Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Todd Lodwick, the man whose resume tells us he is the greatest Steamboat skier of all time, finally got the abominable snowman off his back in Liberec, Czech Republic, on Friday.
Lodwick's world championship gold medal in the Nordic combined mass-start event brought him the fulfillment that slipped out of his grasp at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, again at the 2003 world championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy.
Sitting in the newsroom Friday morning, watching the final Nordic combined ski jumping results pop into an Internet window, I became so excited I had to leave the building for a few moments to regain my professional demeanor.
When Lodwick retired in March 2006 after an Olympics that left him disappointed again, it looked like the dream of a championship medal had evaporated for one of Steamboat's favorite sons.
He went out in style that year in front of adoring Norwegian fans at Holmenkollen, ski jumping in traditional costume and using the old straight-ski technique. Then he went home to his wife, Sunny, and their baby daughter.
"I was committed, no regrets," Lodwick said. "I think (retirement) gave me perspective of what I had accomplished and some things that were never accomplished. Coming back was on my own terms, a medal was my motivation, and I've never trained so hard and had so much fun training."
It should not be possible at the age of 29 to retire from a demanding sport like Nordic combined, where the athletes typically train 11 months of every year, then make a sudden and successful comeback two years later.
But it turns out the dream wasn't over.
When the comeback began in summer 2008, Lodwick wasn't ready to share his secret. I showed up with my camera on a hot afternoon at Howelsen Hill to take pictures of a U.S. Ski Team training camp and was surprised to see Todd in the parking lot with the 22-year-olds.
When the lean, young athletes streamed by my shooting vantage, Lodwick had jammed a black baseball cap low on his forehead and refused to look into the camera. I knew right then that something was up.
In order to really understand what Lodwick and teammates Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane have overcome, it's necessary to revisit the 2002 Winter Olympics cross-country skiing venue in Soldier Hollow, the scene of their ultimate disappointment.
I'll always be able to feel the adrenaline rush of that sunny day in Utah, and I'll always be able to visualize John Russell's photograph of Lodwick. The athlete crouched in a fetal position in the finish area, his hands clasping his head after everything had fallen apart. Moments earlier, the four members of the U.S. Nordic combined relay squad had seen an Olympic bronze medal evaporate in the soft snow.
The U.S. relay team, including Matt Dayton, of Breckenridge, along with the veteran Lodwick and youngsters Demong and Spillane, was solidly in third place after the ski jumping. The athletes even were thinking about a silver medal on race day. But they could not hold off the Finns, Germans and Austrians.
Fourth place was the highest Olympic finish by an American Nordic combined team, but it didn't fulfill any of the athletes' dreams.
Todd may have kicked that abominable snowman in the butt Friday, but that doesn't mean he's gotten over the Olympic medal that got away Feb. 17, 2002.
"It will always haunt me," he said during a conference call Friday. "The coulda, the shoulda, the overall bad luck from all those world championships. I've wondered, is it something that will never happen? What do I need to do?"
Former U.S. Nordic Combined Coach Tom Steitz, a Steamboat resident, hasn't forgotten either.
"It was one day seven years ago that has kept us all awake at night," Steitz said. "It's the one thing that's motivated all of us. Todd went a full year without sleeping through the night, thinking about it and overcoming it."
Spillane shocked the Nordic world in 2003 with a world championship gold medal. And Demong made it all the way back from a serious head injury with a world championship silver medal in 2007.
Now Todd Lodwick, wiser and stronger and the father of two children, finally is fulfilled as an athlete. It's easily the most compelling sports story I've been around in Ski Town USA.
Don't be surprised if Lodwick and his teammates, their redemption complete, grab a few more medals before these world championships and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are through.