It's springtime in Ski Town U.S.A. Do you know where your Nordic world champions are? We can lay claim to three of them, you know! That's never happened before.
Nordic combined skier Johnny Spillane turned golden six years ago; Todd Lodwick broke through twice in the opening events of the World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, in February; and Bill Demong answered with a gold of his own in the final event. The U.S. Nordic Combined Team has never been in such a position of strength as it is now, looking ahead to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Demong put the final touch on the season with a first-place finish in the last World Cup of the 2008-09 season in Vikersund, Norway, on March 15.
It's a safe bet that Lodwick is hunkered down with two darling children this spring but already plotting an August bow-hunting trip. Lodwick now has two World Championship gold medals in Nordic combined skiing, one for his little boy and one for his little girl to wear in a family photo. How fun is that?
Spillane likely is standing in a clear river flowing out of the bottom of a major dam somewhere, studying a trout that is rising to tiny mayflies and making long delicate casts. There's nothing like standing in the current, with the sun glinting off the wavelets to suspend the passage of time and take one's mind far, far away from everyday cares.
Spillane was the first of the three to claim his golden disc, in the sprint event in Val di Fiemme, Italy, in 2003.
Demong is spinning through the gears this spring after splurging on a fancy new road bike. The guy can't seem to get enough aerobic exercise. And hey, with the prize money Billy banked last winter during the course of capturing nine World Cup podiums and a World Championship gold medal, that new bike is well deserved.
Demong is from Vermontville, N.Y., and lives in Park City, Utah, in the offseason. But during a long tenure at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, he formed many close relationships here.
For now, the pressure is off. All three of America's best Nordic combined skiers have pocketed World Championship gold, and they can approach the 2010 Winter Olympics with the confidence that brings.
However, Nordic skiing is a year-round sport, and it won't be long before the boys are back in training, bowing to the discipline of a detailed training plan that tells them day by day when to go long and slow, when to test their bodies with intense intervals and when to rest.
I wonder if on their rest days, Spillane, Demong and Lodwick ever stop to contemplate the fine line between merely being one of the best Nordic athletes on the planet, and the exalted status of a world champion.
When you think about it, every one of the World Cup podiums Lodwick racked up during the past 15 years was the equivalent of an Olympic or World Championship medal. The same cast of athletes that competes for Olympic and World Championship glory shows up for every World Cup. If you vanquish them in January 2010, it's a significant career achievement and an encouraging sign. Defeat them a month later in Vancouver, and it's a television event that propels you to the top of Mount Olympus.
Billy Kidd, the longtime director of skiing at Steamboat, knows all about how fickle ski racing fame can be. Most of you recall that Kidd won an Olympic silver medal in slalom in 1964. What you may have forgotten is that the ski racer from Stowe, Vt., was still a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday on that life-changing day in Innsbruck, Austria. For the next six years, Kidd fought through a severe ankle injury and a broken leg, trying to reclaim the Olympic glory he had achieved at an early age. It was the broken leg that prevented him from competing in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.
He was back in action for the 1970 World Championships in Val Gardena, Italy, but still struggling with injuries - this time a bad back.
In his book "The Story of Modern Skiing," John Fry recalls that despite his injury problems, Kidd approached the World Championships with a bullish attitude. Fry recalled that Kidd could barely bend over to buckle his ski boots and could not take as many downhill training runs. He brushed off his limitations, Fry wrote, by observing that the snow cover was too thin to make training runs worthwhile anyway.
Kidd finished out of the medals in fifth place in downhill. But that race result, combined with a bronze medal in slalom, vaulted him to a gold medal in the combined event and right onto the cover of LIFE magazine.
It was a highlight of his career and one he remains tremendously proud of. But it's not all Kidd remembers about Val Gardena.
"I finished just six one-hundredths (of a second) out of first place in the slalom," he told me.
And that sums up the existence of world-class competitive skiers. Any World Cup podium is a moment to celebrate, and any major championship medal is something that will assure fame that outlives the athlete.
But it is only during a few days during a skier's career that there is that fleeting opportunity to find a little piece of immortality. And it can hang on the vagaries of a flu bug or a sprained ankle, or the choice of ski wax or just a few-hundredths of a second.