Whistler, British Columbia – The US Nordic Combined team will paying overweight on their flight back to Park City. A historic day doubled their Vancouver medal haul, giving them nearly nine pounds of hardware.
Billy Demong skied away from teammate Johnny Spillane and Austrian Bernard Gruber on the final climb to claim Olympic gold. With a move of his own, Spillane left Gruber in the dust, too—laying claim to his 3rd silver medal of the Games.
The US entered the 2010 Olympics never having won an Olympic medal in nordic combined. They leave with four and have cemented their place as the top team in the world.
Spillane and Demong were in excellent position after the morning jumping round, in 2nd and 6th respectively. Gruber posted the longest jump of the day, by an impressive five meters, and sat 34 seconds up on Spillane. Demong was another 12 behind.
In the jumping round, athletes had to content with snow, rain, and swirling winds, which wreaked havoc on the results. Clad in puffy suits, which help catch the wind and allow the athletes to sail so far, minute differences in weather can get amplified tremendously.
Conditions were so erratic this morning that officials scrapped the first round of jumping. But with tight TV schedules and many teams flying home tomorrow, the show had to go on.
That left a number of top Europeans out of contention, including France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis and Austria’s Felix Gottwald, who blasted the jury (the officials in charge of overseeing the jumping).
“This jumping competition has nothing to do with fair competition,” he said. “In my opinion, if all the athletes performed like the jury did today, then we would crash on the in-run.”
Lamy Chappuis and Gottwald weren’t the only ones who got thrown off by the weather—U.S. Nordic Combined Coach Dave Jarrett said that the conditions for Todd Lodwick’s jump were also less than ideal. But France, Austria, and the U.S. all had men in the top five, as well, and there was nothing to be done aside from strap on the skis in the afternoon.
“No matter how many times they restarted they restarted that competition, no matter how windy or snowy it got, we were going to do our best,” Demong said.
With the jumping results set in stone, Demong set about closing the gap to Spillane right out of the gate.
Already, by the end of their first 2.5 kilometer lap, Demong had dropped the skiers that started with him, bridging up to his teammate.
Trading the lead, the two worked to close the 30-second gap to Gruber—part of the plan they had devised before the race.
“The big goal that we had before the race was to get two guys on the podium, preferably one-two. And the way we were going to do that was exactly what we did: I had to ski up to [Spillane] alone, and then we had to go together like it was a team time trial, and do the best we could to work over Bernhard Gruber,” he said.
Knowing that he was outmanned, with the two Americans working together behind him, Gruber was conserving energy.
“I started out quiet as not to get tired legs,” he said. “I knew the two strong men…were coming from behind.”
Before the halfway point, Gruber had been caught, and more importantly, the large chase pack that formed behind was not gaining any ground. Poor skiers, the other athletes starting between Demong and Spillane quickly fell off the pace. But Mario Stecher (AUT), who outkicked Demong in the team event two days ago, and the always-dangerous Petter Tande (NOR), set to work, and their group continued to grow as more skiers came up from behind, including American Todd Lodwick, in bib 13.
Lodwick moved to the front of the pack, and taking a page from the Swedish cross-country team in the pursuit, he attempted to control the pace.
“I went in the lead [of the chase group] and slowed the pack down, said Lodwick. “Other skiers were not so happy, but who cares? We’re on the podium.”
Halfway through the 10 kilometer race, the chasers were 32 seconds back. At the next checkpoint, a k-and-a-half later, the gap was up to 46 seconds, and it was clear that the medalists were decided. The only question remaining was who would get gold.
Demong and Spillane continued to switch leads, and several times it appeared they had shaken Gruber. He seemed to struggle all day to maintain contact with the Americans, never even getting near the front. As soon as Spillane and Demong took the lead one lap in, they had the race in a vice grip, applying accelerations and pace changes to tire out the Austrian.
The Americans had been in similar situations earlier this year, with multiple athletes in the lead group, but they hadn’t been able to take control the way they did here on Thursday.
“I think the major difference, especially today, was the fact that Johnny and I are really, really fit now,” Demong said. “We’re racing faster than we did before…that’s what makes the biggest difference. And today we had that luxury of being able to just go as hard as we could together, skiing away from everybody else, pretty confident that we could both beat Gruber—and that’s when team tactics really work.”
The Austrian especially had trouble maintaining the pace over the tops of the bigger climbs, but he always managed to claw his way back. This raised the specter of ski speed – the Austrians clearly had better boards in the team competition, most strikingly in the final push when Stecher easily glided away from Demong in the stadium.
But it was finally Demong’s Olympic day. With the fitness and speed that he has displayed in cross-country over the several seasons, he attacked furiously halfway up the final climb, and Gruber was gone instantly. Spillane could not match Demong, but he fired up his own engine, and dropped the hammer on the Austrian as well.
Spillane appeared to close on Demong down the backstretch, but the three-time World Championship medalist put in one final acceleration around the final corner. With that, the U.S. nordic combined team made history for the third consecutive race.
“That was the best finish I have had in a race all year,” a composed Demong told media. “We are racing faster than ever.”
The rest of the field came streaming in. The great Hannu Manninen (FIN) skied up from 16th at the start to finish 4th, and Gottwald, furious after the jump, threw down for the fastest ski time, 17 seconds ahead of Demong. That performance, however, only moved him up to 17th.
“I had a small chance for a medal,” said Manninen following the race, “but there were three better guys today, and the gap was too big.”
Demong was still at a loss for words at the press conference, an hour after the finish.
“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that,” he said, when asked what it felt like to become the first American to win Olympic gold in the nordic sports. “I’ll let you know in ten or fifteen years from now.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.