Nordic champions share their love of the great outdoors
December 1, 2009
Johnny Spillane can't imagine traveling to Europe without his fly-tying kit. Billy Demong's idea of a swell afternoon is avoiding brown bears while jogging for miles across the Alaskan tundra and using his GPS to mark the location of caribou antler sheds. And Todd Lodwick prides himself on getting inside his quarry's skull so he can think like an elk.
The three young men have spent endless amounts of time together during the past 15 years. And in addition to their affinity for Steamboat Springs, they share a love of the outdoors.
And then there's that other thing. Spillane, Demong and Lodwick share World Championship gold medals in the demanding sport of Nordic combined skiing. In fact, they are the only Americans to become world champions in their sport, which merges ski jumping and cross-country skiing into one competitive event. Nordic combined is obscure in the U.S., but the sport is so celebrated in Europe that the American athletes are celebrities in cities like Oslo, Norway, and Munich, Germany.
Another experience shared by the trio includes overcoming the lingering disappointment of not reaching their podium potential at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Demong, Lodwick and Spillane have the opportunity to build on their World Championship success at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Escape to the woods
Skiing is their job and when they come out to play, they head for the fields and streams. Spillane works as a fishing guide in Steamboat when his schedule permits. But the highlight of his annual outdoor calendar comes in early autumn when hormone-crazed bull elk are bugling in the aspen forests and Johnny picks up his bow.
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"Archery season is what I live for, and the month of September is it. There's adrenaline in it, but it's really about getting deep into the woods. It's awesome," Spillane said.
What are the odds? Three world champion skiers come of age at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and all of them share a passion for hunting and fishing. Lodwick, Spillane and, in his own unique way, Demong, would just as soon be tracking big game or tempting trout as stepping into their ski bindings.
Spillane and Lodwick grew up fishing as boys in Northwest Colorado. Demong's hometown of Vermontville, N.Y., is in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains.
Spillane spent time at his family's cabin on the White River near Meeker, and Lodwick enjoyed a big chunk of his youthful summers close to the water in North Routt County.
"We spent six weeks every summer at Steamboat Lake, and I went fishing every morning," Lodwick said. "I felt like I needed to be out there as soon as the first light came through (the) tent."
That boyhood enthusiasm has stayed with him. He cherishes memories of a float on the Green River when he and friend T.J. Thrasher caught and released more than 75 trout. However, it is bow hunting that dominates his thoughts of the outdoors. Arguably the greatest Nordic skier in American history is so accomplished at bow hunting that he is on the pro staff of camouflage clothing manufacturer Mossy Oak. And that explains why his Uvex ski jumping helmet at the 2009 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, was painted with a camouflage motif.
A balance to life
"I think you have to have stuff that balances your skiing," Lodwick said. "Is hunting my life? No, my family is my life. And my skiing involves dedication, hard work and fun. But I'm trying to convince my wife (Sunny) that hunting is real good for me."
Demong's approach to the outdoors is not so focused on the actual harvesting of a game animal or out-foxing a fish as it is for his Nordic combined teammates.
"I like to go camping with no particular purpose," he said. "I might go by myself or with one friend."
He has completed a successful mule deer hunt and treasures a picture of himself holding a brilliant Alaskan salmon as big as his leg. But for Demong, fishing is just one small part of a trip down a remote Alaskan river.
"It's best for me if I can catch big, dumb fish," Demong said.
"Alaska has spoiled me because the need to match the (insect) hatch for finicky ghost trout is replaced with giant hungry fish swallowing huge flies with abandon! Floating a remote river fishing for salmon and rainbow trout that have never seen a lure before evokes the feeling of fishing as it should be for me."
The stories Demong likes to tell about a couple of Alaskan river trips involve some exotic ski training.
"Johnny and I liked to take off on training runs across the tundra," Demong said. "Once we ran up a 2,000-foot ridge."
Along the way, they spied huge brown bears in the distance and used a GPS to mark the spot of discarded caribou antlers so they could retrieve them on the return trip.
Steamboat resident Dave McDonald, who was a member of the river expedition, recalls the sight of the two athletes loping back across the tundra, their bodies bristling with armloads of antlers.
"We were 80 miles from any town, and I remember seeing a bush plane fly over low and I could imagine the pilot radioing back to base, 'You won't believe what I've got below me! There's two skinny guys running along and they're loaded down with antlers!'"
Spillane's favorite elk hunting trip involves hooking up with younger brother Sam and burying himself deep in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
"I haven't taken an animal in a couple of years because I passed on some smaller bulls and became obsessed with two really big bulls."
Lodwick takes a cerebral approach.
"I understand the animals," he said. "I want to outsmart the animals and figure out what the next move is going to be. Does it work every time? No. But I've only missed filling my elk tag once."
With the wind in his favor, Lodwick has become a wizard at placing himself in the path of elk. Standing motionless in his Mossy Oak camouflage, he's had the big ungulates come within ridiculously close range.
"I've touched a cow (elk) on the nose with the tip of my broadhead," he said. This year, limited to just a couple of days of hunting because he needed to spend time with his two toddlers, Lodwick shot a cow from a range of several feet.
"The arrow had barely left the bow when it hit her right here," he said thumping his chest.
Tying one on
In the run-up to an Olympic year that could become a crowning moment for all three athletes, Spillane is rehabbing his knee after surgery. He wisely limited himself to hunting close to town.
But he'll make up for it on the World Cup circuit this winter, when he fills all the down time in the hotels, tying perfectly balanced flies guaranteed to fool a trout.
"There's (only) so much German television you can watch," he said. "The coaches want us off our feet all day Thursday (the day before official training at the competition venues). I tie flies all day."
Spillane's goal is tying an average of 15 flies a day for weeks in a row. When the ski season is over, his fly boxes will be full and ready for spring angling.
A winning strategy
Lodwick doesn't hesitate to draw the unlikely analogy between Nordic combined skiing and bow hunting.
"This whole last year leading up to the World Championships (in Liberec) was like a hunt," Lodwick said. "You start out to conquer something and then it all comes together. That was a 10-month stalk. I take it back. It was more like a 14-year stalk."
With the perseverance and Zen-like concentration of passionate outdoorsmen, Demong, Lodwick and Spillane are stalking Olympic gold this winter. The hunt reaches a climax in British Columbia in February. All three men should feel right at home in the thick woods of the Canadian Rockies.