The day Nordic combined took off |

The day Nordic combined took off

Luke Graham

Ski jumper Finn O'Connell takes flight off the HS75 at Howelsen Hill.

Walk toward Howelsen Hill during a Wednesday night Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Little Vikings Jump Competition and the heart of ski jumping in Steamboat Springs thumps.

Cars idle in the parking lot, their exhaust painting white streaks through the frigid air. The base of Howelsen is abuzz with children as young as 5 running from Howelsen Hill Lodge to their skis and back again as though it were school recess. They eventually click into skis and make their way up the hill toward the jumps, their parents offering gentle pushes to expedite the process.

Some are trying ski jumping for the first time. Others are practicing for the Hitchens Brothers Wednesday Night Jump Series later that night.  

With children bundled like Randy from "A Christmas Story" and starting to move toward the bump jumps — designed for the youngest ski jumpers — the soul of ski jumping in the United States is alive and well.

"It's just really fun," says 5-year-old Koen Stroock, a smile plastered across his face after a 6-meter jump. "When you get up in the air, it feels like you're going to fall, but you don't. I don't know, it's fun. Now I want to be in the Olympics for ski jumping."

If this is where Steamboat's Olympic heritage starts, there is no sight of where it might end.

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But as much as Steamboat associates itself with a Nordic skiing heritage, it was only 10 years ago in Italy that U.S. Nordic combined skiing finally took off.

Breaking down the door

Billy Demong popped out of bed March 1, 2003, and trudged over to the computer.

Demong was in the midst of a trying time in his career. He had won his first Nordic combined World Cup event the year before in Liberec, Czech Republic. But a head injury put him out for the 2003 season. He had moved to Steamboat Springs, where he was working construction and taking classes at Colorado Mountain College.

He and former Steamboat Springs Olympian Jim "Moose" Barrows had traveled to Winter Park for a U.S. Ski Team fundraiser. When Demong woke up that morning and checked his computer, he hardly could believe his eyes.

"I immediately woke up Moose," Demong recalled last week. "I yelled, 'Johnny won! Johnny won!'"

Said Barrows: "I had to double check with my Ski Team sources, and it was just coming in to them. I had to call somebody. It was a real boost to the Ski Team."  

The U.S. Nordic combined team heads to Val di Fiemme, Italy, next month for the World Championships. The team no longer is considered an underdog among the sport's elite — countries like France, Germany and Norway that have long and proud Nordic combined traditions. There will be lofty expectations for a U.S. team that no longer is able to sneak up on anyone.

February's World Championships will mark the 10-year anniversary of Johnny Spillane's historic win at the same venue in Italy. It was a different story a decade ago for the U.S. team, which never before had medaled at the World Championships. But that gold medal in late February 2003 jump-started rapid growth and success throughout the ensuing 10 years, both for the sport's place in Steamboat Springs and for the U.S. team's position on the international stage.  

"It was the day that finally the door to medals was open," U.S. Nordic combined coach Dave Jarrett said. "We had been really close since 1995. We couldn't get that door open, and Johnny broke it down. It was, 'Finally, we're there. No more fourths or fifths.'"

'Good vibe that day'  

Spillane was enjoying a solid 2003 World Cup season. He had three podium finishes and eight top 10s leading up to the World Championships.

But as had long been the case for the U.S. team, there had been no significant breakout performance, particularly on the sport's grandest stages.

In the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the U.S. squad finished fourth in the team event. Todd Lodwick, a winner of five World Cup events and the most decorated U.S. Nordic combined athlete, was fifth in the Olympics' Nordic combined sprint event in 2002.

"After Salt Lake, Johnny, Billy, Todd and Matt (Dayton) were so low," former U.S. coach Tom Steitz recalled.

Things were beginning to look a bit different in Val di Fiemme, however. Spillane had jumped to fourth place heading into the cross-country portion of the World Championships. Although his performance on the ski jumps had put him in position for a podium spot, he would have to fight for it against legends like Germany's Ronny Ackermann and Austria's Felix Gottwald.

Spillane, just 22 at the time, was undeterred.

"I was in a good spot," Spillane said. "Four was my lucky number then. It still is. I just had a really good vibe that day."

