Steamboat Springs The U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team will be a team again in every sense of the word when it hosts the best skiers Europe and Japan have to offer in the Ski Town USA Classic at Steamboat sponsored by L.L. Bean.
Led by Steamboat product Todd Lodwick, the young American squad placed fifth in a World Cup team relay Sunday at Soldier Hollow near Midway, Utah.
Not since Lodwick teamed with Ryan Heckman and Dave Jarrett to stand on World Cup podiums almost five years ago have the Americans boasted enough depth to be a threat in the team events.
Now, Lodwick is running with Steamboat's Johnny Spillane and Bill Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., and the prospect of an Olympic medal in 2002 on the same Soldier Hollow course seems realistic again.
"When we were doing our planning last spring for this season, we said under the best of conditions, we could be fifth," U.S. head coach Tom Steitz told reporters after the race. "We were 10th dead last in the team event at Ramsau ('99 World Championships) and now we're fifth and one or two better jumps, and we're contending for the podium."
And there were other signs of good things to come as the second American relay placed 13th. That relay included Matt Dayton of Breckenridge, Kristoffer Erichsen of Steamboat and Carl Van Loan of Webster, N.H.
All six American athletes are expected to take part again this week in Steamboat, although there will not be a team relay in the two competitions in Steamboat.
Steitz said Monday he thinks the performance of all six athletes in Utah, both in the relay and individual competitions, has their overall confidence level at new heights.
"I think the whole group can walk away (from Soldier Hollow) and say, 'We had six guys in the top 38.' When you think about it, that's a sizable part of the whole field," Steitz said.
Lodwick nearly pulled off the impossible Jan. 20 when he first slipped to 24th after the ski jumping round, then made up most of a 90-second time penalty to place sixth.
His coach said he nearly grabbed his first World Cup podium of the season but lost out in a three-man sprint toward the finish line.
Still, Lodwick turned in the fastest cross-country time of the day on a hilly course that will be the Olympic course a little more than a year from now.
If Lodwick can continue to improve his ski jumping this week, good things could happen.
"Jan-Erik Aalbu (nordic combined jumping coach) has done a fantastic job of bringing Todd and the rest of the guys along," Steitz said. "I've heard him telling them to be patient and 'let it come to you.' Once that jumping comes around, and it is coming around," even better things will be in store for the U.S. team, he said.
Saturday's individual race was won by Austria's Felix Gottwald, who placed sixth in Steamboat last year. Ronny Ackermann of Germany, seventh last year in Steamboat, took second, and Norway's Kristian Hammer, who did not compete here last year, was third.
Demong quietly scored a career best in 11th place. Spillane was 24th, Dayton 28th, Erichsen 33rd and Van Loan 35th. For Dayton, Erichsen and Van Loan, those results also represented career bests.