Steamboat Springs Shortly before the start of Sunday's 15-kilometer cross-county race, American coach Tom Steitz leaned over a fence that separated the course from the spectators and shared a kiss with his wife Kathy.
The kiss wasn't tradition, but after three American skiers raced into the top 10 of the World Cup event at Howelsen Hill, it might become a part of the pre-race routine.
It also marked a great start for the local boys in the Ski Town USA Classic at Steamboat, which is sponsored by L.L. Bean.
"I would have to look, but I don't think the U.S. has ever put three skiers in the top 10," Steitz said. "Todd (Lodwick) overcoming all the pressure and skiing from the favorite is awesome (Matt) Dayton showed the kind of athletic accomplishment you read about in a book and then Billy (Demong). He took the worst fall I've seen in my career less than 10 days ago and he comes back and ends up top 10 where do we end?"
Leading the pack for the Americans was Steamboat's own Todd Lodwick, who jumped into third place with efforts of 90 and 94 meters. He trailed Finland's Jaakko Tallus who was second at the halfway point, and Austrian Felix Gottwald who posted the longest marks in both rounds of jumping to earn the top starting position in the cross county race.
"I always come to Steamboat with high expectations, Lodwick said. "It's a place where you always want to compete well and, seeing that the altitude is similar to Salt Lake, it's a great preview for the Olympics. I knew I was jumping well and that was the key to success with my skiing."
In the Nordic Combined event, the athletes first competed in a two-round jumping competition, which established a start order in the cross county. The top jumpers hit the course first and the rest of the pack chased the leaders with hopes of earning a win.
In the cross country, Lodwick was able to trim some time off Gottwald's lead, but never really threatened the Austrian skier who cruised to the win.
"Felix has proved himself as a fierce competitor on the cross-county course, so I knew it was going to be a challenge to catch him," Lodwick said.
Gottwald didn't have to push too hard after taking a 20-second advantage into the cross country race.
"It was a good feeling," Gottwald said. "Today was really a perfect day for me. My jumping was very good and it was nice to ski in front. I didn't have to go very fast from the beginning, so I (could) hold some back so that I (had) some reserve until the end.
World Cup leader Ronny Ackermann started more than a minute behind Lodwick and more than two minutes behind the leader.
He was able to move from seventh into third by posting the fastest cross county time of the day, but was still well behind the leaders at the finish.
Other top American finishes came from two skiers who were listed as questionable last week.
Bill Demong, who crashed in his last World Cup start, returned to post a fifth in the jumping and was 10th overall.
Matt Dayton surprised just about everyone by jumping to 16th and then moving up to sixth in the final results. Dayton was slated to start the World Cup Tour last month, but a crash shortened his trip after he suffered a concussion.
"After that fall, I got more motivation and my head was more in it," Dayton said. "At the start of the season, I may have lacked that motivation, but this certainly gave me a kick in the butt to get me psyched up."
Dayton said he was shocked at how well he has been jumping in the past week since he returned from the injury and said he hopes to continue to jump well.
1. Felix Gottwald, AUT; 2. Todd Lodwick, USA, (12.1); 3. Ronny Ackermann, GER, (39); 4. Jaakko Tallus, FIN, (1:27.8); 5. Samppa Lajunen, FIN, (1:46.7); 6. Matt Dayton, USA, (1:54.5); 7. Mikko Keskinarkaus, FIN, (2:01.3) 8. Mario Stecher, AUT, (2:01.8); 9. Daito Takahashi, JPN, (2:02.4); 10. Bill Demong, USA, (3:03.1).
Other top American finishers 28. Nathan Gerhart, USA, (5.10.5) 39. Johnny Spillane, USA, (9:17.1)