Johnny Spillane was as surprised as anyone.
"Never in my wildest dream did I expect to win," Spillane said last week after winning gold at the Nordic Combined World Championship in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Not enough can be said about Spillane's historic win, the first time an American has won a Nordic combined gold medal in either the Olympics or the World Championships.
Nordic skiing in general has not exactly captured the imagination of America's sports-crazed public. Most sports fans can't describe what's involved in Nordic combined, which pairs ski jumping and cross country skiing.
We're not so naÃive as to believe Spillane's victory will change that significantly. But after years of steady progress by the U.S. team, Spillane's win was a major breakthrough, proving the Americans can compete with the Germans, Austrians and Norwegians who have dominated the sport for so long. In fact, in Friday's 7.5-kilometer cross country race, Spillane caught and passed Austria's Felix Gottwald and Germany's Ronny Ackermann -- arguably the two greatest Nordic combined skiers in the world -- in the final 150 meters to win.
And how fitting it was that Todd Lodwick lifted Spillane onto his shoulders following Spillane's win in Italy. Just a year ago, Lodwick scored the highest finish ever by an American Nordic combined skier in the Olympics. On Friday, there they were, two young men from Steamboat Springs halfway around the world celebrating this country's greatest moment in Nordic combined skiing.
Spillane's win is a classic hometown-boy made good tale and certainly it is cause for all of Steamboat to be proud. It also underscores the importance of the Colorado Ski Heritage Project, a $2.4 million effort to upgrade the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill.
An open house about the project will be held today at Olympian Hall and Thursday at Centennial Hall. The project involves increasing snowmaking on the K-90 and K-114 jumps and covering the K-65 jump with plastic so it can be utilized year-round. About $400,000 still must be raised to complete the project.
The planned upgrade is just the first step in keeping Howelsen Hill competitive with other ski jumping facilities around the country. If others are going to follow in the footsteps of Spillane and Lodwick, Steamboat will need to cover the K-90 and K-114 jumps in plastic as well.
Following last year's Olympics, Spillane and other members of the U.S. Nordic combined team moved to Park City, Utah, so they could train throughout the year. All of the jumps in Park City are covered in plastic.
"It was a big sacrifice, because I love Steamboat," Spillane said. "But I wanted to be the best that I could be and I needed to train every day."
Spillane's historic win is a signature moment in Steamboat Springs' rich skiing history. Here is hoping that, with upgraded jumps at Howelsen, there will be more moments like it for future Steamboat skiers.