By this point, Billy Demong should need no introduction, but we’ll give you a quick one anyway. A stalwart on the American nordic combined team for the last ten years, he won his first World Cup in 2002, his first World Championship medal in 2007 in Sapporo, and then walked away from this year’s Olympic Games with a gold and silver, from the individual large hill and team event, respectively. The gold was the first-ever for an American in the nordic disciplines, and it may not be the only one for Demong—nordic combined fans will be excited to hear that he has committed to racing through the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
We caught up with Billy on the tail end of a hectic month, which included a trip—the Heavy Medal Tour—to the Middle East to visit with American military personnel. He was just beginning to get back on the fitness train, but a Twitter update from early this morning suggests that he may have come down with a case of pneumonia.
FasterSkier: First off, can you tell us how much you actually trained in the months of March and April, what with your hectic travel schedule?
Billy Demong: Well, for the first time in like seven or eight years, I’m actually taking a long break—not really intentionally. I’ve been doing so much traveling and cool and fun stuff that that was purely all the energy I had. From the end of the World Cup season in Oslo until basically last week, the only exercise I had was the occasional day off—go for a ski, go for a run, whatever. Last week, I was able to get on the bike six of the last seven days. I’m starting to slowly learn what it’s like to get into shape for the first time in a long time.
FS: So, you were pretty much done with racing after the Olympics, right? You had that one last World Cup in Norway?
BD: That was our last World Cup, and from there, Johnny [Spillane] and I went to ski flying World Championships to forerun. That was kind of a high stress week, where we were kind of the test dummies for the biggest ski jump in the world. It was a whole different ballgame—it was like basically twice the size of the Olympic big hill. The hill record on that jump is 240 meters, and the one in Whistler is around 140.
FS: Can you tell me a little more about it?
BD: It was a really cool experience—kind of the funny part was having to be a forejumper. Johnny and I are up there the first day, the hill hasn’t been jumped in a year—there are 20 of us total. The best continental cup jumpers from Austria, Germany, Norway—we were kind of looking around at each other like, ‘Where are the forejumpers for the forejumpers?’ It’s a pretty intimidating hill. We took one jump a day for five days—it was such an intense thing, it’s like flying a crappy Cessna at like jet speed. You could crash, you could flip over—it was a stressful situation
It’s one of those mystical things in ski jumping—everyone wants to go ski flying, but at the same time you know it’s something you’re not going to do well if you’re not on your game. In order to jump well, you have to be jumping as technically good as you ever have. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and this year it just made the most sense. It was the thing we were looking forward to, past the Olympics, the whole season.
FS: To give a thorough blow-by-blow seems like it would be hard, but can you give me at least a quick run down of your hectic schedule since the end of the Games?
BD: Right after closing ceremonies, I woke up and went to Park City—later that week was back in Lake Placid before going to Norway. I was able to forerun a bunch of Bill Koch races. It was a cool week to be able to celebrate, and enjoy it with all these kids and all these programs—it brought back a lot of memories.
After we left ski flying, we went back to Park City for a week. That was pretty busy—it was still early after the games—there was lunch with the governor, practices with some of the TUNA [The Utah Nordic Alliance] kids.
After that week in Park City, we headed out to a sendoff on the Heavy Medal Tour, and the four of us took off for the Middle East for two weeks. It doesn’t matter what you think you know—it’s a mind-blowing experience. We met so many troops and we got to talk to so many different people like Iraqis, coalition forces in Germany. We shared our Olympic experience, they shared some of their experiences over there, and it was really mind-blowing to see what a huge operation and a dedicated, skilled group of people the Armed Forces are. And to see the kind of transition in Iraq—maybe just realizing what we see in the news and what we assume as our role…isn’t the reality, or at least all of it.
It was really busy—for two weeks we just did basically all day every day, meeting with different units, traveling to different bases. One day, Johnny Spillane and I got on exercise bikes and did intervals for about 45 minutes, and I did one weight session with Todd [Lodwick]. We didn’t sleep hardly at all. It was so much—get up at 3 a.m., get to the flight line….
