testing and I posted some of the highest numbers I’ve seen. Without a doubt I know I’m in great cross-country shape. Coming off the last camp I was jumping extremely well. I’ve got the itch to go and race in Europe as well as possible.”
Coach’s comment: “[Last year] he was named to the B-team from the previous season’s results and this year he’s on the A-team,” Jarrett said. “Like Bill, a lot of his success is going to depend on how he does in the jumping. We just need to get him to trust everything and just go for it and not overthink it and not want to win the jumping because he doesn’t need to win the jumping to win the race. He just needs to be in a good position.”
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 52nd
Number of World Cup top 10’s last season: 0 (did five competitions, ended season in December)
Personal best: Five-time Olympian, 4th at the 2010 Olympics (won silver with relay), two-time world champion in 2009
Personal goal: “I want to be in the top 15 of the World Cup,” he said. “One of the biggest things is qualify in the top 50 of the world so we can get more guys on the World Cup. … I definitely feel like I have to earn my spot back onto the World Cup and that’s something that’s earned. I’m not looking for a handout by anyone. That motivates me to train hard and I have a lot riding on my shoulders.
“I was really, really sick last year and that ran a mental toll on me quite a bit, so definitely last season was a wash, was a disappointment,” he added. “It was probably one of the harder things to do, to cut gluten out. It was really hard for three months, but once I got over that hump it became easy. It was a no-brainer that gluten was the irritant. … This summer’s competitions proved that I’m still in shape and one of the better guys out there and I couldn’t have been more happy with the way the summer went.”
Coach’s comment: “I think that he’s focused and he knows that this has got to be his last chance to get an individual medal,” Jarrett said. “I think he wants that as badly as he ever has so he’s focused and ready to go.”
2012/2013 U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team
Billy Demong (Vermontville, N.Y)
Bryan Fletcher (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
Todd Lodwick (Steamboat Springs)
Johnny Spillane (Steamboat Springs)
Taylor Fletcher (Steamboat Springs)
Brett Denney (Steamboat Springs)
Nick Hendrickson (Park City)
Adam Loomis (Eau Claire, Wis.)
Erik Lynch (Steamboat Springs)
Michael Ward (Aspen, Colo.)
Head Coach: Dave Jarrett
World Cup Jumping Coach: Chris Gilbertson
Continental Cup/Development Coach: Greg Poirer