Billy Demong’s in for a big weekend. A short detour to his old stomping grounds in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the US Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined Championships this weekend will be followed by a Monday morning flight to Europe for his team’s final overseas training camp in Austria and Germany.
On Sunday, he’ll shoot for his first national title in Lake Placid (the championships alternate between there and Park City, Utah where Demong and most of the U.S. Nordic Combined Team are based now). Raised in Vermontville about 20 miles away from Lake Placid, the Olympic gold-and-silver medalist and eight-time national champion has some fond memories of Placid and a little unfinished business.
But he’s not too stressed about it. For the better part of this fall, his life’s been much of a whirlwind. Late last month, a two-day trip to Chicago for one of his newest and biggest sponsors, USG, led him to Colorado Springs the next day to meet more members of the construction corporation. One day later, Demong was back home in Park City for an all-day U.S. Olympic Committee media summit and photo shoot, then hopped on a plane that night for Los Angeles. His 9:30 p.m. departure was delayed to 11, and Demong arrived in L.A. at 1 a.m.
The next morning, he woke up at 6. He was supposed to do intervals before another jam-packed day of non-skiing business.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to make it,’ ” Demong recalled in a recent phone interview. So he skipped the workout.
Some athletes would look at a schedule like that and think, what a pain, but not Demong. Just over a week ago, he had an interview with Men’s Health scheduled and NBC was coming to his house for five or six hours the same day.
“They want the family here, too,” Demong said, which meant his wife, Katie, and 2 ½-year-old Liam. “They want breakfast with the Demongs.”
They also planned to film while he trained.
“It’s part of the job,” Demong, 33, said. “I feel like we owe it to nordic skiers in particular to take advantage of these opportunities. It’s all well and good to be a champion; you can win a race, but if you don’t appeal to the public, then it doesn’t help grow the sport outside of the normal beat.”
Ever since the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., where Demong became the first American nordic skier to win gold and also captured silver in the team event, he’s noticed a trend. U.S. Nordic Combined’s success in Vancouver was unprecedented and with that came recognition. But over the years, memories fade.
Four years later, Demong said most people don’t recognize him outside his community or out of context anymore. But some, like the man who recently picked him up at the airport, remembered Demong as “that skier.”
“We’re not so famous that we get recognized by face, but people are starting to think about our success,” he said. “We have a lot more darts to throw at the board.”
By darts, Demong meant talent across nordic sports: athletes like Kikkan Randall, the defending cross-country World Cup sprint champion who captured a historic gold with teammate Jessie Diggins at 2013 World Championships; and fellow Lake Placid-area native, Tim Burke, a U.S. biathlete who notched a career-best silver at World Championships last winter.
“Over the last few years, we’ve gotten a lot more opportunities to be in the public eye outside of skiing,” Demong explained. “Now with the success that we can have in the Games, we can build our brand and nordic.”
So with the pressure on, so to speak, how does Demong manage it with all those camera crews around and a family at home?
“I feel pressure, but it doesn’t feel the same,” Demong said. “Going into Vancouver and for my entire career, I always felt like we were trying to break down barriers and really do something outside the box. This time around, we know we can do it. We’ve all been on the podium.”
Every member of U.S. Nordic Combined’s premier squad – Demong, Todd Lodwick, Bryan Fletcher, and Taylor Fletcher – has stood on the podium at World Championships and individually on the World Cup. Last year, the team tallied its first-ever World Cup relay podium and went on to take bronze in the same four-man event at World Championships.
“I’m not worried about not winning a medal,” Demong said. “The best part I feel is the potential to do what we did all over again. I’m not trying to top Vancouver. My personal pressure is more healthy.”
That was in stark contrast to the sentiment surrounding the last Olympics. Looking at the relative age and potential of the team at the time, many of its athletes figured it was then or never.
“I was like, ‘If we don’t get this done, we might never get a medal,’ ” Demong recalled.
After the Games, he considered retiring. Two weeks after winning two medals and proposing to his wife, Demong asked head coach Dave Jarrett what he thought he should do. “Am I going to quit skiing? Because I’d be OK with it,” Demong remembered saying.
Jarrett gave him the option of flexibility, so Demong built a house, got married and had a child. With a more-relaxed training plan, he made it to the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Norway, where he placed sixth and seventh individually, and fourth with his team. Demong spent the following two seasons gradually gearing up for his fifth Olympics.
He went about doing so systematically, knowing that things like playtime in the park with Liam would take up some valuable training time. Fortunately, he discovered that was helpful.
“It’s a healthy distraction,” Demong said. “I have to be able to compartmentalize my time. I’ll get out the door and run for five or six hours if I have to. It makes you enjoy the sections of your day more.”
On work outings, like his recent whirlwind trip from the Midwest, West Coast and back, he follows a similar strategy. He took advantage of sea-level training in Chicago with a 10-mile run along Lake Michigan. Before flying out of Colorado a day later, he woke up early to get another run in.
“You just have to get more disciplined,” Demong said. “This is where I’ve come from, this is where I’m going, and this is what I have to do to get through the next week.”
An attitude like that gives him confidence heading into the 2014 Sochi Games, an Olympics that will likely be his last.
