Five years ago, a fourth place finish for the Americans in a nordic combined team event at World Championships would have been tough to swallow, since U.S. medals at major competitions had been few and far between.
But in the season following the 2010 Olympics, which saw U.S. athletes take three silvers and a gold, collecting the “wooden medal” in their first of two team events in Oslo was merely a mild letdown.
“Considering I’m sort of looking toward Sochi, and taking a year pretty easy—or different—and Johnny [Spillane] is coming off an injury, we’re still in there,” said Billy Demong.
The Americans ended up just 14 seconds out of the medals in Monday’s race, behind Austria, Germany, and Norway.
In the team event, four athletes from each country get one crack on the jumping hill, and each is awarded points for their distance and style. The totals for each team are summed, and the country with the most points gets to start first in a 4×5 kilometer relay competition.
On Monday, the U.S. had three decent jumps, by Demong, Todd Lodwick, and Bryan Fletcher. But Johnny Spillane, coming off torn knee ligaments this summer, has struggled on the hill this season.
“That’s partly technical, and partly just confidence—and not having a lot of jumps and not getting off to a good start right away,” Spillane said. “Once you start competing, it’s hard to make changes.”
Spillane said his jump in Oslo was decent, given his results this year, but at 108 points, it wasn’t quite at the level of the rest of the American squad—Demong’s, Fletcher’s, and Lodwick’s jumps were all better than 120 points.
The American’s performance on the hill left the squad in fifth, 1:08 down to France, which was the first team to start in the relay race. But France didn’t have nearly the horsepower on the track of the next three teams to start: Germany, at 13 seconds back; Norway, at 34 seconds back; and Austria, at 49 seconds.
By the end of the first leg, France had been chewed up and spit out by the Germans and Norwegians; they were out of contention, and went on to finish fifth.
The U.S., meanwhile, had opted to send Demong, its fastest skier, first.
“We had a little bit of time to make up, so we kind of front-loaded,” he said.
Demong was able to close the 20-second gap the Americans had to the Austrian team, and two squads made the tag together, in fourth and fifth. With France in third and fading, it appeared that the U.S. might have a shot at a medal—especially with their skier, Bryan Fletcher, going out with Austria’s Bernhard Gruber, who’s not known for his speed on skis.
(U.S. nordic combined fans might remember Gruber as the recipient of a one-two punch by Spillane and Demong in the final individual event in Vancouver; all three started the skiing portion close together, with the two Americans relegating Gruber to bronze at the finish.)
But as Fletcher hammered, trying to close the gap to France, and keep Norway and Germany within striking distance, Gruber did something unexpected: he kept up. As the pair hit big climb on their last of two 2.5-kilometer laps, Gruber accelerated, leaving Fletcher behind.
“[I] felt like I could put in some effort to try to reel in France. Eventually, I just put in a little too much work, and gave Bernie a little too much rest, and he just took off like an animal on the last hill,” Fletcher said. “I tried to go, and I just didn’t have it.”
The second leg was essentially the end of the day for the Americans—Spillane and Lodwick had serviceable legs, but
couldn’t bring the team back into contention. None of the U.S. athletes pinned the result on Fletcher, though—Demong said that he was just doing what he had to do.
“They were running fourth and fifth. If they had been running first and second, it would have maybe been time to play some games,” Demong said. ““He went for it.”
Gruber ended up with the fastest split time of his leg, putting 23 seconds into Fletcher—impressive for a guy who was picked for the Austrian team at the last second over Willi Denifl, thanks to a good day in Saturday’s individual competition and some solid training sessions.
In addition to dropping Fletcher, Gruber also brought his team back into contention with the Germans and Norwegians, and Felix Gottwald, who skied the Austrians’ third leg, finished the job. He tagged off to Mario Stecher, the team’s anchor, in a dead heat with the Germans; Norway’s Jan Schmid had faltered, leaving his squad 23 seconds down.
The last leg came down to a duel between the Germans and Austrians—two of the titans of nordic combined. Norway’s anchor, the mustachioed Magnus Moan, came within four seconds of reeling them in, to the delight of the home crowd. But Gottwald and Germany’s Tino Edelmann were moving too quickly to be caught.
Gottwald and Edelmann came into the stadium together, the latter in search of an elusive German team gold—the country was second at worlds in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009.
Gottwald led up the last rise onto the backstretch, then around the corner into the finishing straight, where he elected to sprint on the righthand side.
Edelmann had an open lane in the center, but was worried it would be soft, since a classic track there from the women’s cross-country race early in the day had been scrubbed just prior to the start of the nordic combined competition.
He instead went on the far right, and it looked like he got pinched—though he said in a press conference afterwards that the sprint was “totally fair.” Gottwald, the Austrian, held Edelmann off by a scant half-second.
“He had just a little, tiny bit more strength in his legs than me,” Edelmann said.
Moan held on for third place, 40 seconds back, and the Americans, in fourth, were just under a minute down. They’ll get another chance in the second team competition on Friday, though, and their coach, Dave Jarrett, said that the team still has hopes for a medal.
“We know that people are skiing well, and jumping well,” he said. “Everything’s there—it’s just a matter of putting it together in the competitions.”
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.