Three world champions are among the five athletes on the U.S. Nordic Combined team for the Vancouver Olympics. Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane hope to bring the United States its first Olympic gold medal in the event that features ski jumping and cross country skiing.
Most Americans probably would not recognize Bill DeMong or Todd Lodwick if they passed them on the street. But on the nordic skiing World Cup circuit, the two men have brought the United States to a new prominence.
Both men are world champions and both have World Cup podium (top three) finishes this season. Equally important - both men are in the sport because they love it. Todd Lodwick says his love for Nordic combined started early, when he was part of the Buddy Werner "Little Toots" ski program.
"[I was] a part of a program that did everything from Alpine skiing to cross country, jumping. And [I] really fell in love with the jumping part of it," said Lodwick. "There was a bunch of us kids at the time, a bunch of my friends and that's just kind of the route that we went down."
Bill DeMong says that growing up in Lake Placid, New York, with the 26-story tall large hill jump tower on the horizon, he was always exposed to the sport. But DeMong told VOA Sports that the first time he tried ski jumping, he had to conquer something every Nordic combined skier faces - fear.
"I started on a jump that was literally the size of a mogul. It was tiny. But I was eight years old and I was terrified. I think it took me like two months to go off it with the full speed and actually go anywhere," DeMong recalled.
Demong says that part of the challenge of the ski jump is to get into a good rhythm and stay there. With Nordic combined athletes limited to as few as five jumps a week, Demong said being a more experienced athlete helps him maintain the focus to compete.
And that focus has paid off. Demong and Lodwick led a U.S. breakthrough at last year's World Championships in Liberec, the Czech Republic. Lodwick became the first American to win two gold medals at a single world championship. DeMong took bronze in the 10-kilometer normal hill event and then won gold in the large hill competition.
The victories helped Lodwick to reignite his competitive fire. After going to four Olympic games with no medal, Lodwick, 33, now a father of two, left the sport in 2006 to sell real estate in his hometown of Steamboat Springs Colorado. Todd Lodwick told VOA sports that the break gave him a chance to realize how much he loved Nordic combined.
"It was hard to be away from home and away from the family," explained Lodwick. "And it was the birth of my first child and [I] got a great opportunity to sell some really expensive land and be in the real estate business that I loved. And I think it's important to take a break and come back to it. I mean, I found a new love for the sport, a new dedication."
In Vancouver, Lodwick will be competing in his fifth Olympics, only the third American to be named to five Winter Games squads. But for all his experience, Lodwick has never won an Olympic medal. Eight years ago he came close, but his Games ended in disappointment.
Lodwick and Demong were part of the U.S. squad that was third after the jumping portion of the team event. But a combination of immaturity and bad ski waxing left them off the podium. Bill Demong says that the Americans were overconfident, which led to mistakes and ended their hopes in Salt Lake City.
"We were a young team, and were still like in the 'never-ever-have-done-this' territory," said Demong. "And I think it was a little bit a combination of nerves and some people said [the wax on our] skis, but in the long run we went out and we blew up in the race and we went from the best day of our lives to the worst day of our lives in a hurry."
Demong told VOA sports that his main lesson of 2002 was to have fun on the slopes, and not worry about trying to earn the United States a first Olympic medal in the sport.
This year, the team's experience shows, with Johnny Spillane earning his first World Cup win in early January while Lodwick finished on the podium in two events and Demong won a World Cup event in October.
The team seems to be peaking at just the right time. With Johnny Spillane and their other teammates, Demong and Lodwick have one of the best chances in recent memory of earning an Olympic medal in Vancouver.