On the way back we went from Balad [in northern Iraq], to Baghdad, to Bahrain, to Frankfurt, to J.F.K. I slept 13 hours on the Bahrain to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to J.F.K. flights, and then I drove to my fiancée’s house in Nyack, and proceeded to go bed immediately and sleep for another 13 hours. That was a little testament to how hard we went when we were over there. You feel like if you don’t work out you’re going to get fat—and to get so busy that I just didn’t have any energy to do anything athletic… I got up the next day to tour the Battenkill course—it was a 62 mile ride, one lap–and I was totally rocked at the end of that ride.
From there it was off to D.C. for the U.S. Olympic team’s presidential visit, and then Andrew Weibrecht and I did a little politicking on behalf of the Olympic Regional Development Authority on Capitol Hill.
The Earthday thing—I didn’t get as much time to get the message across as I wanted to. It was a special experience to be able to speak in front of that many people. I tried to make the connection with the fact that climate change is bringing into question these kids’ ability to teach their kids to ski one day, but they cut my time down to like a minute, so maybe next year.
And then the last big scheduled thing I needed to do was throw the Mets pitch. We traveled back up from D.C., and that was kind of a celebration of the end of all this busy stuff. They gave us a bunch of free tickets, and we brought kids I grew up with, my fiancee’s friends. I managed to throw the opening pitch hard enough to make the catcher jump for it. The guys in the dugout were like, ‘You gotta huck it!’ So I hucked it, right over the plate, about five feet too high.
That was sort of the end of the road—I was in Nyack for the last week, kind of explored on my bike for four or five hours a day.
FS: Going back to the Olympics, can you talk a little bit about your peak? It seems like you guys absolutely nailed it.
BD: Especially this year, more than ever, it was important. If you look at our results coming in, Johnny was on top of his game, but I really struggled this year. I broke my shoulder in the fall—if anything I skied slower, because in the ramp up after my injury I didn’t take it easy. A lot of my distance training was a little too long, a little too hard—training in the middle. My belief and philosophy [in the past] has been: either we’re going to go easy, or we’re going to go out and we’re going to make it hurt—the biggest separation from easy to hard in our training as we can. There’s a lot of different reasons, physiologically and mentally, to do that.
Because I really wasn’t fit enough, I just ended up doing a lot of middle ground distance sessions. I was really fit if I was going to go out and ski a three-hour marathon, but I wasn’t able to finish a ten k real fast. When everybody went hard, I couldn’t go hard enough. For me, it was really hard to be able to find that extra gear again.
Since Torino, we’ve really isolated how to peak. This has been drawing on my own experiences back in high school as a cross-country runner—we used to really peak well for state championships—and also looking at what other sports do. [Coach] Dave [Jarrett] is always going to these physiology clinics and coaching seminars, trying to take bits and pieces from cycling, swimming, track and field.
We’ve definitely gotten lucky in that right away. The year we first took a break going into World Championships, in Sapporo, we pretty much drilled it, in fact—if anything we drilled it a little bit toward the end of the championships, not the beginning. Having done that now four years in a row, we’ve kind of gotten able to fine-tune it a little bit for each person and figure out what needs to change.
It was kind of funny, because I was a little bit nervous going in [to the Olympics], in that I won one World Cup that was basic a fitness test, an uphill
climb. But even when I was in position to win, I couldn’t podium in a regular sprint finish. So I was a little bit nervous, but when you know for the last three years that you’ve been able to repeatedly peak at the same time, based on the same format, it makes it that much easier to have a little confidence, to bail after [the World Cup in] Courchevel—trust we’re going to be what we need to be when we need to be it.
We went home with plenty of time, did our whole peaking thing. That first race at the Olympics was a little bit of wild card, but I caught up a whole bunch of time, and that gave me a lot of confidence going into the last two races.
FS: When you talk about bailing after Courcheval—you guys skipped the last few World Cups heading into the Olympics. It doesn’t seem like many other teams do that, do they?
