Johnny Spillane is carried on the shoulders of Todd Lodwick after Spillane won gold in the Nordic combined sprint at the 2003 FIS Nordic Skiing World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Lodwick, Spillane and teammate Bill Demong are leading the way for the next generation of Steamboat Springs Nordic combined athletes.

Alessandro Bianchi/AFP

Johnny Spillane is carried on the shoulders of Todd Lodwick after Spillane won gold in the Nordic combined sprint at the 2003 FIS Nordic Skiing World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Lodwick, Spillane and teammate Bill Demong are leading the way for the next generation of Steamboat Springs Nordic combined athletes.

Ski jumping and cross-country events are a rich part of ski culture

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— Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Bill Demong all climbed one of the tallest mountains in Nordic combined skiing when they won their world championship gold medals.

But what of future generations?

Take it on faith from three veteran coaches with Olympic credentials of their own: The Nordic combined pipeline at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club is full. And the success of the club's world champions is rubbing off on its young skiers.

"We had our awards banquet for western regionals and the North American Junior Championships on Saturday night," Winter Sports Club Nordic combined Program Director Todd Wilson said. "The room was packed with kids of all ages (and their parents), and Todd handed out the medals. Todd passed his gold medals around the room so everyone in Olympian Hall could touch them."

The opportunity to rub shoulders with world champions has an impact on the 100 skiers in the club's Nordic combined program, Wilson said, whether their desired outcome is international competition or simply learning valuable lessons about hard work and perseverance that come with such a challenging sport.

Strong ties

Wilson is one of three veteran coaches - along with Martin Bayer and Gary Crawford - who are two-time Olympians in the sport.

Bayer competed in 1992 and 1994 for Slovakia. Wilson overlapped Bayer's career, competing for the U.S. in 1988 in Calgary and in 1992 in Albertville, France. Crawford pulled off a remarkable Olympic comeback. After competing in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, he learned the new skating technique in cross-country in order to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1988.

Their combined longevity at the Winter Sports Club and the level of communication they have with the U.S. Ski Team gives the elite athletes the foundation they need for success. But there's nothing quite like having current athletes come home from Europe with hardware hanging off their necks.

"Johnny and Todd walk in the wax room and all the little kids are in awe," Crawford said. "Demong spends less time in Steamboat these days."

"And that's everyday life," Wilson added. "These guys are here teasing them, handing out ski straps and tossing snowballs at them."

Demong, a native of Vermontville, N.Y., elevated his game during years of training with the Winter Sports Club and is doing his part for the tradition, too. Wilson and Crawford couldn't say enough about the training camps for emerging Nordic combined skiers that Demong has taken it upon himself to organize and run. From his base in Park City, Utah, Demong invites athletes from New England and the upper Midwest to get together with their Rocky Mountain counterparts to work out with U.S. Ski Team athletes. The purpose is to foster a feeling that they are engaged in a common mission.

It's a conviction Demong shares with Lodwick and Spillane.

"It's something they all agree was very important in their own careers," Wilson said.

One pair only

In the modern era, when skiers of all disciplines tend toward specialization, Nordic combined, which requires athletes to ski jump and cross-country skate ski in one competition, is a throwback to an earlier era.

Nordic combined has been a part of the Olympics since the beginning, when skiing was skiing and athletes used one pair of skis for downhill racing, cross-country skiing and jumping.

Carl Howelsen, the Norwegian jumping champion who established recreational skiing in Steamboat, is a prime example, Crawford said.

Wilson likes to tell the story of Howelsen and a friend riding the old steam locomotive from Denver over Rollins Pass on their way to a jumping meet near Winter Park.

Howelsen disembarked from the train at the top of the pass, strapped on his skis and beat the train to Fraser. There are other stories about Howelsen and his mates skiing from Steamboat to Winter Park and back, completing the return trip from Kremmling to Steamboat in a day. They covered more than 200 miles, ski jumped and made a few turns above the switchbacks on Berthoud Pass all on one pair of boards.

The historical underpinnings of Nordic combined are well-established, but the sport remains obscure in North America. Steamboat is a rarity, with a nonprofit ski club blessed with a $2 million plastic jumping surface that allows summer training and secures the future of the sport here, Wilson said.

Howelsen Hill in Steamboat is the only ski jumping complex in North America where the international jumps are adjacent to the 20-meter and 30-meter jumps where youngsters first build the confidence needed for ski jumping. That fact should not be overlooked as a factor in Steamboat's success in motivating young Nordic athletes, Wilson said.

And the Winter Sports Club introduces all of its youngest Nordic skiers to jumping and cross-country, giving them the option to specialize as ski jumpers once they turn 13.

European Super Bowl

Steamboat residents have grasped that they can volunteer at competitive skiing events and relish the feeling that in a small way, they have contributed to the community's Olympic tradition.

Major skiing competitions in Europe are the equivalent of the World Series and the Super Bowl, Bayer said. He competed in Nordic Combined for his native Slovakia in 1992 in Albertville, France, and again in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.

During the recent Nordic World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, the images of top Nordic athletes were commonplace on television commercials.

"Their names are more recognizable over there than they are here," Bayer said.

Developing skiers in Europe who haven't made their mark on the World Cup are also better-supported by their national sports federations than are American athletes in the sport, Bayer said. He said as a young skier, he received monthly paychecks and a year-end bonus.

Wilson said that in each of his Olympic years, the U.S. team's first exposure of the winter to international competition was at the Olympic Games themselves. It was not exactly a recipe for success, he observed with irony.

Bayer is providing a critical role for American Nordic combined skiers who have graduated from high school but haven't made the big step up to the U.S. Ski Team. Bayer led the U.S. team to the World Junior Championships this past season, and several of those athletes were able to compete in their first full-fledged World Cup on the same trip.

Wilson still is processing the news that Lodwick and Demong accounted for four world championship medals in February. Add in two more golds by ski jumper Lindsey Van and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall, and the U.S. claimed an unprecedented six world championships.

"Sometimes I stop and ask myself, "Did that really happen?" Wilson said. "Did we really win six medals?"

What he's really trying to put his finger on is the difference-maker in 2009. After so many years of frustration for American Nordic skiers at major championships, what was the ingredient that made it all come together this winter?

The answer remains elusive. But Wilson, Crawford and Bayer are seeing the results of dedicating their careers to building a solid foundation for Nordic combined skiing in Steamboat Springs.

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