Steamboat Springs Steamboat's Johnny Spillane accomplished something Friday that no American has done before: He won a Nordic World Championship gold medal in the Nordic combined sprint at Val di Fiemme, Italy.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to win," Spillane said via conference call. "I just had a ton of fun out there today. I'm so thrilled to have broken that barrier."
Spillane, 20, a graduate of Lowell Whiteman School in Steamboat Springs, is the first U.S. Nordic skier to win a gold medal in any discipline in either the World Championships or Winter Olympics.
Steamboat's Todd Lodwick was 26th after jumping and moved up to 19th in the cross country ski race. Fellow Americans Jed Hinkley and Carl Van Loan finished 37th and 41st, respectively.
Spillane's parents, Jim and Nancy, and his younger sister Katie were in the crowd as he sprinted past favorites Ronny Ackermann of Germany and Felix Gottwald of Austria in the final 150 meters of Friday's 7.5-kilometer cross country ski race to win the individual sprint competition. Earlier in the day, he had finished fourth in ski jumping.
Spillane finished just 1.3 seconds ahead of Ackermann, the individual world champion from last week. Gottwald settled for the bronze.
Three Germans led the field after the ski jumping, with Georg Hettich in first, Ackermann in second and Mathias Benz in third.
Spillane said his goal for the three-lap race was to ski comfortably and conserve energy in the first lap, while staying within striking distance of the leaders. He quickly made up a 7-second time penalty on Benz and caught up to Hettich while Gottwald (35 seconds behind the leader) was catching Spillane. Together, the American and the Austrian caught up to Ackermann and formed the lead pack.
"I just wanted to ski as smooth as I could and hang with Felix," Spillane said. "I really pushed hard the last half of the third lap. I knew (that) if I was still in contact when we came into a big, long downhill nearing the finish, I'd have a chance."
Spillane said he drew additional confidence from the knowledge that his skis were running fast on the wet snow conditions that prevailed. After surging into the lead, he said he realized -- with 100 meters to go -- that he might win the race. Still, he didn't dare glance back at the competition.
"I had so much adrenaline flowing, I felt awesome in the sprint," Spillane said.
He took a quick peek behind him with 20 meters left before the finish line and realized the world championship was his.
In addition to the specialists who prepared his skis for Friday's race, Spillane gave a great deal of credit to U.S. ski jumping coach Corby Fisher (a former Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athlete) and sports psychologist John Anderson, for helping him in his bid to make Nordic skiing history.
Anderson has taught him how champion athletes channel their nervous energy into a positive force, Spillane said.
"At the top (of the ski jump) today, I was really nervous," Spillane said. "My psychologist has taught me that there is a difference between being nervous and being worried. Being nervous can be a good thing. He's taught me how to use it in the right way."
Friday's sprint event allowed the athletes just one ski jump off the K-120 hill. Spillane used it well, positioning himself in fourth. He said under Fisher's guidance, he took his ski jumping technique apart last summer and began all over again. The result has been the ability to consistently jump further in all types of conditions, Spillane said.
"He gave me an entirely new outlook on jumping," Spillane said. "I had the wrong idea of what a good jump was. Before, I had a really aggressive style. Sometimes it worked. Other times, it didn't work. My jumping coach showed me what it is that let's you go far at lower speeds."
Spillane acknowledged he had been discouraged on Feb. 21, when his jumps off the K-95 jump left him out of the running before the 15-kilometer cross country race in the individual competition had even begun. He talked it over with Anderson during the week between the two events.
"I spoke with him at length," Spillane said. "It really helped me overcome the competition today."
The larger K-120 hill in the sprint competition played to his strengths, Spillane said. The smaller K-95 hill favors the most powerfully built skiers in the field, but the bigger hill favors technicians.
Spillane had the longest jump of the training round, and he knew he was dialed in.
"It's almost like a different sport," he said. "It's a lot more technical -- a lot more flying. I got into the sport because it's fun to fly."
Spillane moved to Park City, Utah, last summer for training purposes. The opportunity to continue practicing during the summer on the plastic surface of the big K-120 jump made the difference in his season.
"It was a big sacrifice, because I love Steamboat," Spillane said. "But I wanted to be the best I could be and I needed to train every day."
It was over the summer in Park City, the scene of his greatest disappointment, that Spillane began to heal from the pain he and his teammates felt during the Winter Olympics last February when they didn't medal in the Nordic combined team event.
"Last year we were extremely disappointed -- we knew we could have done better and we wanted to show the world what we are made of. We learned a lot from that experience and tried to apply it to all of our training this year."
Former U.S. Nordic Combined Coach Tom Steitz, who retired after the Winter Games, believes they served as a motivator for Spillane.
"We were so close at the Olympics," Steitz said. "I think when we look back on it we were good enough to get it done. But sometimes it takes a life-altering experience to build that fire. I think that was what the Olympics were for Johnny. I think he has been on a mission since last year's closing ceremonies. He worked harder than I've ever seen anyone work before."
Winter Sports Club ski jumping coach Gary Crawford, a two-time Nordic combined Olympian, knows what Spillane's gold medal can do for the sport in North America. He and teammates Kerry Lynch and Pat Ahearn were among the favorites in the team competition at the World Championship in Oslo, Norway, in 1982. Their hopes of a medal evaporated when Ahearn fell during official training and broke his collarbone.
"For Johnny to do this is just phenomenal," Crawford said. "We're really hoping it's going to catapult Nordic combined, and not only Nordic combined but all of the Nordic programs. What we really need is money at the development level to help the guys who are on the cusp of making the World Cup A team."
Spillane is also aware that he is in a position to help elevate the stature of the American Nordic teams.
"I think this means a lot in the U.S.," he said. "We have quite a few skiers spread out over the country. In the past, they had nothing to set their sights on. We needed someone to step out and take control. Hopefully I can do that. There's a ton of talent on our team. Hopefully we can all jump out there."
Crawford claimed he had a premonition that Spillane would achieve his ultimate goals in Val di Fiemme: "After Johnny won the national large hill ski jumping championship here a few weeks ago, I told him, 'national champion this week, world champion next week.' He just gave me a little chuckle."
Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs claimed a piece of Nordic skiing history this week.