Talented skiers face uncertainty


A quick glance suggests the U.S. Nordic combined team should be fully loaded in Italy this month and ready to claim the Olympic medal it so narrowly missed in Utah in 2002.
After all, Steamboat's Johnny Spillane picked up a World Championship gold medal in 2003, Billy Demong appears to be all the way back from a skull fracture suffered in summer 2002, and veteran Todd Lodwick proved again in December 2005 that he can claim a spot on a World Cup podium at any time.
That should be almost enough to ensure the Americans, who placed fourth in the team competition in 2002, can contend again for a medal in 2006.
Yet, significant questions remain to be answered as the athletes, including three from Steamboat Springs, make final preparations for the competitions Feb. 11 to 21 in the Northern Italian resort of Pragelato west of Turin.
Spillane is still seeking to regain his ski jumping form after a fall in November 2005 that resulted in a shoulder injury. Since placing second at a competition in Norway early in December, Lodwick has passed on subsequent World Cup competitions to be home in Steamboat for the birth of his daughter. He's been training hard in Steamboat, but no one can predict how he'll respond when he's suddenly immersed in his fourth Winter Olympics.
Demong appears to be dialed in ---- he placed 10th in a World Cup on Jan. 6 in Schonach, Germany.
The U.S. Olympic team was named Jan. 17. The fourth member of the Nordic combined team, joining Lodwick, Demong and Spillane, is 2002 Winter Olympic veteran Carl Van Loan of Webster, N.H.
Van Loan placed 30th in the 2005 World championships and has a World Cup best finish of 22nd in 2004.
The fourth Nordic combined skier in 2002 was Summit County's Matt Dayton, who finished 36th in the sprint event.
The Americans turned in their best results in 100 years at Soldier Hollow, placing fourth in the team event. Lodwick claimed a fifth in the sprint event in 2002. Almost forgotten is that Demong was 14th that day.
Gone from the international stage is Finland's Samppa Lajunen, who dominated the 2002 Winter Olympic events, sweeping three gold medals.
Lodwick is an international star in Nordic skiing, but much of the European press will be scrutinizing the rivalry between Germany's Ronny Ackermann and Finland's Hannu Manninen at Pragelato. Ackermann claimed two gold medals during the 2005 World Championships in his home country.
Manninen has been dominant this season, winning seven events as of Jan. 15. Austria's Felix Gottwald remains a serious threat, as does countryman Christoph Bieler.


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