U.S. breaks through in Nordic combined

 

Gasping for air, American Johnny Spillane was gliding

toward the finish line, cowbells clanking in his ears, the stars

and stripes shimmering in the stands, a gold medal and greatness

both within his grasp.

Just a stride and ahalf away from being crowned an Olympic

champion, out of his right eye Spillane caught the blur of a black

and white ski suit as France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis zoomed past.

Spillane was too exhausted and too exhilarated to care.

His silver medal in the Nordic combined normal hill event

Sunday marked the first time the Americans had ever climbed the

Olympic podium in the sport dominated since its inception by the

Europeans.

“Today was a pretty good day for me,” Spillane said.

“Overall, I’m very satisfied with the result.”

Chappuis, the World Cup leader who was born in Missoula,

Mont., but who has always raced for France, won the race in 25

minutes and 47.1 seconds, four-tenths of a second ahead of

Spillane.

Italy’s Alessandro Pittin won the bronze, finishing

eight-tenths of a second behind Chappuis and just ahead of American

Todd Lodwick, who missed out on the podium by seven-tenths of a

second.

Billy Demong, of Vermontville, N.Y., gave the Americans a

2-4-6 finish as he made up for a poor jump that had him starting in

24th place.

Spillane’s was only the third Olympic medal in Nordic sports

for the Americans, joining Bill Koch, who won the silver in

cross-country skiing in 1976, and Anders Haugen, who took the

bronze in the ski jump in the inaugural 1924 Games – although his

medal wasn’t awarded until a-half century later after a historian

discovered a scoring error.

“After 86 years of trying, we are actually legitimate,” said

former U.S. coach Tom Steitz, who maintains close ties to the

American team. “How do you boil up 86 years of frustration? You

don’t. Everybody starts crying. We are all going to sit around

tonight and drink champagne and touch the medal.”

Chappuis said he had given up hope of catching Spillane until

he saw the American was spent and slowing down upon reaching the

stadium at Whistler Olympic Park after having pushed the pace for

so long.

“On the last hill, I honestly didn’t think I could get the

gold medal,” Chappuis said. “But then he slowed down a little bit

entering the stadium and I had really good skis, so my glide was a

little bit better than him, maybe.

“I knew I had the power to pass him.”

And he just barely had enough distance to do it.

Spillane was satisfied with silver.

“At that point, I was just happy there was no one else going

by me,” he said. “I was really tired.”

It was the closest finish in a Nordic combined event at the

Olympics.

“Four-tenths of a second is you know a snap of your fingers,”

lamented U.S. coach Dave Jarrett.

Spillane and Lodwick, both of Steamboat Springs, Colo., took

turns leading the way for much of the race. Spillane looked to have

an insurmountable lead as he made his final turn, but Chappuis beat

him to the line to win the event which featured one jump on the

normal hill and a 10-kilometer cross-country race.

“It’s a good day,” Jarrett said. “Could it have been better?

Yeah. But we’re not that greedy.”

As Spillane had the finish line in his sights, Chappuis used

shorter strides to sweep past him in the nick of time for his first

Olympic medal.

“I thought Johnny was going to win going away,” Jarrett said.

“But there’s a reason why Jason is leading the World Cup and has

almost clinched the title before almost half the season is over.

No. 1, he’s been one of the best jumpers all year, and No. 2, he’s

always there in the last 100 meters sprinting for the victory.”

Lodwick, the reigning world champion, started in second place

behind Finland’s Janne Ryynaenen, who had the longest jump of the

day. Spillane started in fourth, 44 seconds behind Ryynaenen and

Chappuis in fifth, 46 seconds behind the leader.

Once hopelessly behind the Germans, Austrians, Russians,

Norwegians and Finns, the U.S. Nordic combined ski team is now one

of the world’s powers following its domination of last year’s world

championships and Spillane’s silver medal Sunday.

“I hope it means it will be that much easier to get another,”

Demong said. “It’s always about getting that first one out of the

way. So, that makes Todd and I that much more fired up and ready to

go for next week.”

The Americans will return to Park City, Utah, to train for

the relay event on Feb. 23 and the large hill competition on Feb.

25, two more golden opportunities for Lodwick and Demong to also

reach the podium.

“It’s good to have the monkey off our back and know that

we’ve done it,” Jarrett said. “But we still have a goal ahead of

us.”

Winds blew in just as the World Cup heavyweights were about

to jump down the normal hill Sunday, keeping distances down and

pushing some of the best skiers to the back of the pack for the

cross-country portion of the race, Norway’s Magnus Moan and

Austria’s Felix Gottwald among them.

Chappuis jumped last but managed the fifth-best result, just

close enough to the lead to grab the gold from Spillane.

“He’s always welcome to change his citizenship to the U.S.

and join our team,” Jarrett said with a mischievous grin.