Steamboat Springs U.S. Nordic Combined coach Tom Steitz said the next few weeks will be huge for the six members of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team he coaches.
And why not?
With World Cup events scheduled in Park City, Utah, and Steamboat Springs, the young American team will get a taste of the Olympic venue and a rare feel for what it feels like to be at home.
"I'm really excited to be home for these competitions," skier Johnny Spillane said. "It will be fun to ski in front of the hometown crowds and show what we can do."
Spillane, who is a rookie on the World Cup's A tour, will be one of six American skiers competing in the events. Veterans Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong will lead the group. Newcomers, such as Spillane, Carl Van Loan, Matt Dayton and Kristoffer Erichsen will add to the mix during the homestand.
While most of the young team is new to the World Cup's A tour, the team already seems to have a grasp of the importance of the next two weeks.
"Sure this is going to be a big test," Steitz said. "We did unbelievably well in Park City on the World Cup B back in December. I think we want to keep the momentum rolling through these events."
The difference between December and January is that these World Cup events will be one notch higher on the World Cup ladder. This time the top 45 skiers in the world will be skiing and vying for the top spots.
For the Americans, the events will be a chance to build some confidence on their own home ground. They will also have a chance to get a feel for the site where the 2002 Winter Games will take place.
Lodwick will be expected to lead the team in the next several events. He is coming off an eighth-place finish in Europe Jan. 7, but Steitz said the top American hopeful is still struggling on the jumps. Lodwick was 18th after the jumping portion of the two-jump, 15-kilometer race. But he turned in the third fastest cross-country time of the day to move up 10 spots in the final standings.
"It's nice to finish with a top 10," Lodwick said. "It was a good event, but the snow was really soft for the race. I'm still disappointed with my jumping, but I'm sure that will come now that we're headed back home for a couple of days off before World Cups next week in Utah."
Kristian Hammer of Norway won the race and was followed by teammate Bart Engen Vik in second. German Ronny Ackermann was third, Hannu Manninen of Finland was fourth and Vladislav Rygle of the Czech Republic was fifth.
The event followed an experimental format that involved cutting the field of jumpers to 30 after the first round. Those skiers were then awarded a second jump, which was followed by a 15-kilometer cross-country race.
The U.S. team had only two jumpers qualify for the second round and finish.
Demong, who had solid finishes in all of the European World Cups, jumped to the 23rd spot and skied into the 15th position. He was also 14th in a sprint event on Jan. 5.
"I think Billy (Demong) and Johnny Spillane are really the story right now," Steitz said. "Those two guys are going to be world beaters all they need is a little more time."
Next up for the American Nordic Combined team, which is based Steamboat Springs, is the Nordic Ski Festival at Soldier Hollow in Utah.
The event, a preview to the Olympic Games, will host 350 athletes from around the world for 12 days of World Cup ski events in cross-country, jumping and nordic combined.
The nordic combined events will take place Jan. 19 through 21 at the Utah Olympic Park. There will also be jumping events from Jan. 19 through 20.
Local athletes expected to compete are Lodwick, Demong, Alan Alborn and Clint Jones. Also expected to be on hand are Brendan Doran, Spillane, Van Loan, Erichsen and Dayton.