After Johnny Spillane won a silver medal Sunday afternoon—the first of any color in U.S. nordic combined history—his former coach, Tom Steitz, voiced the rhetorical question on every reporter’s mind here.
“How do you boil up 86 years of emotion and frustration?” he asked.
The answer? Todd Lodwick’s face.
Struggling to explain himself and holding back tears after just missing out on the bronze, Lodwick quivered with feeling: fierce pride for his teammate and friend, disappointment from coming so tantalizingly close to a medal, and envy stemming from the sheer competitiveness that has fueled the rise of three Americans to the sport’s greatest heights, which finally culminated with Spillane’s performance today.
“This one’s satisfying,” said a teary-eyed Luke Bodensteiner, who oversees the American nordic combined program as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA’s) associate director of high performance. “This one’s the first.”
Capitalizing on the fourth-best jump of the morning, Spillane skied 99 percent of a tactically perfect 10-k. Attacking out of a chase group in the last kilometer and reeling in Japan’s Norohito Kobayashi, Spillane took a ten-meter gap over the last climb and looked to be on his way to gold—the stadium announcers were hyping the “battle for second” as the lead group came down into the stadium.
But they underestimated the fitness of Jason Lamy-Chappuis, the French World Cup leader. With Spillane fading on the finishing stretch, Lamy-Chappuis inexorably closed the gap between the two, catching the American with about ten meters to go—depriving him of a storybook ending to what was still an historic day for U.S. skiing.
After Lodwick and Spillane took second and fourth in this morning’s jump, an American medal seemed all but assured, given the strength of those two on their skis. But the two still had to contend with Lamy-Chappuis, as well as other strong skiers who cracked the top-ten in the jump like Mario Stecher (AUS) and Anssi Koivuranta (FIN).
Janne Ryynaenen (FIN) had by far the longest leap of the morning, and headed out on course with a 34-second lead over Lodwick, who had another ten to 15 seconds over a group of chasers that included Spillane, Lamy-Chappuis, Stecher, and eventual bronze-medallist Alessandro Pittin (ITA).
Nordic combined races tend to form big packs, with the real racing not playing out until the last few kilometers, and this one was no different.
By the four k mark, Lodwick had caught up to Rynaenen—not a strong skier—and he was joined soon after by Spillane, Koivuranta, Kobayashi, and a handful of others. For the next five kilometers, the two Americans took turns at the front, with Lodwick doing the bulk of the work leading into the finale.
Afterward, he said that he was hoping to stretch things out, and perhaps open up a gap. But it also helped Lodwick to know that Spillane was behind him, resting.
“I sacrificed myself to push the pace high, because I knew that if we didn’t do that, people were going to come up from behind,” he said. “For the
greater good of the team, I pushed the pace hard.”
As the group neared the bottom of the big climb on their final 2.5k lap, Kobayashi attacked, getting about five seconds on the rest of the bunch, which was still tightly packed. But with those half-dozen athletes still together behind him, there was a sense that Kobayashi was a little early.
Spillane was the first to respond, and he did so with authority, using a sharp acceleration to leave the rest of the group behind. He quickly reeled in Kobayashi going over the top of the big climb, and it was clear that this would be the race’s decisive move.
There was one last hill before the stadium, and Spillane climbed it alone, exhorted by the fines lining the course and still chased by Lodwick, Lamy-Chappuis and Pittin. The rest of the pack was shattered behind them.
Spillane looked sharp on his way up, still able to hop-skate. He looked so good that the stadium announcer guaranteed a win barring a fall on the final downhill turn.
But Lamy-Chapuis wasn’t done. Aided by a very fast pair of skis, the Frenchman had Spillane within five meters when the group entered the stadium. As the pair turned the corner onto the finishing stretch, the race was a toss-up, with Spillane clinging to a slowly-eroding lead as every American in the stadium held their breath. But Lamy-Chappuis had just a little more left, having spent a few more seconds out of the wind. He edged Spillane by .4 seconds, completing a perfect tactical race.
“Jason—I’ll give it to him,” Lodwick said. “He’s a smart motherf—–, I’ll tell you what.”
Having burned a few more matches, Lodwick was another second behind. After returning to chase an Olympic medal following a two-year retirement, the fourth place was tough for him to stomach. There was an edge to his voice after the race, revealing a twinge of jealousy of his teammate’s accomplishment.
“To tell you the truth, being the fourth really sucks,” he said. “We’ve got two events left, but I’d much rather be fifth.”
On another day, Billy Demong also would have been on the podium. After a poor jump left him in 24th place, he fought his way to the lead pack, despite having started over two minutes down on Ryynaenen. He didn’t have the gas for the sprint, though, after working so hard to catch up, and he was dropped on the last hill. Demong ended up sixth, 18 seconds down, but with a silver lining of the field’s third-fastest ski time.
“It makes it that much sweeter I was able to finish in the group with those guys, but honestly, today was a team success,” he said. “Hopefully it means it will be that much easier to do it again.”
The powerhouse nordic combined team now flies back to Park City on a private jet for a few days of rest before the next competition, the relay, which takes place on the 23rd.
After Sunday’s race, Lodwick guaranteed a medal for the U.S. in that race.
“I’ll say it right now: we will be on the podium in the team event,” he said. “No questions. We’re gonna be there.”
But regardless, the combiners have already done more than any team before them, which USSA Nordic Director John Farra said should provide a boost for his whole program.
“I’m sure the guys that have been hoping for this and investing in this for years at USSA, and holding out hope that nordic was going to be part of the solution, are going to say ‘okay, here we go. It costs a lot of money to get there, but it’s worth it,’” he said. “And I’d like to think it continues to prove what kind of investment we can get in our sport.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.