Former Steamboat Springs resident Bill Demong won silver in the 15-kilometer individual event at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Japan on Saturday, making him only the second American to medal in a Nordic combined event at the World Championships.
Demong out-sprinted Finland's Anssi Koivuranta in a photo finish to claim the silver medal. Koivuranta took bronze.
"This is a big day for me," said Demong, a three-time Olympian. "It's exciting what this means for myself and what this means for Nordic skiing in the United States."
The race was won by Germany's Ronny Ackermann, the defending champion, who crossed the finish line in 38 minutes, 35.6 seconds. Demong finished 8.5 seconds back.
Until Saturday, Steamboat's Johnny Spillane was the only American to win a medal at the World Championships - or Olympics, for that matter. Spillane took gold in the 7.5-kilometer sprint event in Val di Fiemme, Italy, in 2003.
Spillane finished 20th in the 15-kilometer event Saturday.
Demong, who had the second-fastest cross country time of 37:04.1, stood in eighth place after jumps of 89.5 and 94.5 meters and was 1:40 behind the jumping leader before the cross-country race. He caught up with Koivuranta at the 14-kilometer mark and kept pace with him into the stadium before out-skiing him to the finish line.
"I didn't think about it," Demong said. "I kept looking forward, kept looking ahead. I had atomic rockets and I kept pushing them forward all the time."
Demong's second-place finish on the sport's biggest stage was particularly rewarding given his two fourth-place finishes at World Cup events in January. Demong was on the losing end of photo finishes in both races.
"I traded in those two photo finishes for a medal at Worlds," he said Saturday.
Former U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team coach Tom Steitz, a Steamboat resident, coached Demong for six years and remains close with the skier.
"It's so big that it's really hard to explain to folks," Steitz said about the significance of Demong's silver. "It's monumental, it really is."
Steitz said it was fitting Demong's biggest race accomplishment happened in the same country where he began his U.S. Ski Team experience almost 10 years ago.
"His first trip (as a member of the U.S. team) was as a wide-eyed junior to Japan, and 10 years later, he's making history there," Steitz said.
Steitz said the decade in between has been characterized by Demong's hard work and dedication to the sport of Nordic combined, which, although very popular in Europe, has only a small following in the U.S.
"It's been nine years to get to this point," Steitz said. "That's what that medal represents - 9 1/2 years of Billy committing every day of his life to this."
Demong echoed that sentiment during a conference call with reporters.
"It's amazing to have worked so hard at something and focused on results for so long and have everything just click," he said. "I needed to have that sort of individual performance at worlds or the World Cup to get the monkey off my back and build up my confidence."
Steitz said he talked to Demong at 2 a.m. Sunday in Japan, where the shell-shocked skier was sitting in his hotel room, staring at the silver medal strewn across the bed.
"He really was in shock," Steitz said.
Demong won't have much time to absorb the significance of his silver. Steitz said Demong already was en route to Finland to take part in the next World Cup event.
The Associated Press and the U.S. Ski Team contributed to this report.