The penultimate day of the ski championships in Liberec, Czech Republic was one of ebullient hope for the future of American skiing with the races and results from the young women’s performances in the 30 kilometer mass start skate.
This day also demonstrated the heights nordic sports the U.S. is reaching with Billy Demong’s win in big hill, single jump 10 kilometer (a.k.a. the Gundersen HS134/10.0), capping off three individual nordic combined gold medals in three races here in Liberec.
That night, Billy wasn’t much interested where he’d add World Champion to his name. Rather, he was psyched because for too long Billy thinks Americans have been indifferent to being among the best in the world for far too long. “Think of kids coming up skiing and jumping today and seeing what we did here,” says Billy. “I remember watching Todd (Lodwick) jump to fourth, then finish 13th at the Olympics and what this did to change my thinking about what is possible in sport.
“Now Americans are seeing medals in jumping, combined and cross-country. What this will do to change the thinking of young, ambitious Americans about winning World Cups, World Championships and Olympic medals…. man, this is what is so exciting about today.”
I couldn’t put it any better.
The scene at the feedzone during the women’s 30 kilometer. Sitting just back of the action, I couldn’t help but think about the whole support system it takes to be fighting it out among the Kristen Stoermer Steira’s and the Tobias Angerer’s of the world – club coaches, national team coaches, service industry people, physical therapists, servicemen, race organizers, jury members – the list is a long one.
I also couldn’t help but wonder about the day when I’d be in a similar position, taking in the scene at a World Championship when an American would be the first to enter into this picture.
The lead pack of fifteen rolls through the feedzone. The trail breaks to go around an island of coaches, giving more space for athletes and coaches to not miss in the refueling handoff. No more than fifteen seconds later, Liz Stephen leads a chase pack of five. Morgan Arritola, too, is not far behind.
The Czech crowds were out in force. During the men’s 4x10km relay, 37,000 paying fans lined the course. Add in media, special VIP’s, athletes and support staff, and 40,000 people were all out in the elements, taking in world championship skiing.
Two days before the big hill, ten kilometer nordic combined race, Demong misplaced his race bib. The team didn’t finish the day’s competition. Two days later, Demong came back to win. He was asked immediately after his victory how he was able to go from such a low to earning his first major championship so soon after.
“I know how to deal with such a situation,” said Billy. “I missed a medal in Salt Lake by a hair’s breath and it bothered me for many months. Then I finally realized I had to forget it, otherwise it would have destroyed my life.”
Six medals takes something special. It takes a team. It also takes making the most out of the situation. This was brought home to me listening to a conversation on the bus to the race venue. The storyteller was talking about two teammates who had to find a way to make it work between them. Twice a week, Bjorn and Thomas would train together. Somedays, they would end their workout almost in a fistfight. Bjorn thought Thomas was arrogant. Thomas thought the same of Bjorn. Or something like that. The specifics to this hardly matter. What matters, though, is that no matter what they always decided when and where they were going to meet up again and train together because they knew they needed each other to be the best.