Lodwick finishes seventh in Nordic Combined

Best finish ever for an American

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— Soldier Holow, Utah Todd Lodwick of Steamboat Springs tightened his grip on Nordic combined history Sunday, scoring the highest Olympic finish ever by an American in the sport.

Lodwick was ranked seventh after Saturday's K-90 ski jumping and that's where he wound up at the conclusion of the 15-kilometer cross country ski race.

"It's great to be the best American in history," said Lodwick. "I'm working toward being better in the sport. I didn't have it in me to get there for the medal today."

The previous best finish by an American was a ninth posted by Rolf Monsen in 1932. Lodwick scored a 13th in Lillehammer in 1994, as did current Steamboat resident Kerry Lynch in Sarajevo in 1984.

The day belonged to Finland as World Cup veteran Samppa Lajunen claimed the gold medal and teammate Jaakko Tallus, who led after the ski jumping, surprised many experts and hung on for silver.

''It is hard work to be 23 years old and win an Olympic medal,'' said Lajunen.

World Cup leader Felix Gottwald of Austria turned in a heroic performance to win the bronze. Gottwald was in 11th place after the ski jumping, and started the cross country race 2:43 behind the leader, Tallus.

Even with his historic finish, Lodwick was not satisfied. He came to win a medal, and was confident he could do so Sunday, though most thought he was a long shot. ''It's a little bit disappointing, because I had expectations of moving up,'' said Lodwick.

Three other Americans, all with ties to Steamboat , took part in the race.

Matt Dayton, who grew up skiing in Frisco and learned to ski jump at Howelsen Hill, easily had the best cross country race. After finishing 31st in jumping, he passed 13 skiers on Sunday to finish in 18th, 4 minutes behind Lajunen.

Bill Demong, who started eighth, was passed in the final 2 kilometers by Dayton and finished a disappointing 19th. He had won a World Cup in the Czech Republic right before coming home for the Olympics.

Johnny Spillane started 25th Sunday and skied home in 32nd position to the cheers of an appreciative crowd that lined the last kilometer of the course.

U.S. Assistant Coach Baard-Joergen Elden said he anticipated Lajunen's victory after the ski jumping competition, but he was surprised by Gottwald's ability to race onto the podium.

"He's a good skier, but that was more than I expected," Elden said. "I knew he would be trouble for Todd I thought Felix would fight with Todd for fourth."

Lodwick started powerfully on the first of three 5k circuits round the sprawling Soldier Hollow complex. He had passed Japan's Dato Takahashi by the 3.5k mark. Ominously though, Gottwald had already sprinted to within 5 seconds of Lodwick and passed him on the transition from a steep hill to a long downhill.

Lodwick stubbornly refused to yield anymore ground, although he was chased by a pack of seven skiers along the final two kilometers of the race. Lodwick held off Norway's Kristian Hammer by 2 seconds at the finish.

Elden took note of Dayton's strong cross country race.

"That was awesome. He's been doing a lot of that lately," he said.

The Nordic Combined skiers have two more events spread over four days. They will compete on the K-90 jump Thursday in the first leg of the team competition followed by a four-man, 5k relay at Soldier Hollow on Feb. 15.

They'll have five days off before stepping up to the K120 jump in the sprint competition on Feb. 21, followed by the 7.5k cross country race on Feb. 22.

Elden said he expected the athletes to work on fine tuning their jumping technique over the next couple of days in preparation for the team event.

Finland, Austria and Germany all have strong four-man teams the Americans will have to contend with. And don't count Norway out, Elden said.

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