When Bill Demong surged to historic Olympic gold in Whistler last year, dropping Austria’s Bernhard Gruber like a Porsche passing a Pontiac, he seemed invincible.
So how did he manage not to score a single World Cup point in the opening races this season?
It’s a question that has left many scratching their ski hats, not least of all Demong. But thinking through it has brought him back to some of the core principles that laid the foundation for his success, says the 30-year-old. And that has him “fired up” as he pursues a four-year quest to defend his Olympic title in Sochi, Russia, after taking some time off to recoup, build a house in Park City, and get married this summer.
“I started training full-time again in September, and I thought I’d done enough work that I’d still be pretty competitive [on the World Cup],” says Demong, fresh back from Norway. “At first I was pretty disappointed. But then I thought, if I’d gone over and won a World Cup after three months, it would probably be hard to keep working hard… now, I’m more fired up to figure out.”
Demong’s attitude, evident in a phone interview two days before his 5th place in the Continental Cup this weekend in Park City, highlights a strength of character and breadth of outlook that not only brought him Olympic gold but has steadied him through bumpier sections of his career.
Among his secrets: Reading voraciously (everything from environmental essayist Edward Abbey to How-To books on investing); building everything from concrete countertops to homes; and setting what he and his team call “hairy” goals – a term he attributes to a Norwegian coach who perhaps mixed up the word for “scary.”
That diversity of activity, he says, actually enabled him to focus more – and ride out the tougher results along the way. It was an intentional shift in approach that came about after a head injury after the 2002 Olympics forced him to take a year time off.
“It was a year of finding value in myself in other ways for the first time in awhile, and realizing that the finish line wasn’t necessarily the goal all the time,” says Demong, who spent months ruminating over the US team’s fourth-place Olympic finish in 2002 instead of celebrating it as the best result in history.
A big lesson was not to define himself by his success or failure.
“Before that [injury], after a race I’d leave the race course, and if I’d had good result, I was a good person, and if I’d had a bad race, I was a bad person and the time that I spent was wasted – it was really black and white,” he says. “Part of the reason able to improve is that I was able disconnect results as athlete and my self-confidence and my value as a person.”
So when he came back, it was with a new set of rules: “I’m going to enjoy every day. I’m going to work really hard at this, do my best, shoot high, but I’ll never lose sleep on this sport again.”
That approach, he admits, has been tested by his results so far this season: 32nd, 36th, 45th and 38th on the World Cup.
“I’m just coming off a month trip where I struggled hard,” he says. “I’ve been kind of unearthing some of these truths right now. It’s a little tougher, for sure.”
He could have exited the sport’s stage last spring as Olympic champion, flag-bearer for the US Olympic team, and – together with Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick – part of a trio that smashed the European glass ceiling of Nordic combined and brought home the first Olympic medals for the US since the sport’s Olympic debut in 1924.
“There was part of me that was like, I could totally be done now,” he says, recalling a conversation with Head Coach Dave Jarrett in Oslo last spring. “But part of what I’ve really worked hard at is establishing better junior development. And it became clear quickly that in order for that to continue was to stick around to be a teammate, help those guys get better results.”
So within weeks of the Olympics, he decided to keep skiing. But as a guy who espouses “hairy” goals – he couldn’t merely keep skiing. So, he decided, “I’m going to defend this medal in Sochi.”
“That’s a pretty hairy goal,” he says, but meets his dual criteria of being both ambitious and achievable.
So what’s his secret to achieving such goals? “The same thing that’s helped me in skiing has helped me in other aspects of my life – it starts with a bigger, broader longer-term goal, working backwards to where I am now.”
“Probably the most powerful thing I do is that every day I try to do something toward achieving the next goal or the longer-term goal. it may be something small, but it’s just kind of keeping your mind open to staying on that path, whether it’s an e-mail you need to write or having a couple of hours of downtime, but it’s just always keeping the mind’s eye [the question], ‘Will this help me toward what I want to achieve?’ ”
Such preparation enables not only one’s body to be ready for competition, but also to be on top of your mental game, he says. At an event like the Olympics, he estimates, 20 people are capable of winning on any given day but some are too focused on winning and others take themselves out of mentally because “they decide that their stomach hurts, or the weather turns… It becomes more and more mental.
“For me, what I’ve discovered is that preparation is really key – sometimes people get carried away, well, I didn’t train enough to do really well. You do train your body but you also train your mind. You prepare your mind to succeed, and the in the heat of competition, that’s where experience comes in.
“What I’ve discovered in elite competitions like the Olympics and World Championships, you’re really using your mind to keep your body on track. You’re really basically allowing your body to do what it’s trained to do, but it’s easy for your mind to get in the way.”
And when things do go well?
“One of the things I’ve really strived to do,” says Demong, “is no matter how good the results got, never lose sight of who I am … never be too good to do a favor for a friend.”