Sans Spillane, fight on to fill U.S. team

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— With his World Championship gold-medal breakthrough in 2003 and his unprecedented medal haul at the 2010 Olympic Games, Johnny Spillane changed the sport of Nordic combined in the U.S. Now by nature of his retirement, he’ll help transform the sport again, at least at the top tier in this country.

For the first time in nearly 15 years, Spillane isn’t part of the U.S. Ski Team picture, and that will take a little getting used to.

“Johnny’s been instrumental to the team,” said Bryan Fletcher, fellow team member and Steamboat Springs skier.

“He’s one of those guys you just can’t replace. He led the way in a lot of things and really pushed us to achieve more,” Fletcher said.

Spillane’s retirement will clear up a logjam that appeared set to take place next year, something Spillane said he hadn’t even considered and that didn’t weigh in his decision.

With Spillane, Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong, Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher, the five-man Olympic roster seemed settled, but which of the five would end up as the alternate seemed a question begging for a difficult answer.

Now, things are a bit clearer, at least among the top four: Lodwick likely will be competing in his sixth Olympics, Demong will be hoping to defend his 2010 Olympic gold medal, and the Fletcher brothers will attempt to capitalize on their successes in the past two seasons, when Bryan Fletcher won his first World Cup and Taylor Fletcher earned his first podium finish while establishing himself as the fastest skier on the tour.

Now sans Spillane and barring injury, the competition will revolve around which skier can secure the fifth team spot instead of who gets the fourth.

At the top of the list are the four skiers on the U.S. Ski Team’s B squad. That list includes Steamboat’s Brett Denney, 23. The remaining trio also has logged plenty of time in town. Nick Hendrickson, of Park City, Utah; Adam Loomis, originally from Eau Claire, Wis.; and Michael Ward, of Aspen, round out the group.

They all have raced extensively on the Continental Cup circuit for the past several seasons and a few have picked up World Cup starts.

Hendrickson has competed on the World Cup 16 times, including eight starts last season. He didn’t compete there this season, however. Denney has six World Cup starts, the most recent coming last spring. Adam Loomis earned one World Cup start this year.

For all, Spillane was a guiding light, an inspiration early in their careers and a friend later. For one, his retirement could help fulfill a dream.

“It leaves a hole, but it’s also an opportunity,” U.S. coach Dave Jarrett said. “Johnny made his decision, and I’m happy for him, and I’m also psyched about the future. I’m looking at this as an opportunity to find the next Johnny Spillane.”

Of course, none will bring to the team what Spillane did.

The fact the team will move forward with high hopes for next year’s Olympics and a spirited competition is set to erupt thanks to his departure says as much about what he meant to the sport as anything, certainly fulfilling what he labeled as one of his career goals: “leaving everything better off than when we came.”

Spillane is gone from the team, but he certainly won’t be forgotten.

“We’re losing a champion and someone with a fierce competitive nature,” Lodwick said. “We have a lot to accomplish in the next year. We are strong enough and confident enough to carry on the success that he brought to the team, and I know we will still feel his presence and support going through these next Olympic Games.”

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