Pragelato, Italy Headed into the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, the biggest question about the U.S. Nordic Combined team was how competitive it could be in the team event.
On Thursday, that question was answered, and it wasn't the response many hoped for.
The Americans struggled through a wind-marred jumping portion that was continued Thursday after being postponed Wednesday. The U.S. team then failed to make up any ground in the four-person, 20-kilometer relay event. The team of Todd Lodwick, Carl Van Loan, Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane finished seventh in the field of nine teams. Lodwick and Spillane are Steamboat Springs natives.
"It was just a rough day," Van Loan said when it was all over. "It wasn't going for us on the jump hill -- especially for me. But in the skiing (portion), I gave it everything, and I can walk away saying I laid it all out there in the cross-country."
Unfortunately, what the American's left on the course was not enough to keep pace with Nordic combined powerhouses such as Austria, Germany, Finland and Japan.
The Germans led the jumping portion of the competition thanks to strong performances by Georg Hettich, who had jumps of 130.5 and 126 meters. Bjoern Kircheisen turned in jumps of 126 and 125.5 meters, and Ronny Ackermann jumped 126 and 122 meters.
But the German team gambled in the 20-kilometer cross-country relay by leading off with Kircheisen, Hettich and Ackerman and leaving Jens Gaiser, who is a better jumper than skier, to take the final lap.
The Austrian's took advantage of the German rotation, and Felix Gottwald caught up with the German team and the end of the third leg of the relay. Austrian Mario Stecher stalked Gaiser during the final leg and waited for the best place to make his move.
It came on the final uphill into the stadium. Stecher moved past Gaiser and led the Austrians to their first-ever gold medal in the Nordic combined team event. The Germans won silver, finishing 15.3 seconds behind Austria. Finland held off the Japanese team to take the bronze.
The American team was seventh after the jumping event and weren't able to improve their standing during the cross-country relay race. Spillane and Demong posted the fourth fastest cross-county times in their legs, and Lodwick was second. Carl Van Loan was ranked seventh.
The U.S. team came off the course frustrated with the event organizers for not wiping the slate clean and starting the entire team competition over after high winds forced a postponement of the jumping event Wednesday.
"We should have done it to the full extent," Van Loan said. "We had maybe a 100 people out there today. Who wants to come out at 8 a.m. on a rainy, wet day?"
Spillane had one of his best jumps before the event was stopped Wednesday, but he faced unfavorable conditions in his second jump.
"They tried to force a competition at the Olympics," Spillane said. "The conditions were not fair. It's disappointing because we have time to have a fair competition, but they are just trying to get it out of the way."
Lodwick had hoped his teammates could put the jumping behind them and make up ground on the cross-country course. But by the end of the day, the Americans' bid to make up time had come to an end with six other teams, including Japan, France, and Switzerland finishing in from of them.
"I didn't want to kill myself," Lodwick said about his leg of the cross-country race. "I wanted to get a good idea of what to expect in the 7.5-kilometer cross-country race. I believe that we should have been fighting for fourth and fifth.
Lodwick vents frustration
Picking the thee best American skiers for the U.S. Nordic combined team would have been an easy choice in 2006.
But four skiers make up the team, and after the U.S.'s seventh-place finish in the team event Thursday, it was abundantly clear the Americans still need depth if they are to contend with the best.
A frustrated Todd Lodwick made it known that his choice for the fourth team member would have been different.
"Brett (Camerota) had proven himself through this winter that he is a better competitor," Lodwick said. "He deserved a spot on the team. It's disappointing ... I've trained really hard all year, and to be dragged down by one person really hurts.
"I've worked hard. I just have not had the opportunity to have four really strong guys all at the same time. It's not on my shoulders. I can only do what I can do, and hopefully that is jumping far and skiing fast."
Coaches admit that Carl Van Loan struggled in the jumping and cross-county portions of Thursday's team event, but they defended their decision to start him instead of Camerota.
"It's been sort of an internal battle between the three (Van Loan, Brett Camerota and Eric Camerota) of them," team coach Bard Elden said. "It hasn't been really clear between them. It wasn't a really clear position, but whoever we put in, I don't think it would have mattered. We put Carl in based on experience, which the Camerotas don't have as much of, and we were all very much in agreement on doing that.
"The performance from all three of them were not completely what we needed. We were hoping that Carl could pull us through it like he did last year at World Championships. It was his chance to take, but I'm not looking back and saying that we should have chosen somebody else. I can't see that it would have made a difference."
Elden said he will try to put the disagreement with Lodwick -- the team's top athlete -- behind him as they look forward to the sprint event Tuesday.
Lodwick, meanwhile, will have one more shot at an Olympic medal when the competes in the one jump, 7.5-kilometer sprint event scheduled to take place in Pragelato on Tuesday.
Lodwick has been a member of the U.S. Team for the past 13 years. The past two years, however, he has spent most of his time training in Steamboat Springs with advisor Tom Steitz. He travels with the team to competitions and training camps.