Jumping back in: International Nordic combined returns to Steamboat with rich legacy | SteamboatToday.com

Jumping back in: International Nordic combined returns to Steamboat with rich legacy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The ground shook and the air roiled Dec. 6, 1995, with thousands stomping and clapping, screaming and cheering on a cold but beautiful day in Steamboat Springs. They packed into the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena that day until no more could, not unlike they do for the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo series' biggest annual event, the Fourth of July rodeo, an annual sellout.

Except, this time they weren't cheering for a bronc rider from Idaho or a team roper from Oklahoma. They were cheering for one of their own, and by the time he approached the arena from the west, they were on their feet.

It had been loud throughout the 15-kilometer cross-country ski race that would decide the winner of that day's Nordic combined competition. It was jet-engine loud, "so loud you had to scream at someone so they could hear you," one spectator said.

Some local coaches had acted on a hunch and stashed an American flag near the entrance to the stadium along the route to the finish line, and when 19-year-old Todd Lodwick approached, one of them reached out to hand it to him.

Suddenly, even screaming wasn't enough to be heard by someone standing a foot away.

"People went crazy when he came in," recalled Todd Wilson, Nordic combined director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

Lodwick skied the last few meters, waving that flag, soaking in the atmosphere, hearing the fans.

"That's something you don't get to do very often," Lodwick said. "It's one of those things you always remember."

He finally crossed the finish line and buried the flagpole in the snow, right there in the middle of the rodeo arena beneath Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs and the gathered fans — most of the city, or so it seemed to people there — nearly lost their minds.

They chanted, "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

The World Cup had come to Steamboat Springs.

It had brought together agencies, committees and governments, creating an unprecedented stage for the young man who'd become one of the most prolific Olympians in the country and had wowed those who gathered to see it.

That was the second year of the World Cup's stops in Steamboat Springs. High-level international Nordic combined events were a staple of Steamboat for nearly two decades in the 1990s and early 2000s before eventually falling away for a multitude of reasons from a dwindling interest in the city to the huge price tag of keeping the facilities World Cup compliant.

The World Cup's not coming back any time soon — true believers are holding on to hope, of course — but international competition is, for the first time in seven years, returning Friday, Saturday and Sunday with the Nordic combined Continental Cup.

Many are hoping such a competition can help remind the city of the golden era of Nordic combined in Steamboat Springs.

A break in the action

Steamboat Springs last hosted a major international Nordic combined event in December 2010, and Todd Lodwick was there, too.

Todd Lodwick celebrates a big jump at the 1995 World Cup in Steamboat Springs.

Lodwick went on from that first World Cup win, in 1995 in his hometown, to capture two World Championships, an Olympic silver medal and an American record six Olympic appearances.

In a very real way it was all bookended by crowds roaring as he carried the Star Spangled Banner: first in Steamboat Springs as a 19-year-old in the midst of a breakthrough, and again, at the 2014 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies where he was selected from among all the U.S. contingent to carry the flag and lead the team's procession into the Olympic stadium.

There were two races in Steamboat in 2010, and Lodwick won them both, though they didn't carry the same weight as his 1995 triumph, or another World Cup win he recorded in Steamboat in 2001.

He won them almost easily in 2010, by 38.6 seconds one day and 52.4 the other.

Lodwick always shined when competing on his home hill. He made an international podium in Steamboat 10 times, including two for individual World Cup performances. Twice more he made the podium as a part of a two-man relay, including in the inaugural Steamboat World Cup in 1994, and again in 1995 when only a mistake in the race's final few meters — his ski pole pole got caught between his legs, sending him to the snow — pushed his duo from first to second.

Six more times he made the podium in the level of Nordic combined one rung down from the World Cup.It was called World Cup B for much of his career, and Continental Cup more recently. Either way it was and is the same: roughly the next 50 best Nordic combined athletes in the world after the roughly 50 competing on the World Cup.

Steamboat made a perfect place to play host, said Dave Jarrett, another Steamboat-grown Nordic combined athlete. He competed in that first World Cup, in 1994, then later took over as the U.S. program's head coach.

"The World Cup in Steamboat in the early '90s was awesome, one of the best stops," he said. "Every athlete and team was excited about coming to Steamboat."

No team, of course, was more excited about the idea than the U.S. team.

Jarrett said there's a home snow advantage to the sport that goes beyond a supportive crowd and a familiarity with the town.

Knowing the jumping hills themselves can make a huge difference.