But there was a long time between the jumping portion and the cross-country ski race. With the event being broadcast on TV in Europe, there was an unusual amount of time between the events.

Spillane tried to sleep, to no avail. Warming up for the cross-country race, the usually calm Spillane could feel the nerves settle in. The burden of winning his country's first World Championships medal was weighty.

Teammate Carl Van Loan could sense Spillane's nervous energy. The two had competed together since they were 12. Van Loan offered some simple encouragement.

"The best thing I could say was, 'The guys you're fighting against have been there before and have everything to lose. You've never been there and have nothing to lose,'" Van Loan said.

After two 2.5-kilometer laps, Spillane made his move. He skied up to a three-person lead group that included Ackermann and Gottwald.

Knowing the course and knowing his skis were fast that day — "They were rocket ships," Van Loan said — Spillane had a strategy to win. He would draft the other racers down the hill that descended into the stadium, where he would make it a dogfight the last 300 meters to the finish line.  

"There were moments on paper he shouldn't have kept up with Ronny and Felix," Demong said. "There were moments he could have said, 'I'm out of my league and bronze is good enough.' The finish was all guts and adrenaline. He pulled it off with style. It was like he already knew."

The gravity of the moment wasn't lost on Spillane's teammates. Lodwick hoisted Spillane onto his shoulders, and all the oh-so-close moments from the past melted away.

Johnny Spillane was a world champion and the first American Nordic skier to achieve that title.

In danger of falling behind

It didn't take long for news of Spillane's win to arrive back home.

"We were at a competition in Park City that weekend," said Todd Wilson, the Nordic director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. "They called me over the radio. 'Do you know what Johnny did?' It was a shock. It sent chills down your spine. That was the first real outstanding result from the Nordic combined team and Steamboat skiers. It was just the start of some unbelievable results from those skiers. It gave us a real shot in the arm that we were on the right track."

At home, however, the Nordic program in Steamboat was under serious threat.

In ramping up for the 2002 Olympic Games, Park City, Utah, and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee put $21 million into the ski jumping facility there. In Park City, three jumps got plastic surfaces to make them available for training year-round. Steamboat's jumps hadn't received a major upgrade since 1976, when the late John Fetcher helped with their reconstruction.

"The jumping world has changed," Steamboat Springs City Council then-President Kevin Bennett said in 2001. "We've got to change with it."

The concern was that plastic jumps and year-round training in Park City would relegate the Winter Sports Club to nothing more than a feeder program.

After the 2002 Olympics, the U.S. Nordic combined team, half of which was Steamboat natives, moved from Steamboat to Park City, where it could train year-round.

"Johnny and a lot of other skiers were beginning to be forced to Park City to train," Wilson said. "We didn't have the facilities. The biggest influence was we were losing athletes. We were in danger of being that feeder program."

Enter the Colorado Ski Heritage Project, which had a $2.4 million idea to upgrade the Steamboat jumps. The plan was to increase snowmaking on the two larger jumps and cover the HS75 with plastic so it could be used year-round. It took years to secure funding, but the plan eventually became reality.

The city of Steamboat Springs approved $370,000 for the project. Another $1.2 million came from the Energy Impact Assistance Fund, $270,000 from the Gates Family Foundation, $150,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado, $100,000 from the Boettcher Foundation and $50,000 from the Daniels Fund. About $470,000 came from more than 200 private donors.

After securing the funding, construction on the year-round jump began in summer 2005. Winter Sports Club athletes took several jumps in October 2005, with the plastic covering taking shape in 2006.

"When we finally got the first summer jump, the excitement and fundraising campaign were a direct result from that finish in Italy," said Gary Crawford, the Winter Sports Club's head Nordic combined ability coach.

The next step

If Spillane's win helped push upgrades to Howelsen Hill, it also left an indelible mark on his teammates and younger athletes who hoped to follow in his and Lodwick's footsteps.

"It proved to me that we were capable," said Bryan Fletcher, who was 16 at the time and just beginning to ski in Continental Cup events, a step below the elite-level World Cup circuit. "He was an idol in my eyes at the time. Young kids were looking to be like him. I still look at Johnny and Billy and Todd with a certain sentiment of awe. They've proven themselves time and time and time again."

