Twenty-two World Cup podiums and five Olympics later, Billy Demong can’t leave what’s in his blood behind; he was born to jump and ski fast. No, Demong, 36, is not announcing a comeback — he retired from international competitions after the 2014/2015 Nordic Combined World Cup season. For a year he stayed away. Post-retirement, Demong worked in marketing for Utah-based Reynolds Cycling. He’s back as executive director of USA Nordic Sport.
Let’s turn back the clock for a moment to gain some perspective. Beyond Bill Koch’s 1976 Olympic medal, the U.S. Nordic Combined team remains the only other nordic discipline to win a coveted Olympic medal. In 2010, Demong won an individual gold and was part of the team relay silver in Vancouver, British Columbia.
There’s a reason to reference past Olympic glory — as part of this narrative, it matters.
A scant four years after the Vancouver Games and two months after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), once the primary funder and governing body responsible for U.S. Nordic Combined, dropped most of its funding for nordic combined. It was a seismic event that most insiders had a feeling was coming. Current U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett said at the time, “Based on [USSA’s] study in 2010 that eliminated jumping in other sports, they didn’t think nordic combined was a podium-potential sport for 2018 or 2022.”
Looking back, Demong voiced his understanding of USSA’s decision.
“At the end of the day it really comes down to resources,” Demong, now in his full-time role with USA Nordic Sport, said on the phone late last month. “Resource allocation is a tough thing. USSA, they are successful organization — I have watched them grow and develop. But there are a lot of teams and a lot of athletes. There were a lot of hard choices that needed to be made, but I believe in the potential of the athletes we have in the pipeline today and the opportunity for long term sustainable success with strong leadership in both ski jumping and nordic combined.”
The defunding setback also served up an opportunity for the primary nordic-combined stakeholders to take ownership over the sport’s viability.
“The community of ski jumping and nordic combined athletes and alumni have historically really leaned on USSA to develop athletes and I think now over the last six-seven years, we have taken a lot of that back onto our community,” Demong explained. “And it’s been successful. I think we have some of the best athletes in the pipeline right now that we have had in a long time in ski jumping. We have some great up and coming talent in nordic combined. And we have a growing base. Last year we developed a study that indicates about 800 kids put bibs on or participated in a program. So it is a healthy number for a sport that is not big anywhere.”
The community Demong referenced was not beginning from scratch. An organization named USA Ski Jumping — founded originally by past ski jumping and nordic combined Olympic athletes and coaches including Rex Bell, Jim Holland, Jeff Hastings and Alan Johnson — was already carrying the ski jumping torch. With their help over time, Demong said during the interview, that group worked to grow and develop the scope of the organization. In the spring of 2015 they adopted new bylaws and became committed to assisting the nordic combined community. With the more inclusive snow sport focus, the organization was renamed USA Nordic Sport. And two months ago, Demong was named its Executive Director.
Back to Demong’s World Cup and Olympic credentials. Demong offers proof that the US can develop nordic combined skiers ranging from kids soaring off small-scale jumps to international champions. He also comes with the cache of Olympic hardware: that can be a draw when soliciting funds and volunteers.
The whirlwind of a new job and mission have given Demong a fresh perspective of what endurance means beyond chasing elite skiers around a loop.
“The first two months here have been exciting,” Demong said of his appointment as Executive Director. “I feel very passionate about what I am doing and there is a lot going on every day. Because this isn’t simply going out and raising some money and spending it. We’ve got ten staff. We’ve got a lot people and we are working together and making sure that everybody’s efforts are moving the sports in the right direction together. That requires a lot of time and energy as well as raising funds and keeping our audience and community engaged.”
Ski jumping and nordic combined are not completely devoid of USSA’s support and input. Demong noted that USSA is the National Governing Body. Therefore, nordic combined’s FIS representatives are appointed by USSA. And sponsors like LL Bean and Craft — both sponsors of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team — also uniform the nordic combined team. Additionally, team USA’s head nordic combined coach remains Dave Jarrett and his position, as well as a grant for sport development, are funded by USSA. In this fashion, a quasi partnership has emerged between USA Nordic and USSA.
