Johnny Spillane stands on the podium at the cross-country venue in Whistler Olympic Park. Spillane raced to second place in the normal hill individual Gundersen event and became the first American to earn a medal in the sport of Nordic combined.

Photo by John F. Russell

Johnny Spillane stands on the podium at the cross-country venue in Whistler Olympic Park. Spillane raced to second place in the normal hill individual Gundersen event and became the first American to earn a medal in the sport of Nordic combined.

86 years of frustration erased for Steamboat

Spillane’s silver medal a landmark day for area

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— This was a silver medal won by Johnny Spillane for the United States.

But really, it was a medal for the city of Steamboat Springs.

Don’t forget, 20 years ago the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team wasn’t all that good and struggled to compete on the international level.

But when Tom Steitz took the team over, he had a vision. He wasn’t sure if it would ever become reality, but he held onto that vision nonetheless.

When the U.S. Ski Team couldn’t financially back the Nordic combined team the way it needed, Steamboat Springs stepped up.

“Can I summarize 86 years of frustration in two sentences? No,” said Steitz, who coached the team in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, when the Americans finished fourth in the team event. “This has to be one of the greatest days in Steamboat’s history. The town, the Steamboat ski corporation, the city at one time, a lot of private people, a lot of businesses and everyone has poured a lot into this.

“This is a medal a town earned,” he continued. “This is it.”

Certainly, Steamboat’s known for its Alpine mountain, but the U.S. Nordic team may have just brought its sport into the limelight.

And as much as it was a community effort, the dedication of Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Spillane kept the vision alive.

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic Director Todd Wilson watched a live feed of Sunday’s Normal Hill Individual Gundersen event with about 200 people in Olympian Hall at Howelsen Lodge.

Wilson said throughout the afternoon, people kept piling into Olympian Hall to see the historic event.

“After the jumping, everyone knew there was a shot … (the) place was packed … It was crazy,” Wilson said. “I was sitting a few rows back and couldn’t see the screen. Everyone was screaming and yelling. The whole room was so loud. Everyone was going crazy and really even after the third lap, it was anyone’s game. There was a lot of anticipation, a lot of nerves.”

Spillane took silver in the event, finishing the cross-country race just four-tenths of a second behind Jason Lamy Chappuis, of France, who took gold. Lodwick finished fourth and Demong finished sixth.

“It’s awesome to watch these guys that you’re so familiar with,” Wilson said. “Just surreal. Hard to believe because we’ve been anticipating this day for so long. It was really hard to believe it was finally here.”

One of those in attendance was Andy Wirth, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

Wirth said he’s watched all the Nordic combined athletes grow up, and to see them on the world’s biggest stage absolutely brought out a sense of American pride.

“I was at Olympian Hall, and most of us were in tears with pride,” Wirth said. “There’s more to come for Johnny and most certainly for Todd and Billy. What an incredibly proud day for Ski Town USA.”

Demong — who said he’s lived with Spillane for 300-plus days for the past 15 or 16 years — was smiling ear to ear while talking about his friend’s accomplishments.

When reporters’ questions were directed to him and his sixth-place finish, Demong did what he could to get it back to Steamboat and Spillane.

“There’s no way we could have made the step in the beginning without Todd being one of the best in the world,” Demong said. “There’s no way Todd would have ever come back to get medals if Johnny hadn’t gotten one in ’03 (at the World Championships) and I got one in ’07 (at the World Championships). So we all take a piece along the way.”

And for Steitz, who was doing commentary for NBC Sports, watching Sunday unfold was similar to watching his baby grow up.

Although Steitz said he didn’t have the best feeling coming into Sunday, he knew it would happen. He knew at some point, the Americans would break through, stand on the podium and claim their place among the world’s elite Nordic athletes.

“I don’t know what to say,” Steitz said. “Eighty-six years and the curse is finally broken. … But Johnny, to me, epitomizes the Olympic dream. He’s the kid who has some talent, but isn’t the most talented in gym class. But if you keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working, dreams do come true. Johnny made all of our dreams come true today.”

Sports reporter Joel Reich­enberger contributed to this story.

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