An American team entering a winter as a favorite in a nordic sport is kind of like the Detroit Lions somehow starting an NFL season with good odds to win the Super Bowl. But here’s the U.S. Nordic Combined Team, its members entering the 2011 season with targets on their backs.
After winning four medals at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the squad’s “Big Three” are back, and will headline the American presence at the 2011 World Ski Championships in Oslo, Norway. Billy Demong will compete on the World Cup circuit beginning this weekend at the season-opener in Kuusamo, Finland, while Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane will both start competing later on this winter.
With Lodwick and Spillane out, the U.S. has three young guns starting in Kuusamo with Demong on Friday: Olympic medalist Brett Camerota, 25, and brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, 24 and 20. According to Dave Jarrett, the team’s head coach, the younger Fletcher is ahead of where Demong and Spillane were at his age—which should worry European competitors.
After the first two World Cup weekends, in Kuusamo and Lillehammer, Norway, the U.S. team will head home for a short break before the last race weekend of 2010, in mid-December in Ramsau, Germany. Demong will stay home to await the birth of his first child, and his return to the circuit will depend on when the baby is born. Meanwhile, Lodwick will begin his World Cup season in Ramsau, while Spillane will likely get a few starts in January, before World Championships get underway a month later. Lodwick’s participation is confirmed, while Spillane’s depends on the pace of his recovery from torn knee ligaments.
This year’s World Cup nordic combined schedule is curtailed from last season, with just seven weekends on the docket compared to 11 in 2010 and 13 in 2009.
According to Jarrett, the dearth of races is due to difficulty in finding organizers, as well as a change in the International Ski Federation staff member that oversees the nordic combined circuit—but things should be back to normal by 2012.
“The calendar looks much more filled up moving forward, after this season,” Jarrett said.
In past years, the U.S. has skipped the World Cup races directly before major championships, and instead executed a well-honed peaking plan while their rivals kept competing. But this year’s schedule leaves a month-long hole leading into World Championships, which Jarrett said could negate the Americans’ advantage—unless the Europeans elect to race lower-level competitions in early February.
“Everyone will be on our [peaking] plan, by the very nature of the calendar,” Jarrett said.
While the World Cup schedule may not be to the Americans’ liking, there is at least one silver lining to the season: a second team competition at World Championships.
Team events entail four athletes from each country taking jumps to determine a handicap for a 4×5 k relay to follow later in the day. In the past, there has been just one team competition at World Championships, but this year, organizers elected to run another, rather than a mass start event. After their silver medal in the format in Vancouver, Jarrett says he likes his team’s chances.
“There’s not a lot of nations that have four really strong guys, so that’s good for us,” Jarrett said. “We feel we have as much opportunity to win a medal in team events as anybody.”
After World Championships, the season wraps up with one last World Cup in Lahti, Finland. The American team could be in for some big changes, depending on whether the 34-year-old Lodwick and the 30-year-old Spillane decide to continue their careers. (Demong has committed to racing through the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.)
“What Todd does after this year is anybody’s guess,” Jarrett said. “Who knows with Johnny, too? He’s had his fair share of injuries…I think he wants to [continue], but we’ll have to wait and see.”
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.