published Friday, February 26th, 2010

U.S. celebrates Nordic breakthrough with gold, silver

WHISTLER, British Columbia .— For half their lives, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane have been racing and rooming together on the international Nordic combined ski circuit.

On Thursday, in a lead group of three skiers with two Olympic medals on the line, they knew just what to do. They teamed up, working together like cyclists to keep Austrian Bernhard Gruber at bay.

It worked like a charm_a golden one.

Demong used a torrid charge on an uphill section 800 meters from the finish to outkick Spillane and win the U.S. team's first gold medal in Nordic combined_ski jumping and cross-country skiing_in the Large Hill/10K event at Whistler Olympic Park.

In fact, it was the U.S.'s first Olympic gold in any Nordic sport_Nordic combined, biathlon, ski jumping or cross-country.

Bill Koch won cross-country silver in 1976, and Anders Haugen won bronze in ski jumping in 1924.

Spillane won silver, four seconds behind Demong. It was Spillane's third medal of the Games, adding to silvers won in the Normal Hill/10K on Feb. 14 and the team event on Tuesday. Gruber hung on for third, 10.8 seconds after Demong.

How does it feel to be Olympic champion?

"That has hit me for like three different seconds these last 20 minutes," said Demong, the defending world champion in the event. "I think that will sink in eventually, but right now, I'm kind of happy this is all over."

Todd Lodwick, the five-time Olympian who finished 13th, said, "People said if the USA wanted to win the Winter Olympic medal count, Nordic sports had to step up. I'm not sure if we can step up any more."

Swirling winds during a controversial morning jump prompted World Cup star Magnus Moan to label the competition "a joke."

Some of the usual favorites, including normal hill gold medalist Jason Lamy Chappuis, jumped so poorly they were all but out of the competition before the ski race started. Lamy Chappuis wound up 18th overall.

But after a restart in barely improved conditions, Spillane had the second-best jump of the day to Gruber. Demong was sixth. Spillane started 34 seconds behind Gruber, Demong was 46 seconds back.

Early in the first of four loops on the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) course, Demong caught up to Spillane, and before the halfway point, they had closed the gap on a struggling Gruber.

Demong and Spillane, both 29, first met at age 12 or 13 during a Junior Olympics race in Michigan. They bow-hunt for elk together. They have spent more than 1,000 nights in cramped European hotel rooms.

"We probably know each other better than brothers," Demong has said.

On an overcast afternoon in the Callaghan Valley woods, they worked together to make history. When one led, the other would give feedback on Gruber's position.

"We did have a lot of big accelerations, trying to get away," Spillane said. "(Billy) would yell at me, 'We got it,' or 'We don't got it' and I would say the same back to him. We did a good job of working together."

On the curving downhill into the stadium, the snow on the inside track was softer.

"I kept saying 'Go outside! Go outside!" Spillane said.

The lone scary moment came on the last lap, when Spillane fell on a 180-degree curve and Gruber passed him. Spillane scrambled up and caught up again.

Meanwhile, a chase group of 10 skiers was about 40 seconds back. Once it started to snow, Lodwick knew he didn't have the skis or the jump to mount a productive charge. He wasn't going to help others catch up to his teammates.

"I jumped in front (of the pack) and slowed down the other skiers," Lodwick said. "Other skiers were not so happy but who cares? We're on the podium."

Demong's charge on the race's final uphill was as furious as it was decisive. Spillane knew it was coming and was powerless to stop it. Within seconds, Demong opened up 20 yards, then 30.

"There's only one way to go," Demong said. "Today I left enough in the tank to be able to do that. This is the first time all year I've had that."

They had something else, too. A lot of fun.

"When we got about halfway through that race, and we knew it was pretty clear at that point that we were going to have at least two medals. ... From that point on I was really enjoying myself out there," Spillane said.

"It was amazing."

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