Coach optimistic about Games

Nordic Combined team 'light years ahead' of last year

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— U.S. Nordic Combined coach Tom Steitz spent last week catching up with paperwork and taking a much-deserved break in his hometown.

It has been a good year for the American team, but for Steitz, it was just another step in the road that leads to Salt Lake City and the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

"I think we are light years ahead of where we were last year," Steitz said. "But we still have a long ways to go."

The coach was impressed by the rapid progress Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane and Matt Dayton made this season. He said the team achieved or surpassed most of the goals it set last May.

"We had all seven guys on the World Cup at one time or another this season. That's a new record," Steitz said. "Before that, the most we ever had was three."

The only downside to the American team's season may have been the rocky start and that veteran skier Todd Lodwick still seems to be struggling a bit on the jumping hill despite becoming a powerhouse on the cross-country course.

Steitz, however, isn't worried about Lodwick as the Americans enter the final summer before the Olympic Games.

"Todd is on every coach's short list to win a medal," Steitz said. "I'm confident that we will have Todd where he needs to be successful in Salt Lake City."

In fact, the team's longtime coach is more optimistic about his team's chances in 2002 than he has ever been.

"In the past we had maybe one guy with a realistic shot at a medal," Steitz said. "This time around we will have at least three guys who can get the job done."

The American team will have seven guys who have qualified to compete in the Olympics. Steitz said he thinks he will have five guys on the Olympic team.

"We are only going to have skiers who can compete and do well," Steitz said. "The skiers who make the U.S. Nordic Combined ski team are going to have to be good."

And with just about 300 days to go before the games, the team is riding a wave of momentum gained on the World Cup tour last season.

Highlights included Lodwick's first-place showing in Steamboat Springs.

But Steitz feels as if this team is entering a new era with Demong, Dayton (placed sixth in Steamboat) and Spillane leading the way. Steitz was also impressed with Jed Hinkley's eighth-place showing at the World Junior Championships this season.

"It's kind of a different thing for us," Steitz said. "If one guy doesn't get it done we've got several other guys who can step in and pick up the slack."

The team will have the next couple of weeks off to recover from a busy season. After that, Steitz said it will be back to business as usual for the core of the team as they prepare for the Utah Winter Games.

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