OSLO, Norway – The U.S. Ski Team's Bill Demong set a new American mark, finishing third in the season-long overall FIS Nordic Combined World Cup standings. No American had previously finished higher than fourth. Demong won the cross country leg to finish 21st in the final event of the season Sunday at the Holmenkollen Ski Festival in Oslo. He received his top-three honor in front of the King of Norway and thousands of spectators.
It was a milestone finish for the skier who battled back from a near fatal swimming pool accident five years ago to establish his place in the sport. Demong had six podiums and a win during the 2007-08 season to finish third behind champion Ronny Ackermann of Germany and Norwegian Petter Tande, who won Sunday.
Proud Moment for Demong and U.S. Nordic Combined Program
“It was pretty cool getting called up in front of the King of Norway in the stadium at Holmenkollen,” said a proud Demong, who became the first American to stand on the overall FIS Nordic Combined World Cup podium. “I tried not to think about best ever results during the season. It actually distracts you from being the best. But when you look back at the entire season, third is a success as a skier and to break ground in getting an American on the podium.”
His longtime teammate Todd Lodwick (Steamboat Springs, CO), who retired two years ago, had been fourth three times (1998, 2000, 2005) in the overall and third once (2005) in the World Cup sprint standings.
Bad Jump Puts Pressure on Demong in Cross Country
Demong, who had been second most of the season, struggled in the final event and dropped one notch to third. A weak jump in the sprint event, where athletes get one ski jump followed by a 7.5K cross country race, put him well back for the start of the cross country race, 2:46 behind the leaders. And while he came back from 43rd in the jump to finish 21st, Tande's win gave the Norwegian second in the standings over Demong.
“It was a pretty tough pill to swallow yesterday knowing I had a chance to go all the way back to fourth,” said Demong. “To finish third was really a relief.”
While definitely a stronger cross country skier than jumper, Demong had been relatively consistent until Saturday's single sprint jump. “Going into the jump I had mentally worked over everything. It was just one more comp and I was going to do what I've been doing all year,” said Demong. “I was in the right frame of mind. But all of a sudden I landed really short. There's been some times this year when I had target panic. But this time I thought I was on track with the jump but it didn't happen. I felt I had just left the podium in the overall.”
The jump put him into unfamiliar territory. Rather than starting the 7.5K individually, as he usually does, Demong was grouped at the back of the field in a wave start 2:20 behind the leader. And, to add insult to injury, an additional 26 seconds would be tacked onto his finish time.
But Demong and Head Coach Lasse Ottesen strategized on what it would take to stay in the top three. “There was definitely a lot of mathematics going on,” laughed Demong. There was little that could be done about the Norwegian Tande, who was third and was expected to pass Demong into second. The key was focusing on hard charging Bernhard Gruber of Austria who was fourth. Gruber had been second in the jump and was not expected to be as strong as Demong in cross country. Coaches worked out the math and relayed splits to Demong during the event so he knew where he stood.
“I was pretty positive about it,” said Demong. “I realized what had to happen to for me to stay in third. I knew if Petter had a race anywhere near where he should he would pass me. I had to get at least three points (28th place) and Bernhard had to finish third or worse. That was the only combination that would make it happen.”
It was complicated by the fact that Demong was not skiing against the actual field because of his start handicap of 26 seconds. “While I was skiing I knew when I had moved into 28th place. But I also knew I still needed to pick up another 26 seconds.” Demong blew away the field in cross country to move up to 21st, picking up 10 World Cup points. And Gruber finished third, 14 seconds away from second.
Demong Reflects on Successful Season
It was an action-packed season from the start last November in Kuusamo, Finland. In the opener, Demong's teammate and 2003 World Champion Johnny Spillane (Steamboat Springs, CO) was second in the first competition and Demong third in the next. A week later, Demong picked up a win in Trondheim, Norway. And he stayed in the title hunt until the end.
“The goal from the beginning was to win the overall,” said Demong. “I was in there through the whole season and to be up there all year was quite an accomplishment. After finishing up with a silver at Worlds last year, getting a win in Lahti and third at Holmenkollen [March 2006], I wanted to keep that momentum going.
“It's one thing to set a goal but another to actually be there the entire season,” he added. “Expectations and confidence were high!”
Demong had long trailed eventual winner Ackermann. But he had also held a strong margin over Tande and Gruber most of the season. “I have to hand it to Petter and Bernhard,” said Demong. “They really turned it up at the end of the year.”
The swimming pool accident in 2002, a few months after the young Demong had won his first World Cup, kept him out of action for a year. But he methodically plotted his comeback, training diligently at his home in Park City, Utah, where the native New Yorker has lived since the Salt Lake City Games. His silver medal at World Championships in Sapporo, Japan a year ago kick started him into the sport's elite.
U.S. Championships in Park City Next Weekend
The Team now heads home for next weekend's 2008 backcountry.com U.S. Jumping and Nordic Combined Championships in Park City. Demong will be favored in the nordic combined event Saturday on the Olympic venues at the Utah Olympic Park and at Soldier Hollow. The combined jump is at 8:00 a.m. Saturday with cross country at 6:30 p.m. Demong swept the 2007 U.S. Championships.
“It's a great way to wrap up the season,” said Demong. “The long stretch of the winter is gone and we can celebrate in Park City with all our friends. I'm looking forward to some good comps with juniors and see what kind of talent we have coming up.
Bill Demong (Photo Credit: Anne Rach)