Whistler, British Columbia – The two skiers swept around the large curve down into the stadium, Billy Demong of the USA in the lead, Austrian Mario Stecher right on his heels, the gold medal waiting, just 200 meters away.
Stecher stepped out, tucking past Demong. There would be no sprint for the line. The gap was enough, and Austria champions. The American team, in claiming the silver, made US Nordic Combined history for the second time this Olympics. In the individual event last week, Johnny Spillane won the first US Olympic medal in the history of the sport. Today marked the first medal in the team competition.
It all started this morning on the jumping hill. Brett Camerota set the tone with an impressive leap in the first group. Todd Lodwick, who just missed a medal when he finishing 4th in the individual, raised the bar even higher. His jump would ultimately stand as the second-best on the day, as measured by total points. Spillane wasn’t far behind, and Demong was solid.
Head coach Dave Jarrett was very pleased with the jumping. “Brett and Todd, that was the farthest jump ever on that hill. Johnny was tremendously clutch. He was a little squirrely yesterday and in training today. And Bill has been solid almost every jump. It was what we needed to have happen.”
Meanwhile, the Austrians, as the only team that could match the Americans in terms of cross-country firepower, struggled on the hill. When jumping concluded, the US was in a perfect position, starting in second, just two seconds back from Finland. Austria was 36 seconds behind, France at 43 seconds, and the always-dangerous Germans 45 back.
The final running order was determined by the athletes. Said Jarrett, “as a staff, we gave them our suggestions and deferred the decision to the team, because that is what it is about.”
The key for the Americans was Camerota. With a career-best World Cup finish of 18th, the 25-year-old was the weakest link. But he jumped extremely well in the individual competition, did so again today, then quickly closed on Finland’s Janne Ryynaenen in the ski. Camerota did exactly what he had to do: ski strong, and not give up too much ground to the chasers.
With a powerful move on the final climb of the 2×2.5km course, he dropped Ryynaenen and tagged off to Lodwick in first. The chase pack however, had closed ground quickly, and six teams headed out in pursuit, all within 12 seconds of the American.
The only concern following Camerota’s leg were his skis. It was clear to observers in the stadium that they were not running as fast as his Finnish counterpart.
The packs closed on Lodwick over his first loop, but he maintained a smooth pace—despite the yell from the stadium announcer that “in just a few seconds they will all be together.”
David Kreiner (AUT) and Tino Edelmann (GER) were the only two able to bridge up to Lodwick. All three headed out for the second lap together, but Edelmann tripped himself on the climb out of the stadium, as Kreiner took the lead and accelerated with Lodwick on his heels. The two opened up a gap on the field, setting up a battle between Spillane and Austria’s Felix Gottwald, who is one of the fastest skiers on the Nordic Combined circuit in his first year back after a two-year retirement.
The two exchanged leads, pushing the pace to keep anyone else from closing. Spillane’s skis were not running well either – he was forced to skate on the gradual terrain even when drafting off Gottwald, who was riding a tuck.
On the big climb before the last descent into the stadium, Gottwald dropped the hammer, and Spillane had nothing left to respond. Over the final 400 meters of the loop, Spillane lost 15 seconds—five in the stadium alone.
“We both knew that we had to make the pace [ski fast],” said Gottwald. “Johnny was doing it at the beginning…and at the beginning of the second lap I tried to do my part to hold up the pace and get some seconds [on the chasers]. On the last uphill it is just ‘go.’ It hurts for everybody, and it is no question of strategy—it is just a question to get as fast as possible to the transition.”
But US anchor Billy Demong is used to coming from behind. Even though the team event is just five kilometers, as opposed to the ten contested in the individual competitions, the American was not out of the hunt.
And it wasn’t a two-team race – Germany had battled back as top skier Bjoern Kircheisen gave chase. Demong cut Stecher’s lead in half in the first 1.7 k, while Kircheisen knocked 13 seconds out of the 25-second deficit he began with.
Entering the stadium for the lap, Demong was just 2.2 seconds behind, and wasted no time in closing the remaining gap. With the Americans and Austrians battling each other, Kircheisen struggled to come closer. He gained a few more seconds, but as the meters flashed by, it became clear that the gold would not belong to Germany.
Demong turned on the jets on the last climb – the same spot where Tim Tscharnke (GER) gapped the field in Monday’s cross-country team sprint event, and where Demong himself passed Finland’s Anssi Koivuranta for the victory in the World Cup here last year.
“I needed to be clear of Mario before we got into that final downhill to have a chance,” said Demong. “I was going into that last hill really hard thinking ‘maybe I’m getting away,’ but then I hit him with my pole right toward the top and felt him back there.”
And so the finish was set up. Demong couldn’t shake the man known as “Super Mario,” and his chances to challenge for the gold in the finish stretch were undone by slower skis.
Demong was very clear in pointing out that his skis were not bad—just not as good as the Austrian’s. “I still had the fastest time on the 4th leg, so they were obviously working pretty well. And Mario had great skis – mine may have still been average.”
But his words may have been diplomatic, as he recognized that Stecher had better boards throughout the second lap. “On the downhills, when I was leading, he was running up on me and pushing my pole. And when I was drafting, I was just keeping up.”
The Austrians gave plenty of credit to their wax techs, saying, “today our skis were awesome…it made it easier to win.”
According to Spillane, one of the issues was the new snow that fell during the race—softly at first, then heavier as the race progressed. It was classic Whistler snow – heavy and wet.
“It’s an outdoor sport, and that is part of it, but I don’t think Bill and I had very good skis once it started snowing…but that is part of the deal.”
He also attributed the 15 seconds he lost to Gottwald in part to the ski issue.
“I was feeling really great. Then on the back side of the course, where it is all flat and downhill, I should have been able to just sit behind [Gottwald] and rest, because I was right behind him. He was tucking and I was in his draft having to skate. That makes it quite a bit more difficult than it should be.”
US coach Dave Jarrett didn’t beat around the bush.
“They are only two guys [US Nordic Combined wax techs]. Every other team has more than two guys. There is only so much we can do as a staff to be out on the course with poles and splits, and only have two guys able to wax. The cross-country guys offered to help, and we took them up on that, but it just wasn’t coordinated enough to make a difference.”
It appeared to be less an issue of wax, and more of ski choice.
Demong noted that he chose a pair of skis, regularly his fastest, that worked very well during testing. But once the wet flakes started falling, they slowed considerably. The pair had a linear structure that got clogged with the high-humidity snow.
The Austrians had one pair of skis running so well that both their 1st and 4th leg skiers used it.
“Gruber and Mario used the same pair of skis,” said Jarrett. “They obviously had a magical pair…using it twice in the same race.”
“We are far out-manned when it comes to that stuff, but you have to make do with what you have,” he added. The US team even has an additional service man working the Olympics, when on the World Cup they usually have just one.
Despite the ski issues, no one on the US squad showed any disappointment with a silver medal. The quartet was greeted at the flower ceremony by chants of “USA! USA!” and both Demong and Lodwick climbed up into the stands to hug family members.
“The race could have gone any way,” said Jarrett. “It was there for the taking, but you can’t be kicking yourself about a silver medal you have never won before. We are happy – the coaching staff, the service team, everybody is psyched. Of course we wanted to win, but we still got second, and that is better than 3rd…You have to take your hat off to the Austrians. They skied well and they won it.”
“Today was a real team effort,” said Demong. “This day has just been a series of really good performance by every member of our team, and I’m really really happy to…have won our first ever medal in the team event.”
Lodwick, now the veteran of five Olympics added “If you give it your all and leave everything out there and we get second, we have won second…we have dreamed of this day for a long time.”
–Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.