USA Nordic Sport (USANS) operates much of the day to day business of the U.S. Nordic Combined and U.S. Men’s Ski Jumping teams (women’s ski jumping has been its own entity since 2003, Women’s Ski Jumping USA). It’s also tasked with growing the sports of ski jumping and nordic combined, fielding competitive elite and international teams and building a pipeline of athletes for the future. This last part of the equation, Demong said, is where USANS is placing much of its effort as they support their pre-existing athletes and clubs while building a broader community.
“We are focusing a lot of our efforts on the operating clubs we have, adding new clubs as opportunities arise, establishing and disseminating best practices to those clubs so they can develop,” Demong said. “They can recruit more athletes, they can engage those athletes and those communities, and develop higher-quality experiences and opportunities. Ultimately, that is really our big goal right now, basically one team, one community, where all of our nordic combined and ski jumping clubs, and athletes, coaches and parents feel like they are part of something bigger. And athletically, we are really focused upon recruit, retain, and engage.”
“That is really our big goal right now, basically one team, one community.” — Billy Demong, USA Nordic Sport’s executive director
Specifically, Demong said that USANS has a detailed plan to execute the mission. They can assist clubs with building low-tech jumps made of snow and absent any permanent jumping structure. For more ambitious clubs, USANS will provide building plans, detailed architectural drawings of jumps, and the tools to build and operate a facility.
“The medium-range goal is to take these small feeder clubs, and if there is local desire and a champion, to help them drive a fundraising effort to build a more sizable hill,” he added. “We would like to be able to help accomplish that, and additionally, provide opportunity and a pathway for athletes that want to take it to the next level.”
Taking it to the next level could mean higher-end jumping equipment and travel assistance to places like Park City, Utah, that host events for aspiring jumpers and skiers. One Park City-based summertime event is called Springer Tournee — it doubles as the US Large Hill Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined Championships. USANS also organizes what they call Virtual Nationals. It’s a low-cost low barrier of entry competition allowing juniors to participate in a nationwide event without leaving their local jumping hill.
“What we do is we ask the kids and parents to send in videos of their children jumping and then they are broken into classes like U-10 girls, U-12 boys, etc.” Demong said. “Last year, we had a group of judges like Sarah Hendrickson and Clint Jones … that basically allowed the kids to compete in their peer group around the country. So that’s been really effective in getting everybody engaged together.”
Demong said nordic combined has suffered from a lack of record keeping when it came to junior development. He hopes things like Virtual Nationals will help change that dynamic.
“That has been one of the struggles historically — we have some clubs with quite a few athletes but nobody has really been keeping records,” Demong explained. “Does U-12 usually make to U-16? We know that we have attrition along the pipeline just like any sport, but how can we have less? How can we retain more? How can we have a more complete pipeline from first jump on a 10-meter to a World Cup team?”
Demong insists the health of jumping and nordic combined are way beyond life-support status. On the contrary, Demong believes his beloved sports are poised for growth. That may, in some part, be attributed to the roughly fifty percent of the population — women — traditionally unable to participate in jumping and nordic combined. Although opportunities to jump internationally are not on par with those afforded to men, 2014 marked the first time women’s ski jumping was an official Olympic sport.
On the nordic-combined side, Demong mentioned this winter will be the first for women’s international nordic-combined competitions without an age limit.
“In the past couple years, when women’s nordic-combined has been brought online, it has been age limited to mostly junior competitions, and now all of sudden there is going to be open class, senior-level events. It will not be in PyeongChang [South Korea for the 2018 Olympics], but certainly I think it is tracking to be in Beijing [in 2022]. And so that is something Dave Jarrett has definitely been a proponent of at the FIS level and is also preparing to gear up to develop a national-team program for that as well.”
With new ventures moving forward, Demong also mentioned the links cross-country skiing and nordic jumping sports share. In his eyes, they each possess attributes that benefit the other.
“Cross country is an amazing sport. It’s so difficult, it teaches so much discipline and perseverance and work ethic, and a host of other core values. They obviously have the same heritage,” he said. “And there is a whole other set of values ski jumping offers for personal growth, like courage: the ability to stand on top of the in-run, even to stand on top of the 40-meter [hill] and look down as a good skier and know that if you let go to the bar there is no backing out. It is a skill set unto itself. If I had one vision for our nordic communities, it is that we will continue to work together to provide as many participants as possible the opportunity to experience all that the nordic sports have to offer… I think there is a tremendous opportunity there … to add some additional skills to the cross country side by participating at whatever level in some ski jumping activity and vice versa.”