Remembering historic podium finishes by Spillane, Lodwick at Vancouver Olympics
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s been one decade since the 2010 Winter Olympics. Those games in Vancouver, Canada, were monumental for the U.S. Nordic combined ski team. Through the normal hill and large hill team event, Americans earned four podium finishes, including one gold medal.
Those accomplishments were huge for the United States as they established themselves as a powerhouse in an otherwise European-dominated sport.
Steamboat Springs natives Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick were part of that silver medal relay team, joined by Billy Demong, who trained in Steamboat, and Utah native Brett Camerota.
“I think more importantly it put us on the map. I still talk to friends from overseas about how awesome it was that the U.S. was competitive in a sport like Nordic combined where it’s so obscure in the states,” Lodwick said. “To put us in the arena, it’s like a European person and playing professional football or professional basketball. We were in their arena, and we went in and dominated those 2010 Olympic Games.”
In the normal and large hill events, Spillane earned silver, while Demong was the victor in the latter.
“An absolute highlight of my career was watching kids we had coached here at the club, that grew up here in Steamboat, go up and accomplish that,” said Todd Wilson, Nordic combined director at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
How they earned their medals
First was the normal hill event. Lodwick had the best jump out of the American’s starting the race in second, 34 seconds behind the leader. In fourth, Spillane started 10 seconds later and quickly caught up to Lodwick so they could work as a team. Spillane stayed strong and battled to silver, while Lodwick narrowly missed the podium in fourth.
“I think the first one was the one that was important for the group,” Spillane said. “It kind of got the monkey off our back by getting that first medal. It let everybody relax a little bit.”
With the team’s performance in the first event, Wilson bought a ticket to Vancouver to watch the rest of the events.
Wilson started coaching Spillane when he was young and struggling to keep up with his peers in the sport. Around 16 or 17, Spillane’s hard work started to pay off. Spillane’s success continued as he became the first American to win gold at the Nordic combined World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
In the team event, all four athletes jumped, launching USA into second, just two seconds behind Finland. Camerota was the first American skier, coming into the exchange in first place. He handed off to Lodwick, who was neck-and-neck with an Austrian skier through his entire 5-kilometer leg of the race. Spillane stayed steady as the U.S. and Austria developed a sizable advantage. With Demong on the course, he decided to pull away from the Austrian skier as they crested a hill with 700 meters to go. He may have gone too soon though, as the Austrian overtook Demong in the finish arena for the win.
“The biggest thing for me about the 2010 Winter Olympic Games is that we realized to be really successful, we trained as a team, like a team, and ate, drank, everything as a team,” Lodwick said. “We were a team going into that, and we had so much confidence from the year prior and the world cup season itself. It really transpired into the results we had. The biggest and best memory from those games was winning a team event medal and just having the confidence we couldn’t be beat.”
With one event left, the best was yet to come for the Americans. Spillane had the second-best jump behind Austrian Bernhard Gruber. He started the 10-kilometer race 34 seconds behind the leader, with Demong starting 12 seconds later in sixth place.
Demong quickly caught up with Spillane and 10 minutes into the race, they had caught Gruber. The American pair hung together until Spillane took a spill on the final lap. He managed to stay in second, but his tumble allowed Demong to break free and win gold.
Will it happen again?
Since the 2010 games, the USA hasn’t produced similar results. In Sochi at the 2014 Olympics, the highest individual finisher was Taylor Fletcher in the large hill, while the team took sixth. Four years later, in Pyeongchang, Bryan Fletcher took 17th in both individual events, while the team finished 10th of 10 teams.
“We learned a couple really valuable lessons from (the 2010 Olympics) and the biggest one being patience,” Wilson said. “Those guys were multi-Olympians and had been in the sport a long time. It takes time to develop.”
Shortly after its greatest triumph, American Nordic combined skiing encountered its biggest challenge. In the early 2000s, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association cut funding to the junior Nordic combined program, essentially cutting off the pipeline to the national team. While USSA invested in the likes of Lodwick and Spillane, there was little support for those trying to climb the ladder to take their places.
“That was devastating to the sport,” Wilson said. “All of a sudden we’re in survival mode. We had to change our foundation and our framing of the sport. I think we were interrupted, but I think we can get back.”
In 2014, USSA cut all funds to the Nordic combined national team. Soon after, a nonprofit that would later be named USA Nordic, was created. Now, all the USA ski jumping and Nordic combined programs are run by USA Nordic, with none other than Demong as executive director.
The sport has recovered tremendously, supporting and funding not only national teams, but junior development teams as well for both male and female athletes.
A few Steamboat athletes have already hinted at future Olympic success. Both Lodwick and Wilson mentioned Niklas Malacinski, who finished fifth at the Youth Olympic Games last month.
What’s more, women’s Nordic combined is on the rise, with Annika Malacinski, Tess Arnone and Alexa Brabec representing Steamboat and the U.S.A. at Junior Worlds this past weekend.
“For a lot of years, there wasn’t as much effort put into development as there should have been. I think Bill has done a really good job with the current team,” Spillane said. “It really was development and investing in the future of the sport. I think he’s done a really good job of that. It’ll happen again. I think it’ll happen again. It might just take a little time.”
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