Whistler, British Columbia There was no possible way Tom Steitz could hide his excitement as he watched the Feb. 14 Nordic combined event unfold inside the cross-country venue at Whistler Olympic Park.
“I was losing my mind during the race,” Steitz said. “We were finally going to get the job done.”
Steitz, who coached the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team from 1988 to 2002, paced back and forth as his former athletes raced toward Olympic glory and American sporting history. He pumped his arms in the air, and he tried to provide cell phone play-by-play to his wife back home in Steamboat Springs.
By the time the Americans came around for the second lap of the race, the smile on Steitz’s face stretched from ear to ear.
The Americans were 1-2 at that point, and all the years of hard work, planning and more than a few setbacks were about to pay off. The former coach and longtime supporter of one of America’s least understood sports was elated.
“He was supposed to be telling me what was going on, but he just couldn’t do it. He was way too excited, and the race was way too close to call,” said Kathy Steitz, Tom’s wife. “He was like, ‘Johnny’s in the lead, he’s going to win … wait … he just got passed … wait …’”
Steitz retired as head coach of the team after U.S. Ski Team officials chose to move the Nordic combined program from Steamboat Springs to Park City, Utah, after the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. But the former coach has never wandered too far from the project he helped start.
He served as a private coach to Todd Lodwick leading up to the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and he’s spending the 2010 Olympics working as an analyst for NBC and Universal Sports.
Although current Nordic combined coach Dave Jarrett and a host of other club coaches and others have helped the U.S. team achieve the success it’s currently enjoying, Steitz deservingly gets much of the credit for getting the ball rolling in the 1990s and turning around a struggling program.
It was Steitz who convinced Lodwick, then a 16-year-old debating between Nordic combined and special jumping, to join the team despite having never really cross-country skied.
“I said, ‘Hey kid, I’ll hand you this U.S. Ski Team jacket and take you to Europe in two weeks, but if things don’t work out you’re gone,’” Steitz recalled. “He learned to cross-county ski at a training camp in Innsbruck, Austria. I would roller ski with him to the jump hill while the rest of the team rode in the van.”
Steitz said Lodwick had a gung-ho, take-no-prisoners attitude that he liked. He was great on the jump hill, and the coach thought he was just what the team needed to get on its feet. Teaching him to cross-country ski, well, that would be the easy part.
During the next decade, Lodwick grew into the most consistent Nordic combined skier in U.S. history, and he formed a foundation for the developing American team and the future stars Steitz was working to recruit.
Steitz pulled together a group of development skiers that included Johnny Spillane, Billy Demong, Carl Van Loan, Jed Hinkley, Matt Dayton and Kris Erickson.
The team had great success at the Junior World Championships, bringing home gold and silver in the team event for the United States. Van Loan competed at the 2006 Olympics, Spillane won a World Championship in 2003, and Demong earned several World Championship medals, including a gold, in 2009.
At the time, Steitz said he was hesitant to give the team an official name.
He said the U.S. Ski Team had named several development teams in the past, and they went on to little or no success. He told this group that if they wanted a name, they would have to earn it.
“I told them they were a blob of talent but that they had not done anything yet. When they did something, then they would get a name,” Steitz said.
That blob included Demong, a strong cross-country skier from New York, and Spillane, who Steitz said didn’t exhibit a lot of natural talent but had one of the best work ethics he had ever seen. Demong and Spillane eventually separated from the blob, and along with Lodwick have formed the core of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team.
Demong remembers those early days and recognizes the role they played in where the team is today.
“I think for sure it started even back in 1996, when Bard Elden came over and coached what we called the ‘blob team,’” Demong said. “They brought a bunch of juniors together to follow in Todd’s footsteps and to help build a team for Todd. I think that was the original intention, but we quickly bonded to become one big team and all push each other.
“The last eight years it has definitely been a team that has just bonded together and helped build off each other’s results in both training and competition. … I think Tom (Steitz) made us buy into the team approach way back when, and we have all sort of embodied that in our careers as skiers. We are all devoted to the team effort and the team results.”
Through it all, Steitz had to fight for funding. At times, he said he was getting more money from private donors — unlikely sources such as Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., an Alpine ski resort company — than he was from the U.S. Ski Team.
He said the team also received tremendous support from the community of Steamboat Springs and the city of Steamboat Springs. He also went through a number of coaches and athletes as a head coach — he demanded hard work, dedication and results. If the team wasn’t earning top results, it moved on, trying to find the right formula.
Steitz even put his own fate on the line many times, often getting funding with a promise of top results. He implemented one of the first residency programs, which required that athletes, coaches and staff live in Steamboat Springs to be closer to the Nordic combined team, which had adopted a year-round approach to training. Steitz said it wasn’t a popular move but that it has since been adopted by many of the U.S. Ski Team’s programs.
“People thought I was insane,” Steitz recalled. “There were times when I would wake up in a hotel room somewhere in Eastern Europe — it seems like the low points always came in places like Austria, after we got our butts kicked — and thought that I must be insane.”
Steitz retired from coaching in 2002.
The team has had several coaches since then, including Elden, Lasse Ottesen, and now Dave Jarrett. Jarrett, who skied for the team under Steitz, worked his way up as an assistant and has been able to take the team to a new level since taking the lead in April 2008.
Todd Wilson, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s Nordic director and a former Nordic combined Olympian, said there were lots of people responsible for getting America’s Nordic programs back on track. But he said it was Steitz who played one of the biggest roles in getting it started.
That much seemed clear two weekends ago in Whistler as Steitz watched the Americans race toward the finish line in the first Nordic combined event of the 2010 Olympics. He said a sense of validation pumped through his blood as Spillane crossed the finish line in second. And he felt joy when he realized the plan he started back in the early 1990s finally paid off in silver.