Johnny Spillane, middle, stands on the podium  after winning the 2010 U.S. Winter Olympic Team Trials Nordic combined race at Howelsen Hill. Second-place finisher Todd Lodwick, left, and third-place finisher Billy Demong, right, and Spillane will represent Steamboat Springs at the Olympics on the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski  Team.

Photo by John F. Russell

Johnny Spillane, middle, stands on the podium after winning the 2010 U.S. Winter Olympic Team Trials Nordic combined race at Howelsen Hill. Second-place finisher Todd Lodwick, left, and third-place finisher Billy Demong, right, and Spillane will represent Steamboat Springs at the Olympics on the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team.

Expectations fuel Nordic combined team’s drive

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Johnny Spillane finished third in the jumping portion of the Nordic combined competition during the 2010 U.S. Winter Olympic Team Trials but overcame his 9-second deficit in the cross-country ski race to win the event and clinch an Olympic berth.

U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team

■ Brett Camerota

■ Billy Demong

■ Taylor Fletcher

■ Todd Lodwick

■ Johnny Spillane

Nordic combined events

The Nordic combined events at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, will consist of two individual events and a team event spread out during the 17 days of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The competitions will be slightly different than the ones held in Turin, Italy, in 2006. Those competitions featured a two-jump, 15-kilometer individual event and a one-jump, 7.5-kilometer sprint event. There also was a team event at those Olympics.

The basic idea will remain unchanged in 2010, but the format will be changed slightly to conform to what the athletes see on a weekly basis during the World Cup Tour.

The normal hill individual event is Feb. 14 on the third day of the Olympic Games. Athletes will be scored on one jump using the HS106 at Whistler Olympic Park just north of Vancouver in the morning and will compete in a 10-kilometer cross-country race that afternoon. As in all of the Nordic combined events, the athletes’ performance on the jump hill will determine where they start the cross-country race. Jump points are translated into a time penalty using the Gundersen system.

The Nordic combined skiers’ second event will not take place until Feb. 23, when they compete in the team event. In that competition, teams of four skiers will combine efforts. Each team member will have one jump to count on the HS140 jump, and the team’s combined score will determine the starting position for the 4 X 5-kilometer cross-country race that afternoon. Team members will alternate laps on the cross-country course.

The final Nordic combined event of the 2010 Winter Olympics will take place Feb. 25 on the larger hill at Whistler Park.

Like the first event, athletes will have one jump to count and will battle for medals on a 10-kilometer cross-country race in the afternoon. This time, the jump will take place on the larger HS140 hill.

The Americans will face stiff competition for medals in Vancouver in the individual and team events.

The Americans will no doubt contend for spots in the individual events but will have to top several medal favorites.

France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis is leading the World Cup standings with five World Cup victories. He also has been second twice and third twice. Austria’s Felix Gottwald, who is second in the World Cup standings, also is expected to be in the race for the gold. He only has won one event this season but has been on the podium five times and has three second-place finishes. Other contenders include Norway’s Magnus Moan, who has two World Cup victories, and Germans Tino Edelmann and Eric Frenzel.

Watch for the strong Germans in the team event, as well.

— Dealing with high expectations is nothing new for members of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team.

Those expectations haunted the team in Salt Lake City in 2002 after the Americans jumped into the top three but were knocked off the podium in the cross-county portion of the competition. The team finished fourth, just missing our country’s first medal in the sport of Nordic combined.

“For weeks and months after the team event in Salt Lake we were still hanging on our perceived failure instead of celebrating an otherwise really exceptional performance for our team,” Billy Demong said. “I think it ultimately taught us not to take ourselves so seriously.”

Similar expectations followed the team, or at least the team’s veteran leader Todd Lodwick, to Turin, Italy, for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

But Demong isn’t sure the expectations for the team were valid. He said that outside of Lodwick, the team lacked the consistency needed to bring home a medal. Johnny Spillane had won the World Championship in 2003 but was battling a number of nagging injuries. Demong still was dealing with the effects of a swimming accident in 2002 that nearly took his life and had sidelined him for more than a year.

For Lodwick, the journey to Turin started with high expectations, but ultimately ended with disappointment and frustration. Immediately after the team event, Lodwick’s frustration showed as he called out teammate Carl Van Loan. The Americans’ failure to land a medal once again overshadowed some solid finishes for an emerging U.S. team.

Lodwick placed out of contention for a medal in the individual events, eighth in the two-jump, 15-kilometer individual, and ninth in the one-jump, 7.5-kilometer sprint. As a team, the Americans finished seventh.

“Turin was a bust from the beginning,” Demong said. “ We were not super strong going into the games. Johnny and I were not very consistent, not among the top 10 virtually at all, and I don’t think any of us were expecting much in the team event there.”

For coach Dave Jarrett, who was an assistant with the team in Turin, the experience was part of the team’s growth.

“It was a perfect example of having all the pieces in place for both individual and team events, but we didn’t arrange them in the correct order,” Jarrett said. “This time, we will approach these events with the same attitude as any competition because that is what it is. We know when our athletes perform in the moment and at their normal level they will be in a position to win.”

As the team looks forward to the 2010 Winter Ol­­ympic Games it will once again face high expectations. This time around, expectations are supported by a strong showing at last year’s World Championships, where the American team claimed three gold medals and a bronze to go along with the title Spillane brought home in 2003. Still, Jarrett said the only expectations that matter are the ones that come from within the team.

“We had glimpses of this level many times, but the main difference is that we are performing at a high level consistently,” Jarrett said. “We have high goals set for each season, they are realistic and attainable, but certainly no cakewalk, either. Our goals are our goals, and any outside expectations remain on the outside.”

If you listen to Lodwick, who will be making his fifth Olympic appearance, he is taking all the expectations in stride.

“We are at the top of our game right now,” Lodwick said. “I feel like we are going to these games with a much bigger goal in mind.”

Demong agrees, but that doesn’t mean the expectations of the past have not left a mark.

“In some ways those expectations helped boost us to try and find the confidence and belief to be Olympic medalists,” Demong said. “We have had a ton of first evers and major results that were spawned by our dedication to becoming the best Nordic combined team in the world and those expectations.”

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