It’s hard to imagine U.S. Nordic Combined without Johnny Spillane.
For more than a decade, the Steamboat Springs, Colo., native has been the sport’s poster child, winning America’s first gold at 2003 World Championships and later notching three silver medals at the 2010 Olympics.
He’s been to every Olympics since 1998 and bounced back from several injuries to return to the team year after year. But this season, Spillane won’t be training for the 2014 Olympics. At 32, he recently decided to call it a career, and is the first of three over-30, A-team members to do so (Billy Demong, 33, and Todd Lodwick, 36, apparently have their sights set on Sochi, Russia).
The news came in the form of a letter to the Steamboat Springs community, published in Steamboat Today on April 18.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the community of Steamboat Springs for the incredible support it has given me over the years,” he began. His national-team career spanned more than 15 seasons.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be raised in this town and have the opportunities that Steamboat provides, but it is time for me to move on,” Spillane wrote. “It has been a long and productive career, and I have no regrets as I start a new chapter in my life.”
Not to worry, Steamboat; Spillane’s staying right at home. In an interview with FasterSkier, he explained that he’ll pursue passions like fly fishing and start by guiding this summer.
“It was a long, long career so I’m pretty excited to be done,” Spillane said on the phone of the decision he made a couple of weeks ago. Every year, he reevaluates, and this year, the time was right.
“I’m sure there’s more things that can be accomplished, but at the same time, there’s other things I want to do besides travel and ski,” he said with a laugh.
Initially, he plans to “explore as many different opportunities” as possible, which could include something in the fly-fishing industry and part-time junior coaching with the Steamboat Winter Sports Club.
“I don’t anticipate getting into coaching at any kind of high level because at that point you’re just traveling a ton anyways, and that’s what I’m trying to avoid to begin with,” Spillane said. “I would be open to [coaching] really young kids here in Steamboat, something that you could do a few nights a week, but beyond that I don’t have too much interest.”
While few are questioning his next steps, a lot of people are wondering why Spillane decided to call it quits before an Olympic year.
Simply put, he wants to spend more time with his wife, Hilary, and two daughters. His oldest, Hadley, is 2 ½, and Genevieve will turn 1 in May.
“It’s so much traveling and with having kids and stuff like that, I’d had enough,” Spillane said. “I’ve done this a long time. I’ve been to four Olympics and while it would be great to go to another, it’s not going to change my career in any way or anything like that.”
Last season, the 2003 world sprint champion competed in one event at World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. There, he was 30th in the large-hill competition, and he cheered his teammates (Taylor Fletcher, Bryan Fletcher, Lodwick and Demong) on as they captured the nation’s first World Championships medal – bronze – in the team event.
“For sure, you want to be competing, but if you’re not gonna be the one out there, you want to be helping in every way you can,” Spillane said. “I was in the wax room, testing skis and doing everything I could to help contribute.”
His best individual World Cup result last season came in January, when he was 22nd on the large hill in Klingenthal, Germany. Despite traveling with the team all season, Spillane competed just five times. Hindered by injuries in the past, it wasn’t his body that was keeping him out of it this time. Rather, new rules required athletes to make the top 50 in preliminary jumps to advance to the actual competitions.
Spillane said he “struggled pretty heavily with the rule changes,” especially the tighter suits.
“There was a learning curve there and it took me a while to get it figured out,” he explained. “I don’t think I ever got it entirely figured out. I think that was by far the only contributing factor to some of the poor results I had because I felt really good skiing all winter long. It was just a matter of jumping well enough to put myself in any kind of position to be competitive.”
The changes were certainly “annoying,” Spillane said, but they’re also inherent in the sport. For a smaller nordic-combined squad like the U.S. it made adapting even tougher.
“Every time they make a rule change, it takes the countries that don’t have the financial capabilities to really explore the equipment a couple years to catch up,” he said. “You’re spending half your energy trying to figure out your equipment where you want to be spending that energy training and improving. That part is hard. Everybody gets frustrated with that.”
It’s also difficult missing out on opportunities to ski up to your potential. If Spillane could’ve made the top 50 on the jump hill more often last season, he believed he could’ve skied up to 20th or so.
But that’s all behind him now. Looking back on an individual World Championships gold, four national titles, and three silvers at the 2010 Olympic Games (the first of which was America’s first), Spillane said it’s the team he’ll remember most.
“What I’m most proud of is what the team accomplished as a whole while I was a part of it, whether it was individual results or team results,” he said. “Becoming one of the stronger nations in the world was for me one of the most exiting parts of it. The individual results and competitions were great, but I don’t focus on them all that much.
“Obviously I would’ve liked to have done better at every competition, but at some point you just have to be satisfied with what you did, and that’s where I’m at,” Spillane added. “I’m proud of the results I had, I wish some of them were better, but that’s in the past. I know that I did everything I could to get the results that I did get, and that lets you sleep at night.”
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.