Joel Reichenberger: 2014 Games about hard work, not hardware for US Nordic combined team

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— The somber message that echoed Tuesday at a rainy RusSki Gorki Jumping Center in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics ski jumping events, was that this was not 2010.

Slopeside at Sochi: Joel Reichenberger

Steamboat Pilot & Today Sports Editor Joel Reichenberger is on the sidelines in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Find more columns, stories, blogs and photo galleries at SteamboatToday.com/sochi.

2014 Winter Olympics

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There would be no gold medals for the Americans, no brilliant from-the-shadows charge for glory and certainly no building upon the performance four years ago at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

That didn’t come as a big surprise, considering the way things looked leading into those Olympics, and the way they did leading into these. The U.S. team was coming off a season when it had won three World Championships and its top three athletes at the time — Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane — had compiled 22 World Cup top 10 finishes during the 2010 winter before shipping off to Canada.

This season has been about trying to boost subpar jumping for the U.S. team, and Tuesday it again fell victim to that shortcoming, all three of the U.S. skiers virtually eliminated before the cross-country skiing portion of the festivities even began.

When Demong won gold in the large hill event in Vancouver, he did so skiing from sixth place. On Tuesday, he skied from 38th.

No, this most certainly was not 2010.

But as sobering as that was to realize, it is important to embrace for the U.S. team, which is set for a major turnover this offseason as Lodwick and Demong retire.

The success in 2010 didn’t just happen, as the results leading up to those competitions indicate. In fact, that medal haul — four in total, beyond belief for a country that never had won any in the sport — came after a whole lot of days exactly like the team has experienced here in Russia.

Would 2010 have happened had the team’s heart not been ripped out by a fourth-place finish on the Utah snow in 2002?

Would it have happened without all the setbacks that were overcome, without the experience gained, without the lessons learned?

No. It’s important to remember 2010, for Spillane, Demong and Lodwick, was the product of a decade and a half of frustration, hard work and perseverance.

The members of this year’s team truly believed until the last moment that they could, if not replicate 2010, at least harken to it with strong showings on the big stage.

They said the jumping was coming, that they’d peak right on time.

They still can, too. Thursday’s team event has been a major focus and in it there’s a lot more recent evidence the team can compete than that has been in the individual events. The same foursome that will race Thursday — Lodwick, Demong, Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher — skied to bronze at the World Ski Championships a year ago.

But even with success there, these games won’t be 2010 for the United States. If that’s embraced, however, if the right lessons are taken and the right motivation found, that’s not a bad thing.

The greatest two weeks in the history of U.S. Nordic combined skiing, four years ago, were the product of years of building. No matter what happens Thursday, 2014 doesn’t have to go down as a dud. It can be a foundation.

Slopeside in Sochi is written by Steamboat Today reporters Joel Reichenberger and Luke Graham, who are in Russia covering the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and Penny Fletcher, mother of Steamboat Springs Nordic combined Olympic skiers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher. Visit SteamboatToday.com/sochi to read more Slopeside in Sochi blog posts.

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