"The hills in Steamboat aren't of current design now, and they weren't back then either," Jarrett said. "They've always had a little more character to them, and it helped to know the hills and how they flew."

The World Cup events used the two biggest jumps at Howelsen Hill, an HS100 and an HS127. Modern jumping hills are more regulated and carefully designed, often limiting the differences between them. Steamboat's hills predate those regulations, however. That's actually a major problem for the club in 2017, a reason the parade of international events in Steamboat stopped in 2010.

But in 1994 and the era of the World Cup in Steamboat, it was a huge advantage.

"The (HS100) is long and flat, and the big hill is steep and high flying," Jarrett said. "On the big one, you have to realize even though you feel like you're going to land on the moon, you're not. You're not that high the whole way. A lot of people get really high off that jump over the knoll then think they have to bail."

Jarrett rode that insider knowledge in 1994 to one of the best results of his career, a 14th place finish. It was his first individual top-15 World Cup result, one of three he'd earn. Another, a 13th-place finish, came a year later, also back in Steamboat.

The home snow edge

Lodwick certainly knew how to ride Steamboat's unique jumping hills, and that day with the roaring crowd and the waving flag, on Dec. 6, 1995, he rode it as well as any cowboy ever rode an animal in the nearby rodeo arena, where the cross-country race started and finished.

Steamboat Springs Johnny Spillane takes flight off of the large jump at Howelsen Hill during a World Cup B event at Howelsen Hill in 2005. The jump complex at Howelsen Hill has a long, and rich, tradition dating back to Carl Howelsen and the first Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival events in 1913 clear up to a run of Wold Cup events that ran from 1994 through 2002 (World Cup A) and World Cup B event that ran from 2003 through 2008.

"The biggest things I remember," Lodwick said this week, looking back more than 20 years later, "was jumping well and carrying the flag."

The jumping well led directly to the carrying of the flag.

He leapt into first place after the ski jump, soaring 96 meters on his best leap and earning a 48-second head start on the rest of the field.

Lodwick was still new to the sport, and especially to its highest rungs. He'd recorded seven individual top-10 World Cup finishes the season before and that spot on the podium in Steamobat in 1994, but had yet to make a podium as an individual.

Later in his long career, he'd become a very strong cross-country skier, strong enough to track down competitors when he needed to. In 2009, after a short retirement, Lodwick won two gold medals at the World Ski Championships. He had the fastest skiing time in one of those events and the third fastest in the other.

He hadn't developed those racing legs quite yet, however, and as confident as he was, for as much as he relished the hometown support, he wasn't sure the 48 seconds would be enough.

"My thought was, 'Hold on as long as you can,'" he said.

The course started in the rodeo arena, cut up into the bluffs just above the arena on Emerald Mountain, wound around to the west, through the ski jumping flats and around the baseball diamonds, then back to the arena, three laps of that 5-kilometer course.

"I knew how to pace myself and then you just kind of put your head down and pray for the rest of the guys to blow up," Lodwick said.

His lead caused others to start to believe. Wilson and another Steamboat Nordic combined Olympian-turned-coach, Gary Crawford, began to wonder about planting a flag near the finish.

"Just in case," Wilson said.

They followed through and then ran up on the course to cheer during the actual race. By the midway point of the 15K, their suspicion was becoming a reality. Not only were Lodwick's legs up the challenge of skiing with the best in the world, they were gaining ground on the best in the world.

"So we high tailed it back down to where the flag was hidden, and as soon as he came around the turn to make the final stretch into the stadium, Gary started waving it," Wilson said.

Lodwick came by, grabbed the flag on cue and carried it into the mayhem of the arena.

What it's there for

In Wilson's eyes, the World Cup's stops in Steamboat, starting in 1994, were the beginning, the start of a golden era of U.S. Nordic combined.

Six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick carries the flag during the opening ceremonies at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Lodwick will be inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame Saturday evening along with fellow Steamboat Springs Olympian Shannon Dunn and Aldo Radamus, who was the Alpine director at the Winter Sports Club before moving to Val in the early 1990s.

Sixteen years later, Lodwick and three teammates — all of who where still in school when Lodwick won that 1995 World Cup — came together to win four of the seven available medals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

"That's the beginning of what I would say ended with the medals in Vancouver," he said. "This community and those events really started that process."

World Cups are expensive, with major demands to accommodate television coverage, and eventually Steamboat opted out of that cost and instead chose to host World Cup B competitions, which became known as Continental Cup events.

The last World Cup event was in 2001 at the start of winter season that featured the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The city continued with the World Cup B/Continental Cup events for another eight years, but eventually those ended, as well.

