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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Today is the day for U.S. Nordic Combined. Its four Olympians pinned the 4 x 5-kilometer team event as their best shot at a Sochi Winter Games medal as far back as a year ago when they won their country’s first-ever World Championships medal in the event in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Not everything had panned out exactly as planned in the season that followed; in early January, Todd Lodwick crashed on a jump in France a day before the World Cup there. He immediately flew to the team’s primary base in Park City, Utah, for further evaluation, and spent the next few weeks rehabbing his shoulder there.
His first time back jumping wouldn’t come until Sochi about two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the team narrowly missed out on getting a fifth member to score World Cup points, which could have granted them a fifth quota spot at the Sochi Olympics. That would’ve taken the pressure off Lodwick, a six-time Olympian in his final Winter Games, to compete in the team event.
Regardless, Lodwick has been one of the top Americans on the normal- and large-hill competitions at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center, jumping to 34th on Day 1 and 30th on Day 2. He opted not to race the 10 k Gundersen starts in both competitions, allowing his shoulder to continue to heal as much as possible before the relay.
Thursday marks Day 3, the final day of nordic-combined competition at the 2014 Olympics, and Lodwick hasn’t raced internationally in nearly two months.
“We came into these Olympics knowing that getting back on my skis and getting back in shape and knowing that I can jump … and having the confidence to do that,” Lodwick told the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) after Tuesday’s large-hill jump. “We are continuing to gain every single day — just builds more confidence through the team event, which is the reason why we came here in the first place. … I’m in a really good place, and taking in the Olympic spirit is something that is really rare for a lot of people, especially as an athlete, and I’m just trying to live every moment of it.”
So far, the top U.S. result in nordic combined at these Olympics has been Taylor Fletcher’s 20th two days ago. Bryan Fletcher placed 22nd in the same individual event, and Billy Demong — the defending large-hill/10 k champion — finished 38th. Almost a week earlier Demong led the team in 24th on the normal hill.
On Tuesday, the Fletcher brothers and Demong each knocked off at least five places to finish with a better result than where their jumps put them, with Taylor skiing up 15 spots with the sixth-fastest time. Bryan improved from 27th on the large hill, and Demong moved up from 38th.
“Obviously things haven’t been going too great, I’ve had a super up-and-down year,” Taylor said.
With pouring rain complicating the jump, causing at least two men to crash in front of him, Taylor had to wait more than 10 minutes at the top of the hill. The rain didn’t stop all afternoon, lasting through the 10 k as well.
“It was just like wait, wait, wait and then I ended up having a strong jump – a jump I was happy with,” he said. “I had the worst wind on the hill so to have that jump in those conditions – I can’t be disappointed. I came out and had a good race, I was happy with the race. I skied away and picked up the tempo on each lap and I felt really, really good. So it’s a step forward for the team event.”
Demong left Tuesday’s competition disappointed and at a loss for words: “I swore I woke up feeling like today was the day, and right up until I landed that first comp jump, I didn’t see anything coming,” he said. “I mean, I feel great, body-wise and everything. It’s kinda devastating, really.”
Unsure why his competition jump was the shortest in the last few days by 10 meters, Demong explained not knowing what to correct was the problem.
“I think I’m old enough and wise enough to have expectations and be able to follow through on them and then a day like today happens and it throws you for a loop,” he said. “I swear I felt the same tingle today that I felt in Vancouver. … Everything feels like it’s in the right place. I did a really good job tapering. I’ve been sick a lot, but that’s always the case. I won World Championships in 2009 with a cold, so I don’t want to make any excuses, but I’m certainly going to look for a more concrete reason why things didn’t go any better.”
The youngest member of the team, Taylor, 23, said Demong had a “fantastic” trial jump. “He’s just gotta figure out what he’s doing – if he’s putting a little bit too much pressure on himself or what.”
Talking about the rest of his teammates, Taylor said, “Todd showed today that he can still jump … and he hasn’t taken many jumps, so each jump he takes is gonna get better and better. And Bryan showed that he’s consistent. He didn’t have a great jump [Tuesday] and he was still right in there, and he’s skiing fast. So I’m looking forward to the team event; I think we have a strong team. We may not be showing it on the results in the individual comps, but a little spirit comes into these team comps and everyone pulls out a little bit of extra … I think it’s gonna be special when we come to this, and we’re gonna let it happen.”
Thursday’s 4 x 5 k team event starts at 3 p.m. Moscow time. Click here for live results.
Update: Out of the nine teams that started on Thursday, the U.S. unofficially ranked eighth after the jump and will start the relay 1:52 behind Germany.
At World Championships last year, the Americans started fifth, 1:02 behind the race leader, to finish third 4.2 seconds behind the French winners.
— Rosalie Lipfert and Seth Adams contributed reporting
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.