Our View: Spillane’s career noteworthy even by Steamboat standards
April 27, 2013
Even in a city that bills itself as Ski Town USA and is home to more Winter Olympians than any other community in the country, Johnny Spillane stands out above the crowd. His retirement last week from Nordic combined competition brings an end to one of the most illustrious ski careers of any Steamboat Springs resident, and it also calls attention to the enormous sacrifice made by winter athletes and their families in the pursuit of athletic glory.
Spillane retires from the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team as a three-time Olympic medalist — most of any American ever in that European-dominated sport. But his accomplishments on snow were perhaps more significant given the precedent they set for fellow Americans and, in particular, for the next generation of Nordic combined athletes, many of whom also hail from Steamboat.
Spillane was the first-ever American to win gold at the Nordic combined World Championships, a feat he accomplished in 2003 in Val di Fiemme, Italy. That win, coming on the heels of the U.S. team's disappointing turnout in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, obliterated a barrier, real or perceived, of the ability of American Nordic combined skiers to compete with the best in the world at the most elite competitions.
Fittingly, it was Spillane who once again was the U.S. trailblazer when he captured silver in the normal-hill Nordic combined event at the 2010 Winter Olympics in British Columbia. It was the first Olympic medal ever won by a U.S. athlete in Nordic combined, and it proved to be only the opening salvo in a dominating performance that February by Spillane and his teammates. They went on to capture silver in the team event, and Spillane won a third silver in the large-hill Nordic combined competition. His friend and longtime teammate Bill Demong became the first American to win Olympic gold in Nordic combined by topping Spillane in the large-hill event.
Memories of those 2010 Olympics will live on forever in the hearts and minds of Steamboat Springs residents, who throughout the years have embraced Nordic skiing and the role it has played in the history of our city, dating back to the legendary Carl Howelsen in the early 1900s. That embrace can be seen each winter at Howelsen Hill, where skiers as young as 5 and 6 line up to take flight off the smallest of the city-owned ski area's jumps. Spillane and longtime teammate Todd Lodwick are heroes to many of those children as well as inspirations to the latest crop of U.S. Nordic combined stars like Taylor and Bryan Fletcher, who represent the country's immediate future in the sport.
But Spillane should be remembered as much for the person he is off the snow as for the one he is on it. His work ethic and determination are equaled by his humility and kindheartedness. Hindered by injuries and staring at another long year of training and travel in advance of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Spillane decided staying home to be with his wife and two young daughters was more important.
For athletes like Spillane, chasing their sporting dreams often means forgoing postsecondary education and struggling to get by on limited sponsorship and U.S. Ski Team funding. Their pursuits, especially when young, often are funded in whole or in part by family members and other loved ones. Steamboat Springs is full of former and current aspiring winter athletes whose families make enormous sacrifices to enable them to compete. It's the rare few who, like Spillane, go on to achieve greatness in their chosen sport. And for that, we tip our hat to Johnny, his family and the many people and organizations who made his career the resounding success it was.