Winter Olympics Journal

February 14, 2010 10:23 PM

Nordic Combined Snares Historic Silver

Spillane silver.jpgWHISTLER, B.C. -- It's not every day you get to see history made at the Olympics. On Sunday, the U.S. won its first Olympic medal ever in Nordic combined when Johnny Spillane, 29, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., took silver in the event, which combines ski jumping (morning) with a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) cross-country ski race (afternoon).

Spillane is one of three world champions on the U.S. team, so the medal didn't come as a surprise. More of a relief that the team finally won an Olympic medal after 86 years. Now, the only sport left that the U.S. has not won a Winter Olympic medal in is biathlon (cross-country skiing and shooting). No pressure, biathletes.

"I'm just thrilled," Spillane said. "This took a lot of hard work. As Americans, the Olympics is it for us. Maybe sometimes that puts a little too much pressure on the team, and people expect things that might not be possible." Spillane nearly ended the drought with gold. In a dramatic finish, he was edged at the finish by the American-born Jason Lamy Chappuis, who skis for France.

With fans going bonkers at the end of the four-lap race (is this Europe or something?), Lamy Chappuis closed a 30-yard gap that Spillane opened in the last half-kilometer, nipping Spillane a few yards from the finish and winning by four-tenths of a second.

Three U.S. skiers wound up in the top six -- Steamboat's Todd Lodwick, competing in his fifth Olympics after a two-year hiatus, led for most of the way before finishing fourth, just 1.5 seconds from a medal, and Billy Demong, who came back from a poor jump to finish sixth, 17.9 seconds off the lead.

Start order for the race is determined by jump result. The best jumper gets to start racing first, then the others at time intervals based on how far they flew. The winner is the one crossing the finish first. Lodwick and Spillane were second and fourth, respectively, after the jump, which allowed them to start close to leader Janne Ryynaenen, not known for his strong skiing.

Lodwick, who started the race just 34 seconds back, closed the gap quickly. He, Spillane and several others formed a lead group soon after the first lap, when Ryynaenen fell on a long hill.

At Whistler Olympic Park Sunday, Spillane was happy to have held on after Lodwick led the lead group for most of the race. Italy's Alessandro Pittin was just four tenths of a second behind him.

"I was worried I wasn't going to finish," Spillane said. "I was just glad there wasn't anybody else coming through at that point because I was pretty tired."

Lodwick wound up in the most agonizing of places -- fourth at the Olympics. His lead helped Spillane hold back and muster his final charge.

"I gave it my all," Lodwick said. "To tell you the truth, being fourth really sucks." The U.S. result bodes well for the remaining two Nordic combined events -- the four-man team event Feb. 23rd and the large hill/10K individual competition Feb. 25.

Lodwick guaranteed a medal in the team event, where the U.S. was an agonizing fourth in 2002 after getting passed by one team in the race.

"I will say it right now. We will be on the podium in the team event," Lodwick said. "No question. We're gonna be there."

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