If the U.S. Nordic Combined Team got together for Thanksgiving, there might be less football watching and more talk about the kids.
That’s the way life is for almost half of the seven-man squad, with each of the “Big Three” aged 30 or older and with at least one child.
“It’s a different dynamic than it has been in the past,” said head coach Dave Jarrett, who has two kids of his own. “But it’s also a sign that these guys aren’t taking this as a hobby. … This is what their job is right now and this is how they’re supporting their family.”
Billy Demong, 31, was the latest to join the club when his wife, Katie, gave birth to their son, Liam, in January. While Demong said it’s not exactly all dad-talk when he travels with fellow veteran teammates Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick, it’s become a shared focus.
“Having a child is definitely something that changes your approach on a lot of things,” Demong said in a phone interview from Park City, Utah. “Yes, it takes away a lot of time and energy, but it’s time and energy spent with your child.”
Coming off a banner year in 2010, in which Demong captured two Olympic medals, including the first gold won by an American nordic skier, he took some time off to get married and renovate his Park City home last summer.
The plan was to regenerate — especially if he wanted to repeat his success at the 2014 Winter Games — and return to top form by the 2011/2012 season.
About a week before the team planned to fly to Finland for the World Cup opener in Kuusamo Nov. 25-26, Demong said he was ready to start the season. Like the two other dads and four 20-somethings on the team, the upcoming season was about setting personal goals.
Without any Olympics or World Championships this season, 28 World Cup events remained. The Americans would try for top finishes in most of them.
According to Jarrett, the World Cup is the main focus of the team this season, mainly because it’s all there is. While striving for the overall title would be harder than preparing for one big event, it’s the goal the coaching staff presented.
“We’re going to attend all the World Cups with the plan of chasing the overall as high as we can,” Jarrett said. “But we’re not living or dying by it either. We’ll adjust if needed.”
For starters, the team will miss two races by opting not to travel to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Then again, if one of the Americans needs to race there, Jarrett said they might reconsider.
“We’ll just have to play it weekend by weekend,” he said.
In the long term, most of the team is focused on performing when it counts, Demong said.
“What it takes to peak is not necessarily best for the whole season,” he said. “This is a good year for trying to find a high level and try to keep that … without sacrificing anything on either end.”
While all the athletes work to find their groove, a few will try for World Cup podiums, Demong said. Personally, he would not approach the season with an overall-title-or-bust attitude. In 2008 and 2009, Demong finished third overall in back-to-back World Cups. The first time, he exhausted himself trying maintain second and ultimately placed third. The next year, Demong said he didn’t care as much and ended up third anyway.
“To me, it’s not as important to focus on the overall; it’s important to focus on today and the here and the now,” he said. “It’s not something to stress from the beginning.”
After somewhat of an off-year in 2010/2011, Demong still managed to come back to competition midseason and place sixth and seventh at the World Championships. In August, he was third in the debut of the penalty-race format at the Summer Grand Prix in Germany.
While it was early in the season, Jarrett said top performances like those of Demong — who was on a similar pair of rollerskis as everybody else — were good indicators for the winter ahead.
When Demong returned full time in April, he discovered he was more focused and motivated. With a family to look after, Demong said he wasn’t as carefree about his training and did less cycling to concentrate on nordic combined.
Learning how to be efficient with his time helped him bounce back, he said.
“I feel like I’m in as good shape as I’ve ever been in summer training,” Demong added. “And a lot of times, I’m not the best guy (on the team) anymore, and that’s really motivating.”
Demong not the best? A few weeks ago, he was third in a team time trial. The Fletcher brothers — Taylor and Bryan — finished ahead of him in a respective first and second.
Up-and-comers like Taylor, 21, and Bryan, 25, made a difference. While Spillane and Lodwick trained in Steamboat Springs, the younger teammates kept Demong honest in Park City.
“We’ve always had this kind of focus on team training where the whole goal is to keep each other motivated,” Demong said. In the past, a few top teammates kept the others gunning for them.
“To be honest, I think that Bryan and Taylor are as fast as those guys now,” Jarrett said. “It definitely helps to know that if you can beat Bill or you can beat Johnny, that you can pretty much beat anybody in the world.”
With Demong, Spillane, Lodwick on the A-Team this season, Bryan finished 30th overall in the World Cup last year in his first full season on the circuit. Lodwick was the only American to do better, placing 25th.
This year, Lodwick, who placed fifth at worlds, is approaching the season a bit more tentatively while dealing with some pulmonary issues. Jarrett said he has been coping with asthma for years; “he just can’t seem to shake it.”
“His plan is a little bit more focused on certain events and not so much the whole season, per say,” Jarrett added.
The oldest on the team with two children, Lodwick, who will turn 35 at the end of the month, will spend the beginning of the season with his family, Jarrett said.
“Todd’s going to do a little bit of an abbreviated schedule to keep him in the game,” he said. “He’s kind of at that point in his career where he wants to focus on the big events, and since there’s no big events or World Championships this season … he’s not committed to (focusing) on the overall.”
Three days before Lodwick’s birthday, Spillane will turn 31 on Nov. 21. This time last year, Spillane was recovering from a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee. He managed to crack the top 20 at the World Championships despite the setback.
Spillane entered this season injury-free, a claim he wasn’t used to.
“Johnny’s been bitten, his whole career, with injuries,” Jarrett said. “2009/2010 was one of the first seasons he didn’t spend the spring doing rehab.”
That year, he racked up two individual silver medals and another with the team at the Vancouver Olympics. While Lodwick did not make the 2011 Summer Grand Prix, Spillane and the Fletcher brothers all cracked the top-20.
Joining Taylor on the B-Team, Denney and Hendrickson will try to break into a higher level of international racing, like Taylor did in placing 26th at worlds last year.
“They continue to improve and that’s what we need,” Jarrett said. “Now with tightening budgets, the key to having an active winter is to be competing in the World Cup.”
Last year, the 20-year-old Hendrickson finished a respectable 53rd in the Continental Cup and Denney, 21, was 58th overall.
While the team is scheduled to fly to Finland on Saturday, a last-minute decision could could change its plans. In the event of no snow in Kuusamo, which was the case for the cross-country World Cup opener, the races could be moved.
“Murphy’s Law is that they’ll change it and cancel it while we’re in the air,” Jarrett said on Monday. “Hopefully I can stay ahead of it.”
As of Friday, the team’s plans were in tact and its members were ready to roll. They started jumping on snow Saturday in Park City and Wednesday in Steamboat Springs, and Jarrett said they were the first two jumps open in the world.
“We kind of feel like we have a leg up on everyone,” he said.
Regardless of what happens with Kuusamo, the possibility of competing in Sjusjøen, Norway (which will host nordic-combined World Cup events Dec. 3-4), is good.
The International Ski Federation decided to move the cross-country World Cup opener to Sjusjøen for this upcoming weekend because of its colder temperatures and snowmaking capabilities.
Demong was confident the conditions would hold up for nordic combined.
“That’s good for us because it kind of puts Sjusjøen on the line to make sure they have snow,” he said.
2011/2012 U.S. Nordic Combined Team
Billy Demong (Vermontville, N.Y.)
Bryan Fletcher (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
Todd Lodwick (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
Johnny Spillane (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
Brett Denney (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
Taylor Fletcher (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
Nick Hendrickson (Park City, Utah)
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.