Much of that decision was made for the city. Jumping hills must be certified for international competition every five years, and the licenses for Steamboat’s two big hills, those most worthy of international competition, expired in 2010 and, barring major renovations, weren't likely to be reissued.

That problem hasn't been resolved, but as a stop-gap measure this year, a smaller and more modern jump at the Howelsen Hill complex was certified for use, paving the way for international competition to return.

Ask Wilson why that’s important, and he may never stop answering. He talks about the tight relationship such events can build between the athletes, the Winter Sports Club, the city and the citizens. He talks about the growth events foster in hometown athletes, about the skiers-to-be who attended World Cup and Continental Cup events and came away inspired enough that now they're set to compete this year. He talks about how such competitions are when he sees the city and the hill at their best.

"It's at the core of our history," he said. "We've been hosting major events, it's been a part of who we are, going on generations. It's a little bit our responsibility as a cornerstone facility in North America, that we uphold our end of the deal and host events, and it's important for the community to come together and feel like they're a part of it.

"We have this incredible legacy and we're not always using it," Wilson continued. "Howelsen is more than a training facility. This is what the ski jump were intended for."

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What's with Nordic combined?

Nordic combined is an Olympic event dating back to the first Winter Olympics in 1924. It brings together two otherwise separate sports — ski jumping and cross-country skiing.

While many variations have been competed through the years, the three races in Steamboat Springs will start with ski jumping at Howelsen Hill.

Each jumper will get one official jump. That jump will then be used to start a cross-country ski race nearby at the Romick Rodeo Arena at the base of Howelsen Hill. Whichever skier jumps the furthest and scores the highest starts the 10-kilometer race first, then the rest of the field is slotted in to start the race further back time-wise depending on how far they jumped relative to the best jumper.

Then, the first skier across the finish line, wins.

Where to watch

The exact ski course won't be set until later in the week as crews race to prepare enough snow in what's been a warm start to the winter, but no matter where things go, they will start and finish in the rodeo arena, and the layout of the course will make that the best viewing spot as skiers will swing through for either four or five laps in each race.

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Who to watch for

An international field of competitors will be on hand for the event. The first teams began arriving Thursday, and skiers will be training in Steamboat Springs all week in preparation. That includes a big contingent of United States skiers.

The U.S. gets eight spots in the event, and three will go to Steamboat Springs skiers.

Ben Berend, Jasper Good and Grant Andrews are all Steamboat-raised skiers on the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, and all will be competing this week. Ben Loomis and Stephen Schumann are also members of the team who will be competing.

The remaining starting spots will rotate between the nation's top junior skiers. Several of Steamboat's top contenders in that category — Elijah Vargas and Brendan Andrews — are injured and unlikely to compete, but others on the list include Jared Schumate, Becket Ledger, Aidan Ripp and, from Steamboat, Bennett Gamber.

Competing countries include Austria, Canada, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Norway, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

Schedule:

Friday, Dec. 15 HS75 Jump/10K Cross Country/Gundersen Event

9:30 – 11 a.m. Official jump training (2 jumps)

11 – 11:30 a.m.Provisional round/trial round

11:45 a.m.Flag ceremony, National Anthem

11:50 a.m.Fore jumpers

Noon Competitive jump round

10K CROSS COUNTRY

4:00 – 5:30 p.m. Official Cross Country Training

5:45 p.m.Forerunners

6 p.m. Start time 10K cross country 

6:30 p.m.Awards ceremony (Cross Country Stadium)

7:30 p.m. Team captains meeting

Saturday, Dec. 16 HS75 Jump / 10K Cross Country/Gundersen Event

9:30 – 10:15 a.m. Trial jump round

10:20 a.m.National Anthem

10:25 a.m.Fore jumpers

10:30 a.m. Competitive jump round

10K CROSS COUNTRY

1 – 2 p.m.Course inspection

2:15 p.m.Forerunners

2:30 p.m. Start time 10K cross country 

3 p.m.Awards ceremony (Cross Country Stadium)

4 p.m. Team captains meeting

Sunday, December 17th HS75 Jump / 10K Gundersen Event

9:30 – 10:15 a.m. Trial jump round

10:20 a.m.National Anthem

10:25 a.m.Fore jumpers

10:30 a.m. Competitive jump round

10K CROSS COUNTRY

2:15 p.m. Forerunners

2:30 p.m. Start Time 10K Cross Country

3 p.m. Awards Ceremony (Cross County Stadium)