Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Steamboat Springs The U.S. Nordic Combined Team begins its quest for four Olympic medals at 9:30 a.m. today with the K-90 ski jumping phase of the two-day team competition. Assistant U.S. coach Jan-Erik Aalbu said never before has he had such a sense that his athletes are prepared to grasp the coveted hardware.
"We have never been this close," Aalbu said. "Now is the time to do it."
The U.S. lineup remains unchanged from last weekend's individual competition Matt Dayton, Johnny Spillane, Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong, all four with strong ties to Steamboat Springs will represent their country today.
Aalbu, who is the ski jumping specialist on the U.S. staff, believes if the guys can jump just like they did in the individual competition last weekend, they can bring home bronze meals perhaps better.
There are definite signs the members of the U.S. Team are ready to do just that. Lodwick jumped 92.5 meters during Wednesday's training run. Demong matched that distance, with Spillane and Dayton each jumping 88 meters. Those two 88-meter jumps are both several meters longer than Dayton's and Spillane's best jumps in the Feb. 9 individual competition. If they can repeat that performance today, the difference will translate into precious seconds at the cross country starting line.
"If we have that (the same results) I will be pretty sure we'll medal," Aalbu said. He won't know for sure until early afternoon Friday, when the 4X5k relay is run at Soldier Hollow, near Heber City, Utah.
The team competition is a far different beast from the individual competition, opening the door for the coaches to try to outguess one another.
The ski jumpers are divided into four groups, with one athlete from each team entered into a group. Start order within the group is based on the reverse order of the results of the previous international event. The total combined score of all four team members from the jumping competition is factored through the Gunderson method (just as they are in an individual competition) to assign time penalties for the cross country race.
Thus, the top jumping team will start the race first, with the other teams coming in order of their finish in jumping.
Aalbu has decided Lodwick will jump first followed in order by Dayton, Spillane and Demong. He based the order on the belief that meet officials will begin with a conservative start position on the inrun, might move it up in the middle rounds, then lower it again for the last run.
Lowering the start position, even by a meter, reduces the jumpers' distances by as much as 5 meters.
Aalbu has positioned his jumpers so the two who are best at jumping at low speed will jump first and last.
"There will be 10 nations in the competition," Aalbu said. "We think Finland is the favorite."
The nations who figure to compete with the U.S. for the two remaining medals include Austria, Germany, Norway and Japan. Japan figures to jump well but give up ground in the cross country race. Aalbu is intrigued with Germany he believes that team is struggling to decide on its lineup.
Ronny Ackermann and Bjorn Kirchheiser are both jumping strong for Germany, but its other jumpers aren't faring so well.
If there's one wild card in the mix for today's ski jumping competition, it is that Lodwick will be jumping on a new pair of skis. He broke his second pair of skis since Christmas this week. Some jumpers are unsettled by new skis, because they can flex differently as the skier snaps off the takeoff and searches for lift.
Aalbu said Lodwick is already in a groove with his new boards.
"I don't think that should be a big problem," Aalbu said. "He looks really comfortable."
Aalbu is hoping all four skiers have a chance to get comfortable wearing precious metal by Friday afternoon.