In some ways, starting off average works well for Billy Demong.
It’s not that he would prefer to rank 21st out of 54 athletes, although for some nordic combined athletes, that would be a good jump in the World Cup.
For Demong, a four-time Olympian and gold medalist, that result meant he was about 20 spots away from where he wanted to be.
On Sunday, the 31-year-old attacked the afternoon 10 k Gundersen start as he would have liked to on the 118-meter large hill in Chaux-Neuve, France. It was Demong’s last day of World Cup competition for nearly three weeks, and he went for it.
At the same time, so did his U.S. teammate Johnny Spillane, who ranked 20th in the morning jump. Working together, they captured their best results of the season as Demong finished sixth and Spillane placed eighth.
Starting 1 second in front of Demong, Spillane charged ahead to chase down his competition, and Demong followed. For most of the four laps, Demong and Spillane worked with Norway’s Mikko Kokslien to move to the front and drop those behind them, Demong wrote in an email.
They successfully caught second on the third lap, with only the weekend’s two-time defending champion, Alessandro Pittin (ITA), ahead. Demong held his position at the front of the chase group and attempted to drop his contenders on the last hill. In the end, he found he was too tired to sprint at the finish and fight for a podium spot.
While sixth wasn’t first, second or third, Demong was satisfied with his progress.
“I’m feeling good overall, building again,” Demong wrote. “My goals for this season are basically to get back on the podium and win. I’m also still satisfied to be struggling a bit as it fields my motivation to train harder.”
By struggling, Demong and Spillane and the rest of the U.S. crew generally mean their jumping. On Sunday, Demong clocked the third-fastest 10 k time (21:34.6) and Spillane had the fifth-fastest split (21:42.6).
Kokslien was the fastest of the day (21:30.6), and after starting 24th, the Norwegian placed third. Pittin picked up his third-straight victory of the weekend in 22:18.1 after becoming the first Italian to top the World Cup podium on Friday. Joergen Graabak (NOR) was second overall.
“They key to today’s race was jumping,” Pittin told EuroSport Italia on Sunday. “There, I made a difference.”
If Demong, Spillane or any of the other Americans had ranked fourth after the jumps, like Pittin, it’s likely they could have ended up in even better positions.
“The level both on the hill and on the course is really high,” U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett said. “In order to win you have to very good at both sides in every comp. Not very much room for mistakes.”
American Bryan Fletcher placed 26th after ranking 28th in the jump. His brother, Taylor, finished 39th after starting 51st and Nick Hendrickson moved one spot down from 50th in jumping to 49th overall.
On the road almost as soon as the three-day competition ended, Jarrett said his athletes would fly home to train in Park City, Utah, and Steamboat Springs, Colo., for at least a week. The team will reunite in early February when the World Cup starts up again with a penalty race, team sprint and Gundersen start in Predazzo, Italy.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.