A title to defend

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— The first Nordic combined event of the 2005 FIS Nordic World Championships is four days away, but it's a race that can't get here soon enough for defending World Champion Johnny Spillane.
"I'm definitely excited to get going," Spillane said from his hotel room in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Monday afternoon. "I think my jumping is in the right place, especially on the big hill, and the (cross-country) skiing has been going well all year."
Two years ago in Val di Fiemme, Italy, at the 2003 World Championships, Spillane became the first American to win a gold medal at the Nordic World Championships. He placed first in the one-jump, 7.5-kilometer-sprint event.
American coach Bard Elden said Spillane is a stronger, more consistent skier now than he was in 2003. He thinks Todd Lodwick, who has five World Cup podiums this season, and Spillane, who has one, will contend for titles during the championships.
"I don't think Johnny is putting any extra pressure on himself," Elden said. "He always puts pressure on himself to perform, but he does a good job of making sure that it's just the right amount of pressure."
Spillane thinks he's a long shot to repeat as World Champion, and said his priorities have nothing to do with where he finishes in the final standings.
"I've set some goals for myself, but they are not based on results," Spillane said. 'I'm not worried about winning, just about jumping and skiing well."
The American team, made up of Spillane, Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong, Carl Van Loan and Eric Camerota, traveled to Ruhpolding, Germany, last week to begin preparing for this week's events, which will be the biggest test leading up to next year's Olympic Games in Torino, Italy.
"It went pretty well, although the weather wasn't cooperating and we were not able to jump as much as we wanted," Spillane said.
The team arrived in Oberstdorf Monday and will take part in the opening ceremonies Wednesday and training Thursday.
The two-jump, 15-kilometer race is scheduled for Friday and will be the first of three events for the Nordic combined skiers.
The combined skiers also will compete in a team event Feb. 23 and a sprint event Feb. 27.
"This is the best team we have ever had at a major event and I think we are all excited about our chances," Spillane said.
For the Americans, the World Championships are a chance to put an exclamation point on a strong season that has included top showings and inspirational comebacks.
Demong, who will be making his third World Championship appearance, is rebounding from a serious head injury that sidelined him just before the 2003 season. The two-time Olympian spent much of last year trying to get back to top form and began this season on the World Cup B tour. He moved up to the A tour during the second period and posted several top finishes.
"I think the whole team is in a pretty good place right now," Elden said. "I think this team is as strong, if not stronger, than it was at the last (2002) Olympics and we are hoping to bring home some hardware."
Steamboat Springs jumper Clint Jones and Maine jumper Brian Welch will compete this week as part of the U.S. Ski Team's special jumping team.

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

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