Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Old man and the skis: Steamboat's Todd Lodwick looks to his record 6th Winter Olympics

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The dreams for many Olympic hopefuls never make it this far.

Sure, they imagine making the team or walking in the opening ceremonies. No question they envision winning a medal and watching their flag rise. Maybe they even picture a long professional career in their sport, all before it’s really started.

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But six Olympics?

photo

John F. Russell/file

Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick races along the Howelsen Hill cross-country course during the U.S. Nordic combined championships in 2006.

It can’t even be a desire for most, dreaming before their first Games. Who wants to put in the hours, watch their diets for decades or sacrifice time with family and friends for so long?

The fact that he’s going for his sixth Olympics makes Todd Lodwick unique among those who begin with Olympic dreams. And it makes the first question the last question and the only question for him.

Why?

After decades atop the sport, after spending the equivalent of years living out of a suitcase, after being a world champion and winning an Olympic medal, why is he still on this team, winning these races, going to these Olympics?

Lodwick made his first Olympic team in 1994, and now, 20 years later, he’s part of his sixth. But it’s impossible to ignore the big question.

Why is Lodwick still here?

Turns out, there are three reasons.

Reason No. 1: Because he loves it

Lodwick locked up his spot to compete in his record-setting sixth Winter Olympics on Dec. 28, jumping to first place in the U.S. Olympic Trials event in Park City, Utah, and then easily holding off his younger competitors to win the 10-kilometer cross-country ski race.

He broke into the sport simply as a ski jumper, picking up the cross-country skiing portion later. There, he’s had mountains of success throughout the years, but jumping has remained something special.

“It’s eight seconds of my life when everything else disappears,” he said one day in November.

He was days away from traveling to Park City for one last week of training with the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team and a week away from yet another flight across the Atlantic and the start of yet another World Cup season.

His phone buzzed as he tried to sort out the details before he left.

“When I jump, my mind is free of bills, of taking care of the kids, of the motorist I argued with that morning or the coffee I spilled,” he said. “Life itself pauses.”

Life since the last Olympics has been anything but simple for Lodwick. His two children — daughter Charley, 8, and son Finn, 5 — have grown dramatically and he divorced from wife, Sunny.

He’s had good seasons on the World Cup circuit and bad and big problems in life.

“There’s this feeling, a jolt of something that goes through your body and it’s like this is what keeps me coming back,” he said, considering jumping. “It’s something so amazing, and I do it for the love of that feeling.

“You live in that moment,” he continued. “You’re going down the inrun, hucking yourself through the air and hopefully flying over a football field. In my case, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like performing at my best.”

Reason No. 2: Because of 0.7 seconds

The days when he doesn’t perform his best linger with Lodwick, and when he talks about them, he’s as vulnerable as he can be.

Take the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Those weren’t his first Games. He made the 1994 team and competed in Norway just 18 months after he began training for cross-country skiing. As a 17-year-old, he was just happy to be there, and he was thrilled with a 13th-place finish.

“The Olympics are a different animal,” he said. “There’s so much pressure put on. In ’94, I didn’t feel that.”

That changed in 1998.

That year, he entered as the world’s third-ranked skier, with a few World Cup podiums and two wins to his name.

“I was very proud of winning competitions being on the podium and being this force of nature on the World Cup level,” he said. “Going to the Olympic Games, I thought, ‘I better do something extraordinary.’” He wasn’t extraordinary. He was 20th.

“Huge disappointment,” he said, wincing as he spoke.

He repeated himself, with urgency.

“HUGE disappointment,” he said. “To fail at that, to miserably fail, was a huge disappointment.”

The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City only brought more heartache. He was fifth and seventh in individual events then a crushing fourth in the team race, though he says he’s come to terms with that setback.

In the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, he was proud of a trio of top-10 finishes in which he “skied fast but didn’t jump as well as I wanted to.”

Then on Feb. 14, 2010, the first individual event of the Vancouver Olympics, the weight of his chance for an Olympic medal fell on him as hard as it ever had.

It was a great day for the United States and for Steamboat Springs. Lodwick was in the lead group throughout the race, along with Steamboat Springs’ Johnny Spillane. The pair was in a four-way sprint to the finish line and Spillane won the first American Olympic medal in the history of the sport by finishing second.

Lodwick was fourth, 1.5 seconds away from gold and 0.7 seconds back of bronze.

“I shed some pretty big tears that next day and a half,” he said.

He said he was elated for Spillane. When he talks about winning a silver medal himself, days later in the team event, he swells with pride.

“No one can ever take that away from me,” he said, grinning.

But neither his happiness for Spillane nor his later success heals the wound of Feb. 14.

“To work 20 years for something like that then finish fourth ... it still hurts.”

Reason No. 3: Because he thinks he can win

There’s a swagger that defines Lodwick these days. It’s actually always been there. It has to be for an athlete to break into the sport the way he did, competing in his first Olympics so young, then realizing all the success he had on the World Cup circuit.

If he wasn’t bursting with confidence, he’d never have bounced back from his retirement that followed the 2006 Olympics.

It’s there every time he races, no matter the venue.

He’s won the annual July 4 Nordic combined event in Steamboat Springs — a somewhat light-hearted affair — four years running.

“I’m pretty serious about what I’m doing,” he said after the 2010 version.

And when he wins, he doesn’t cruise for comfort. He hammers it.

He’s raced in 11 Continental Cup events — a step below the World Cup — since he came back in 2008. Showing well against less-experienced, often younger racers is no surprise, but Lodwick has dominated when he’s had the chance, winning 10 and finishing second the final time.

Competing in a pair of races on the circuit in 2010 — in what were likely his final winter performances in Steamboat — he won the two races by an average of 46 seconds, an eternity in the world of Nordic combined.

So, yeah, Todd Lodwick is competitive.

“There’s always going to be a winner,” he said. “Why shouldn’t it be me?”

He hasn’t been as strong since 2010. He’s had individual top 10 World Cup finishes just twice between his fifth and sixth Olympics. He had nine such finishes between his fourth and fifth Olympics, and he took nearly two years off in that span.

He was struggling so mightily a year ago in the face of tweaks to ski and jump suit rules that he had to compete in a trio of Continental Cup events simply to ensure he’d have a World Cup slot.

Jumping was the culprit there, and it’s slowed him early this season, too. He was 51st and 40th in jumping in his last two World Cup events.

But he still can turn heads with his results, adding to his legacy.

He joined with Billy Demong, Taylor Fletcher and Bryan Fletcher a year ago to win a third-place medal in the team event at the World Championships.

He shocked fans when he won last month’s U.S. Nordic combined Olympic Trials event in Park City. He jumped to first, then held off the entire U.S. team, all definitely younger and several supposedly faster.

He was 16th after the jumping and moved up to finish 11th in a December World Cup event in Norway, his best result of the season. A week later, he partnered with Bryan Fletcher to place fourth in a two-man relay event.

There’s more there, he said. He said he still can be among the top skiers. He still can win an individual medal.

Why is he still here?

“It’s because I have the belief I can be the best in the world,” he said. “If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

And there are other reasons.

Lodwick said he’s been driven by the idea of being the first American to make it to six Winter Olympics.

He said he’s been competing so long, so focused on his sport, that he’s never taken the time to plan for his future, to “plant some seeds,” as he said. So one of the reasons he’s still competing is he doesn’t know what else to do.

Why is he still here? There are three big reasons, but even that can be distilled down to just one simple one.

He’s a complex man, a fierce competitor who relishes victory but who accepts that his sport will never make him rich or famous. He’s self confident, proud and eager.

Why is he still here?

Because he wants to be.

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