“I’m planning on retiring,” he said, adding, “I planned on retiring after Vancouver. … I look forward to the Birkebeiner and maybe go on vacation skiing. Anything’s possible, but I’m not betting my life that I’ll be done, but that’s my plan. There’s a lot of motivation for me to do well this year.”
As it is, he plans to leave Sochi at the end of February and head straight home to Park City. If all goes according to plan, Demong figured he’ll have nothing left for the end of the season.
“If you really attain a good physical peak you can really plan on quitting the season within a month after the peak,” he said. “It’s a goal of mine as much to get a medal is to peak at the same time.”
“I look forward to the Birkebeiner and maybe go on vacation skiing. Anything’s possible, but I’m not betting my life that I’ll be done, but that’s my plan. There’s a lot of motivation for me to do well this year.”
His method of achieving that maximum performance on cue has been tried and tested since his high-school running days. At the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, Demong learned that athletes with a good coach and solid training plan were more likely to win big events. When his former teammate, Dave Jarrett became one of his coaches in 2002, the two started refining Demong’s long-term regimen.
According to Demong, Jarrett’s fresh perspective paired with a degree in exercise physiology, something no other U.S. Nordic Combined coach had at the time, was key.
“In 2007, which was my first World Championships medal I remember playing a lot on the treadmill and playing around with different [lengths of] rest periods,” Demong said. “Now it’s a recipe to follow because I had good success with it in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013.”
He said it feels weird to say, but he doesn’t worry at all about his training. In January, Demong and his team will return to the U.S. for some fine-tuning before the Olympics. They won’t compete in the weeks before, yet Demong knows he’ll be “a minute and a half faster” when he gets to the Olympics.
That lack of complete trust in one’s plan limits a lot of endurance athletes from reaching their ultimate peak, he said.
With one last Games on the horizon, Demong’s looking forward to seeing several members of his family in Russia: his mom and stepfather, his sister and her boyfriend, Katie and Liam, who will be 3 in January. He’s hoping Sochi could be one of Liam’s first memories, and it could very well be – the toddler remembered what he carved for a pumpkin last year: Elmo.
Looking back over the last four years, Demong said the 2010 Olympics feel like yesterday.
“I think I did a good execution of my plan: ‘I’m going to keep skiing, but I’m going to be able to back off so that I’m charging in 2014,’ ” he said. “Certainly my concentration and focus has begun to draw a narrow point again. … I feel like I’m at a good stable platform and something that I can raise in preparation for the Games.”
Earlier this month, Demong had one of his best jumping results of the summer in a team competition in Park City. He won the jump ahead of Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, respectively, then Taylor came back in the rollerski to beat Demong by about 15 seconds.
“Yeah, it sucks to get beat, but for me, the jumping has been the struggling point the last year or two,” Demong said.
At this point in his career, that’s where he needs to excel, he added.
“Last year I didn’t have an exceptionally fast season overall, but I was able to have the fastest time in a couple World Championships races,” he said. “We’ve got probably the fastest guys in the sport and a couple guys that can be the best jumpers. I’m really satisfied with our progress this summer in jumping and overall.”
He attributed the team’s improvements to new jumping coach Marc Nölke, an Olympic ski jumper who coached the German and Austrian national teams. Demong also recognized the contributions of former coach Chris Gilbertson.
“Gilbo was a great coach and we had some awesome years,” he said. “It’s like a lot of different sports where you need a fresh perspective. … I’ve been in this for so long that it can be even cyclical; I had Chris Gilbertson in the late ’90s and he came back in my career in 2009. It’s not necessarily that anything’s broken.”
In Demong’s case, tweaking his jumping equipment in the spring, going back to fundamentals and feeling safe on the hill helped him rebuild confidence and ultimately improve.
“[With] ski jumping, you feel like you’re getting better, but there’s usually baby steps,” he said. “It’s easier to feel the change before you see it. Then there’s usually an epiphany; instead of going a couple meters farther, you go twenty meters farther. You can’t be worrying about your in-run position on the way down … you have to be in the moment that you’re in.”
Lucky for Demong, he’s there, and on Sunday, he’ll strive for another national title. After that, he’ll be recognized as Aquaman in Austria and Germany. In the second year of an ongoing bet between Demong and Taylor Fletcher, Demong lost the battle for the fastest accumulated time over the last World Cup season. Last year, Fletcher had to wear a Captain America suit at all times around Europe; this year, Demong’s going to be Aquaman based on the results of an NBC Facebook poll (the other choices were astronaut and cowboy).
“I already bought the costume and shipped it,” Demong said before the results were in. But he won’t be sporting it in Lake Placid, like Fletcher suggested.
“I might sport it for fun, but I thought that it was weird to be able to trade days [instead of wearing it the whole time in Europe,]” Demong said. “He’s already paid his price. … I’m pretty jealous with his costume.”
2014 U.S. Nordic Combined Championships schedule
Olympic Jumping Complex, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Sunday, Oct. 13
9:30 a.m. trial round
11 a.m. U.S. Ski Jumping Championships (1st and 2nd round)
3 p.m. U.S. Nordic Combined Championships 10 k rollerski
4 p.m. Olympic sendoff, celebration and awards ceremony
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.