With their dominating performances at the 2010 Olympics, Billy Demong, Johnny Spillane, and Todd Lodwick have welded their names to the sport of nordic combined like Bill Koch did to cross-country skiing. But if Head Coach Dave Jarrett has his way over the next few years, they won’t be the only ones people remember.
After taking three silvers and a gold from the Games, the team’s main focus for 2011 is winning more medals—they want three at the World Championships in Oslo. But there’s a long-term goal as well: grooming the next generation to take over when the Big Three retire. That means more travel, more racing, and more experience for the team’s developing athletes.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword for a coach to have the depth at the top,” Jarrett said.
“Bill and Todd and Johnny are very good ambassadors for our sport, and they do tremendous help with development for the younger guys,” he said. But, he added, “it makes it a bigger challenge for somebody to reach the top of the team.”
Like last year, Demong, Spillane, and Lodwick are the only athletes named to the nordic combined A-Team for 2010-2011, and those three will get the World Cup starts they need to be in shape for Oslo. But the six-member B-Team—brothers Eric and Brett Camerota, Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, Brett Denney, and Nick Hendrickson—will attend a healthy share of competitions themselves.
Despite the medals in Vancouver, Jarrett said that the program’s budget stayed flat for the upcoming year. But the team did get extra funding for several new initiatives from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association—essentially internal grants for things like camps and trips—and Jarrett said that money will mean that the team can provide enough support both for its top-level athletes, and those still developing.
“Everyone’s going to say they can use more, but we are able, right now, to do just about everything that we need to do,” Jarrett said. “We got almost all the big initiatives we asked for, and that enabled us to do basically everything…at the level that we can get service to the best guys, and also prepare Taylor and Nick and those guys as best we can, too.”
The team’s season will start with the Grand Prix competitions in Europe—essentially a summer version of the World Cup. Instead of racing on snow, athletes jump off plastic ramps and rollerski around city streets.
In the past, the Grand Prix races have used inline skates instead of rollerskis, which put the Americans at a disadvantage. (According to Jarrett, the skates are an Austrian and German thing.) As a result, the team’s commitment to the summer races has been inconsistent—they’ve shown up with a mix of elite and developing athletes, or sometimes not at all.
“It’s not worth it to spend a month training on rollerblades just for four or five races,” Jarrett said.
But this year, the circuit switched to rollerskis, and accordingly, the U.S. will field a full squad. Unlike in prior summers, the trip will consist solely of B-Team skiers, to get them more experience in Europe and to “start closing the gap,” Jarrett said.
According to Fletcher, it’s not just the racing that’s important at the summer events.
“I think it’s just the atmosphere of being over there, being in the competition circuit, seeing what other teams are doing and seeing how they’re racing,” he said. “It’s something that can definitely help me.”
The Big Three will sit out the summer competitions, but as the winter season gets underway, they will ease back onto the World Cup circuit. But the U.S. only has slots for four athletes at each competition, which means that the B-Team will get fewer starts.
Lodwick, though, will be focusing his efforts on World Championships in late February, and he will do most of his racing domestically until then—leaving the door open a little bit wider for the B-Team. Just like the summer races, the winter World Cup starts are crucial for the team’s younger athletes, Jarrett says—they need those experiences to ensure that the sport doesn’t fall off the radar when the Big Three retire.
“In order to keep our program moving forward…we need to have other guys being successful, too,” he said.
“Todd’s World Cup start will be pretty much open for most of the year,” Jarrett said. “So there’s a bit more impetus and more opportunity for the Nick Hendricksons, the Fletchers, the Camerota brothers to step up and score points.”
Race organizers pay the travel expenses for the top-50 ranked athletes in the world, and Jarrett said that he wants to see five of his team members in that group by the start of World Championships. That means that two athletes from the B-Team will have to up their game, placing in the top 30 consistently, or even the top 20.
“In the Camerota brothers, we know those guys are perfectly capable, both on the jumping hill and skiing, to be in there,” Jarrett said. “Our expectation is for those guys to really step up and become full-fledged World Cup skiers.”
As for the Big Three, Jarrett acknowledged that it might be tough to get them to buckle down again on the day-in, day-out training and racing after the cathartic experience of the Games. But he said the team has adopted a mantra to keep them focused: “The Olympics are over.”
“We have new goals now,” Jarrett said.
Demong has committed to racing through Sochi in 2014, and his training over the next four years will be geared towards achieving strong results there. But he has also made clear his commitment to working with his younger teammates–helping them step up to the next level.
“Ultimately, his goal is to have to fight to even make the team—that we’ve brought the next generation of guys up to the level where they’re beating Bill out of the spot,” Jarrett said.
Lodwick and Spillane have the same attitude toward the developing athletes, Jarrett said, but those two also see the sport as a profession.
There’s money on the line every time they pull on a bib, since FIS pays the top 20 finishers at each World Cup—roughly $5,000 for a win, down to $500 for twentieth. That, Jarrett said, should help keep Lodwick and Spillane sharp.
“There’s money to be made out there, but it’s only getting made by doing well, and they know that,” Jarrett said. “They want to continue the lifestyle and continue the momentum they’ve started, and they want to keep it rolling.”
As long as Lodwick, Spillane, and Demong continue to race, it will be tough for the B-Team to break onto the scene. But Fletcher said he thinks that’s a good thing.
“You definitely need the top guys on the World Cup as much as possible, to get the press, the results, and stuff like that,” he said. “Then, it gives the guys below them something to push for.”
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.