Billy Demong is not the first Nordic Combined skier to cross over to cross-country, but he is likely the only one do so in a World Championship 50k.
When American Kris Freeman opted to sit out the 50-kilometer freestyle race that brought the 2011 World Championships to a close, Demong was given the start. One of the top Nordic Combined skiers on the World Cup circuit, Demong has three World Championship Medals, as well as Olympic gold and silver.
No one, including Demong has any idea what to expect – would he be able to hang with the lead pack for a significant portion of the race, or would he be off the back quickly?
In this case, the answer ended up being the latter. Despite a slow pace out of the start, Demong blew up in the first 5k, necessitating a drastic drop in speed until he could recover, and settle into his own rhythm.
The issue was mainly tactical. Despite entering the race with concerns about the first lap, Demong, starting with the second-to-last seed in the 86-skier field, tried to take advantage of the moderate speed at the beginning to move up.
“I was just double poling up the outside and all of a sudden at 5k I was like ‘uhhh,’ Demong told FasterSkier after the race. “I think I just started like stupid.”
In hindsight, he feels the smart thing would have been to “chill out” out of the start, and not worry so much about moving up in the field.
“It just went from like ‘this is so easy’ to ‘uh-oh,’” he said.
At that point he had no choice but to slow down and refocus, and while he may have lost any chance of skiing with the lead group, there is plenty of time in a 50k to salvage a race.
“I felt like once I got my rhythm it was a really enjoyable race,” Demong said. “I felt pretty darn good the last half of that race. I was picking guys off.”
He described the event as a “learning experience,” and skied the second fastest time for the Americans in the last twenty kilometers of the race.
He continued to move up, and then he said, “at about 3k from the end I thought ‘I may have to lay down for a little bit.’”
As a Nordic Combined skier, Demong typically competes the 10-kilometer distance, though he has experienced the marathon distance many times in domestic races, and also has raced in long cycling events.
He did cramp up toward the end, rubbing his legs at the finish, and appearing to dance around as he tried to loosen up his muscles.
Cramping is often caused by dehydration, but Demong said he hit every feed. He was not alone in that department however, as numerous finishers were seen massaging their quads after they crossed the line, and several had trouble making their way out of the finish area without assistance.
The race actually clocked in at just over 52 kilometers, six times around the extremely challenging 8.6km loop at Holmenkollen, in the hills above the Norwegian capital.
Alex Harvey, the young Canadian star who placed fifth in the event, joined Demong in the mixed zone after race, and after hearing about the nordic combined skier’s experience, told him, “this is the hardest trail in the world.”
Before heading out, Demong told Harvey, “maybe some day I will get you on a jump,” to which the gold medalist in the team sprint replied laughing, “I don’t think I fly well.”
When all was said and done, Demong ended up 51st, almost twelve minutes back from winner Petter Northug (NOR).
“What I hoped for was to not do worse than that, and I hoped to do better than I got,” Demong said of his result. “I kind of hoped I would have been like a little bit higher up longer.”
“Awesome” is how he described the overall experience of racing in front of what many consider the largest crowd ever at a cross-country ski race.
“You have tens of thousands of people keeping you going,” he said. “As you get out toward Frognersetren [the high point of the course], that whole hillside between the trails was filled with people. They were like trees out there.”
When asked if he would do it again, Demong replied with an emphatic “hell yeah,” but added that he was disappointed with his performance.
“At 20k I was so pissed. I was like, I didn’t do what I wanted to do today. I didn’t ski smart in the start. I didn’t stay in this very long,” he said. But finishing stronger than he started ended the day on a positive note, and the veteran of six Nordic Combined World Championships was still proud of his accomplishment.
At the end of the day, and this is gonna sound a little bit self-serving, but there just aren’t that many nordic combined guys, or anyone else that are going to opt in on Friday night after two beers – like ‘yeah I’ll do it!’” Demong said.
“It wasn’t like a mistake,” he continued, “and I’m glad I did it and I would for sure do it again, and I hope I get the opportunity.”
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.
March 8, 2011 at 7:27 pm
What happened to bringing a deserving alterante or 2?
After making such a big deal out of quaification standards for Oly’s and Worlds, why you we just give a start to somebody who happened to be there, and who is not among the fastest 10 skate skiers in the nation? Many skiers base many years of training, and make it their career highlight, to just qualify for Oly’s or Worlds. skiers have filed legal action in the past after being left off these teams. Makes it all seem so silly in my humble opinion.
March 8, 2011 at 7:43 pm
Why give a start to someone who happened to be there? Because it was free.
Reasonable people can disagree about spending priorities and team size, but there is no question that it would have cost thousands of dollars to bring another skier to World Championships, and that is a few thousand dollars not spent in some other way.
March 9, 2011 at 5:39 pm
Hats off to Billy!
What a amazing athlete. Makes you wonder what he could do if he specialized in just XC.
Don’t get me wrong, I love him in nordic combined.
March 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm
Nordic combined is a the combination of two very dissimilar sports. Jumping is pure fast twitch, and the ideal jumping physique is skin and bones with a small powerful bundle of quads and glutes. Have you seen the BMI of a pure jumper? It can be scary. There are widespread problems with anorexia and bulemia among pure jumpers as they struggle to get as light as possible. My point is that nordic combined requires an athlete with the natural ability to excel at two very different sports (Demong was near the top of NY state in both xc running and triple jump in high school). Combined also requires the athlete to make a trade off between developing their body to be a wafer thin jumper vs a more robust xc skier.
March 10, 2011 at 11:42 am
Commenter # 1,
There in lies the problem with American Skiing. We train to just “Qualify” for world events. Billy Demong trained to WIN the Olympics and he did. I don’t think that any of the Euros watching on the side lines had a hard time recognizing him or cheering for him. I bet the thought never entered their mind, “Hey where is America’s number 4 or 5 guy?”
Also I bet our top 10 Marathon Skiers were ALL back in the US. Our regular nordic guys don’t train for the 50 km. Maybe we should bring teams of specialists to World Champs?
Great job Billy! I don’t know if I were in your shoes if I would have raced. I would be exhausted from the 2010 Olympics, Getting married, remodeling my house, enjoying the birth of my first son and still training to finish in the top 10 at World Championships in Nordic Combined!
Hats off to John Farra for not letting the spot just go by the wayside! Cheers to Billy for stepping up to the plate!
March 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm
Whether he chose the right tactics or not, I’m impressed. That took guts.
March 13, 2011 at 10:19 am
I believe, rather than give the start to one who has not qaulified, it is better to not give the start to anyone, as it is an insult to those muchmore deserving who were “on the bubble” , and thus left out/home. If Demong is capable of ski racing among our top 6 or so fastest skiers, he is deserving for sure, but he has not shown he is capable of anything close to that in the past. He may be a nice guy, and a great part of the Lake Placid community, but he has never demonstated the speed to be given the honor of making a WC, or Oly x-c ski team.
March 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm
Mr. teamepokeedsbyn Billy hasn’t ever tried to make the WC or Oly x-c ski team. He chose Nordic Combined because it is easy to win an OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL in. I don’t think if he tried he could make a World Cup Team those guys are soooo darn fast 🙂 I wonder if he could catch them if he trained just for that? He beat Toni Livers and a bunch of other WC skiers who had better starting positions than he did. Maybe the FIS has it’s points system all messed up? Get off the couch and make some changes man! You have all the answers!