Spillane's victory also changed Demong's outlook. He admits that the personal and team lows in the 2002-03 season distanced him from the sport. But that February day in 2003 reversed his outlook.

Demong saw his good friend and teammate do something incredible.

"We were such close friends and teammates; we used each other as yardsticks," Demong said. "When I came back, I knew I'm as good as Johnny. I was right there with him in training the year before. I knew it would take time, but I knew if Johnny's a world champion, then I can be a world champion. His doing that opened doors for me mentally. It let me know we're capable of this."

So Demong wrote down goals for the next seven years. He wanted them to be realistic but difficult.

He wanted to medal at the 2007 World Championships and win the 2009 World Championships. He wanted to medal in the 2010 Olympics.

"Somehow," he said, "it all came true."

The U.S. Nordic combined team saw Lodwick win a pair of World Championships in 2009. Demong won one of his own that year, as well.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Spillane won America's first Olympic medal in the sport, a silver in the Gundersen normal hill event. The U.S. team earned a silver medal in the team event, and Demong broke through with a gold medal in the Gundersen large hill competition, where Spillane won another silver.

Johnny's 2003 win was "a watershed, pivotal moment that turned the tide," said Steitz, the former coach. "In that case, Johnny winning the medal was one of the things that kept everybody going. Eventually, they would have done it. The question is who. But without that moment, you wouldn't have seen such a tremendous run from there to Vancouver. That's a safe statement to say."

Not a flash in the pan

It's hard to know what would have happened had Spillane not won that day in Italy. But the lasting impact from that day still resonates. In 2012, an HS45 plastic jump was built at Howelsen Hill in large part because of the Nordic combined team's success at the 2010 Olympics.

Johnny's 2003 win "was certainly a catalyst for the first plastic jump," said Rick DeVos, executive director of the Winter Sports Club. "Then when the boys went to Vancouver and won the medals, that was a catalyst for the HS45 jump to go to plastic. Winning those medals no doubt brought energy to get those products."

Spillane's win made the team believe. It made a young contingent of jumpers believe. It made the guys on his team know they could not only compete at the highest level, but also win.

"He won the first medal and then won the first Olympic medal," said U.S. Nordic combined team member Taylor Fletcher, who was 13 at the time of Spillane's win. "You could look at what he's done as the single most important thing in U.S. Nordic combined history."

"It motivated me, humbled me and made me believe that I could be the next guy," Bryan Fletcher said. "It was very inspirational for anybody at that time. It was very inspirational for me."

As important as it was for Spillane, having a new generation carry it on ranks right up there.

Bryan Fletcher earned his first World Cup win last season, and Taylor Fletcher made his first podium Jan. 19 in Austria.

"The story is it's a small group of guys, in a country where the sport is not popular, (who) found a way to take on the world," Wilson said. "It's a pretty cool success story. It's a neat study on the human spirit and passion, which, to me, I've learned are the most important ingredients."

At the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic last week, all five members of the U.S. team were from the Winter Sports Club. Nordic combined participation numbers in the Winter Sports Club also have seen an increase. This year marks the largest the program has been. The 109 members are triple the number of competitors in 1998.

And in a sport where the U.S. is underfunded and rarely plays at home, Spillane's 2003 win was as important an event as there was in U.S. Nordic combined history.

Strangely, Spillane never has seen footage from his historic win.

"It was on in the background a number of times," he said. "I don't like watching myself on TV, and I don't like having my picture taken for some reason. I always felt like, I was there and experienced it firsthand, so a replay on TV doesn't do much for me. Same for the Olympics. I've never seen the races, nor do I care to."

Spillane may not have watched his accomplishments, but the ripple effects from 2003 still are evident.

Take, for instance, events like Wednesday night's Little Vikings and Hitchens Brothers jumping competitions. Five-year-olds attacked the bumps jump, next to 7-year-olds on the HS20, next to 13-year-olds on the HS45.

Perhaps only a few of today's Little Vikings will become tomorrow's Nordic combined stars. Regardless, Spillane's win — and the subsequent success of Lodwick, Demong and the Fletcher brothers — has forever left a mark on Nordic combined skiing in the U.S. and in Steamboat Springs.

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