John F. Russell: Lodwick shines even without Olympics

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If you were paying attention this week, you might have been reminded of a time when cheers erupted from the base of the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill.

The days when the World Cup came to Howelsen are gone, but there was nonetheless a good reason to cheer in Steamboat Springs this week.

Thousands of miles away, on a similar jump in Germany, Nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick gave Americans a reason to celebrate as he captured a pair of third-place finishes on the World Cup Tour.

They were his best results in more than a year and are the best for the U.S. Ski Team this season. But it's just another day at the office for the skier who grew up jumping on the hills at Howelsen.

Over the years, Steamboat has watched as Lodwick grew into the strongest American skier in the history of the sport. He paved a path in the sport for athletes including Johnny Spillane, who won the World Championship last year, and a host of younger skiers who have taken on the World Cup with a new sense of confidence.

On Friday, in front of a crowd of 10,000 people in Germany, Lodwick recorded his second third-place finish of the week. He is now the top American skier in the World Cup standings and in ninth place overall.

It's wonderful to see a Steamboat athlete doing so well on the World Cup Tour, but it is also a reminder of how short the attention span of most Americans is.

For nine years, the Nordic combined World Cup came to Steamboat, and the top 45 combiners in the world competed in front of several hundred spectators -- most of them Steamboat residents who understood the sport.

When the same events are held in Norway or Germany, they draw 10,000 people. In Europe, the sport is incredibly popular, and skiers are treated like football stars.

That's a stark contrast to the United States, where one of the only times the sport drew a large domestic crowd was in Utah at the 2002 Olympic Games, when more than 20,000 people came to watch the Nordic combined events. But the sport's popularity among the American public was short-lived -- about two weeks, to be exact.

In the United States, Nordic combined lags far behind most mainstream sports -- just like many of the other Winter Olympic sports.

The truth is that in most non-Olympic years, athletes such as Lodwick continue to train, compete and even stand on the podium without the glory and the hype that goes along with the Olympics. They are left to hope that their biggest results will come at the Olympics, when there's a chance that their fellow countrymen may have turned their televisions, and attention, to sports like Nordic combined.

--To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209 or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com

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