BD: It’s a little bit different, nordic combined, than it is in some of the other sports like biathlon and cross country. We have such a small field—it’s just the way that we run our world rankings—you’re only allowed so many starters. Historically, individuals in nordic combined earned their own spot, and you couldn’t transfer that spot. We’d have three spots for us, and nobody else could ski that—we had to go.
That has changed over the last two years in nordic combined, but the other teams haven’t really changed yet. While we’re bailing out before World Championships and Olympics to go do our thing and sending our junior team, the other countries are still sending their exact same squad. They still feel this need to show up at every World Cup, which is fine for me, for them to do that. For us, that’s huge, in that we’re able to give some other guys a chance to go get some experience, and also be able to get ready the way we know we need to.
FS: After the nordic combined team had so much success at the Olympics, and the cross country side struggled, one burning question on the minds of our readers after the Olympics was what differentiates those two programs. Do you have any insight on that?
BD: I can only speak to what we do, and what I think we’ve done that works. We’ve made a long-term commitment to athletes. Especially because we’re such a small sport, we have to do the most and the very best we can with each person, almost to a fault—sometimes we’ll end up spending a ton of time and effort with someone who eventually doesn’t work out. But the good side is that we’ve gotten the most out of people.
The first time Johnny or I showed up at a World Cup—Todd’s a bit of a freak, he stepped up and won a World Cup at 18—we were, like, signing results, just like everyone else does when they showed up. Most of the good guys show up, get beat, adjust, come back and do better. For us, we’re more normal, in that we had to go through the process of being 40th before we could be 30th, 30th before we could be 20th, slowly learning the level and slowly getting better. And so it was important for us to get that opportunity to get a lot of starts. For sure, we earned that right—in the system, we earned our own spots through the Continental Cup; once we had a spot on the World Cup we had to keep our spot.
You need to be [racing] at the level enough to learn it. I can make a good comparison: Picking up this bike racing gig, it’s like a new sport for me. When I first got on a bike, I was having trouble winning [entry-level] races. I had the legs to do it, but I had to learn. Once I got up in the levels, like the [highest] categories, it was so fast for me that I couldn’t even fathom how hard these guys were going. I did like a handful of races, and it started to feel more comfortable, then I did more, and then I understood how you can sit in the top 30.
It’s like anything else—for sure I’m training and I’m getting more efficient on the bike, but it’s just as much mental as it is physical. Every year I train five days on my time trial bike—it’s something that’s just not important enough for me right now—but every year I cut like a minute off my T.T. time. Part of it is just being exposed to the level and making the adjustments mentally and physically to deal with it. For our team, it was important to be able to lose a hundred World Cups and still be able to go back and try to win.
For our program too, a lot of us had to start on the Continental Cup. We fielded whole teams on the Continental Cup and learned how to win that before we started showing up at World Cups, too. Of course, being the first guys in the U.S. to break these barriers, it took us longer than some of our European peers. We really had to learn our way up and figure it out along the way.
FS: One thing that we noticed at the Games was the amazing amount of media interest in you guys. Do you feel like you made the most of that attention that you received during that period?
BD: I think it’s been pretty cool to watch. There has been really significant change over the last ten years. Even as recently as, I would say a little bit, in Torino, if you ever got into an interview about nordic combined, there’s always a lot of questions about ‘what is nordic combined,’ and now I rarely field that question. Now it’s like ‘okay, who’s the fourth guy?’ and, ‘what are you guys going to do differently next year?’ A lot of tangible, relevant questions. It
just seems like the people that report the sport are much better informed and knowledgeable. And then I think, too, since the Olympics, it was kind of interesting—on the train on the way down to D.C., someone recognized me out of the blue. Talking to different congressmen, just people in Washington D.C.—it was like, if the conversation ever turned towards ‘what did you do?’ so many people were like ‘oh, I watched that,’ ‘oh, my kids watch that.’
They always remembered bits and pieces of the story. ‘Oh, right, you guys had never medaled before this year, right.’ ‘Don’t you all live together and trained together?’ Another cool thing with the media was that NBC always assesses what sports are going to do well, and then they prepare to cover those sports. And if the sport does well, then they cover it. It’s not like Eurosport where they just cover everything. But the good part of that for us, this time, was that they were prepared, they did well, they produced it. The last piece of the puzzle that needed to happen was we needed the results. We gave them the results, and then they did the story. That was definitely a big step in terms of knocking down that general public information barrier.
