Krasnaya Polyana, Russia Billy Demong raced around each corner of the cross country course at the RusSki Gorki Center looking stronger and stronger.
2014 Winter Olympics
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Battling with Italy’s Alessandro Pittin — who has been like a rocket on skis the past nine days in Russia — Demong looked like eventually he’d get dropped. Again and again and again, Pittin attacked. Again and again and again, Demong found some way to answer.
Eventually, Iron Bill had weathered all Pittin had, and Demong made a push of his own, up the last hill and vaulted past the speedy Italian. Demong crumbled at the finish, like he had at so many other races, falling to his back and searching for air.
Except this wasn’t for a gold medal. Or silver. Or bronze.
Demong was battling for sixth with his U.S. teammates in the final Nordic combined event of the 2014 games in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
It was a strange scene — one set against the giant expectations heaped on the U.S. program after the success four years ago in Vancouver, contrasting with the reality of today’s team.
An era ended Thursday afternoon, as Todd Lodwick and Demong competed in their last Olympic games.
Lodwick finished his sixth Olympics, the most ever for an American winter Olympian, fighting through a brutalized left shoulder. Demong completed his fifth.
Each finished on their sport’s biggest stage, in a sport they help popularize and strengthen in the United States.
“But even at the end,” Demong said 30 minutes after the race, “when it became obvious it wasn’t a podium fight, it just became about Nordic combined.”
Oddly enough, that may be the best way to describe what Lodwick and Demong meant to the sport.
Their results — the World Cup wins, World Championship medals and Olympic glories — have always spoken for themselves.
But in a sport that mainstream America doesn’t always appreciate, Lodwick and Demong have always been about the sport.
They’ve each done it their own ways. They’ve made mistakes, grabbed headlines — good and bad — won, lost and matured through it all.
That’s what made Thursday’s finale so intriguing. It became clear that these Olympics wouldn’t be the Americans’ best, the jump hill stifling their chances.
A record medal haul — or earning even one — wasn’t in the cards.
But what Lodwick and Demong have done for Nordic combined, isn’t easily stated. They made the sport better in the United States, but they also helped make Nordic combined better across the world.
Demong talked all week about how the field of racers had become more competitive.
“The Americans are really important to the sport,” said Norway’s Magnus Moan, a silver medalist in the large hill event Tuesday and newly minted gold medalist from Thursday’s event. “It’s been really important to have those guys in the field. What they’ve done, competing so long, it’s just amazing.”
But once Thursday became about not winning, it was still about beating the guy next to you. Once Thursday wasn’t about winning, it was about Nordic combined and competition and all that.
In the end, it was about two American legends, the unwavering legacies they leave, and most importantly, it was about digging deep, skiing fast, beating a competitor to the line and embodying that spirit of Nordic combined they’ve made us all love.
To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229, email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @LukeGraham