John F. Russell:The gold standard, sans medal

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It wasn't the ending Todd Lodwick deserved.

What he deserved would have been taken straight from the plot of a Walt Disney movie, with Lodwick coming from behind in the final 50 meters of the Nordic combined sprint to win gold. Finland's Hannu Manninen would have been right on his heels.

In the end, Lodwick would have been surrounded by his teammates, family and his baby daughter, Charley. He would have been lifted to the top stair of the awards podium by his teammates, and his wife, Sunny, would have placed the gold medal around his neck before giving him a kiss on the cheek.

But this is not Hollywood. This is Italy. The last chapter of Lodwick's storied Nordic combined career unfolded last week in the majestic peaks of the Italian Alps, but there was no come-from-behind victory.

There was only disappointment for the best Nordic combined skier in American history. Lodwick didn't get the storybook ending he desperately wanted. Instead, he had to settle for ninth in his final Olympic appearance. Twelve years ago, such a result would have been celebrated in the U.S. Nordic combined community, but Lodwick wasn't celebrating last week.

The Steamboat Springs native has spent most of his life chasing an Olympic medal. And during the past four years, he prepared for this one last day, this one final moment.

But instead of celebrating a medal, Lodwick stood near the finish line and stared at the one thing he wanted most -- the one thing he will never have: an Olympic podium.

"This was my last chance, and it's hard to look (at the results) and know that I didn't accomplish my goal," Lodwick said. "The Olympic Games will not define me as athlete, or who I am, but it would be nice to have a little hardware to take home."

Lodwick has excelled for more than a decade in a sport that most Americans don't understand. He has spent the better part of his life trying to fly through thin air in small mountain towns just like Pragelato, and he has tortured himself on cross-country race courses around the world. Nobody will ever question his love of Nordic combined skiing or his desire to win.

But Tuesday, all the hours of training, all the hard work and all his World Cup victories didn't add up to enough Euros to buy a cup of coffee at a local cafe. I imagine that Lodwick, who has set the gold standard for U.S. Nordic combined skiers, would have traded a lifetime of top finishes for one more swing at the jump hill in Pragelato. "You set your mind to something, and you have four chances," he said. "It is hard to put down that you didn't fulfill your goal."

Lodwick is a competitor, and he understands that nothing is guaranteed in sports, and nobody is guaranteed success at the Olympics.

But he can take comfort is something that is guaranteed. He always will be known as the athlete that paved the way for Americans in a European-dominated sport, and he doesn't need a medal to prove it.

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