FS: Do you feel like the sport will get some kind of a boost from that? I mean, obviously, people in Texas aren’t going to be able to take their kids out ski jumping, but at least in the areas where there’s snow?
BD: I think people are always surprised. Just over the last month and a half, or two, there have been a lot of situations where I’ve met people who have kids who want to try it. In Chicago, there’s actually a great jumping club right in Fox River Grove—thousands of spectators on the K70 just north of downtown. [If you live in] Lakewood, well, you’re about 20 minutes from a great club. So there’s a lot more clubs out there than I think people know.
I think now is definitely a time when I hope to be able to maybe pass on information through channels—that if you live in the Midwest, go to this website, or if you’re from Salt Lake, go to Park City, no problem. It was only 20 years ago that almost all the ski resorts on the east coast, and a lot of the ones out west, had ski jumps. Aspen is actually building a new ski jumping facility. I don’t think we need to build Olympic-sized hills everywhere, but even if it just complements the cross-country ski program, at least it gives kids something else to do at practice, even if they never produce a real ski jumper.
FS: Do you know what you schedule is going to look like for this next year? Similar to the last few, with bike racing in the summer, then gearing up for the nordic combined season and World Championships?
BD: I already had to look at my next four years—I think it’s important for the funding of our program, and just for my own sanity. I’m not a ‘let’s take it four years at a time’ person. From my side, I sat down with Dave Jarrett right after the season and I said ‘I’m going to go another four years.’ So this is my year to take a break mentally, more than physically—I’m probably going to race my bike this year the same as normal, but probably just bike the first few months of summer and get back to jumping and cross country later on. Take this year to build a four-year progression. Of course I definitely want to defend my World Championship title, but I’m not going to really stress the whole season, and I’m not going to worry about getting on rollerskis in May. It’s going to be my year, mentally, to build up for the next four years. It’s kind of been a strange year for me—I haven’t taken a month off from exercise in years and years and years. It’s interesting to find out that I haven’t gained a whole lot of weight, and I still feel relatively okay.
We have some really good young guys coming up like Taylor Fletcher and Nick Hendrickson. I want to give them a teammate to train with. We have a pretty good group—the Camerotas I think are both training—they’re all out in Park City now, training together. Todd and Johnny and I are still on our own, just getting back into it, Brett [Camerota] too. Eventually, in the next few weeks, we’ll start to get together on a daily basis, four or five days a week, for training. In the short term, we’re going to work on all being back together, and by mid-summer all going to camps together—Steamboat [Springs], Park City, and Europe. For the long term, it’s important, in order for the success we had this year to continue to be big, and not just like some blip on the radar. It’s going to be important because we have the talent, and we’ve committed to some good development over the last four years. In order to get the next group
to where we are, it’s going to be important for one or more of us to ski for another four years. When they finally start going to World Cups every week—if everyone on the team is [placing] in the 30s and 40s, it’s a lot harder than if you have a teammate next to you, winning, to take that next step forward. If you know how human that guy is, and he’s doing it, then it’s a lot easier to do it yourself. A lot of times, it’s just knowing the level, and it becomes really mental, just believing that you’re going to be good enough—that you’re shooting to win, and not to finish.
FS: Last question: Where are your medals right now?
BD: They’re in my big Army backpack. For the first time in two months, they haven’t been out of the case in like a week, and it’s been the most peaceful thing ever to put those things away.
I think all of us [on the nordic combined team] are the kind of people that would have just loved to put them away, but you realize that people want to see them, and people get a lot out of seeing them. Everybody watches the Olympics, and even if they don’t care what sport you do, just looking at that medal brings it close to them. So many people, that you never expect, will hold it, and say, ‘I never thought it’d actually see one.’ It’s been cool, it’s been fun; it’s also been fun to put them away.
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.