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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
U.S. wins Nordic relay medal

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- The only way Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong could have waited longer for an Olympic medal would be if the Department of Motor Vehicles were in charge of handing them out.

Johnny Spillane
Johnny Spillane added to his medal tally Tuesday.

Lodwick competed in the first of his five Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994 when he was 17 and Scott Hamilton still had hair. Demong has been in a mere four Olympics, dating only to Nagano in 1998, but in a way, his Olympic quest goes back even further than Lodwick's: He grew up near Lake Placid, and his mother was eight months pregnant with him when she watched Eric Heiden win his fifth gold medal at the 1980 Games.

Heck, the two of them have been to almost as many Olympics as Jim McKay and Bob Costas combined, turning the official slogan from "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" to "Take a number and wait."

But the long wait finally is over. The DMV workers came back from their mandatory lunch/cigarette/bathroom/Facebook breaks, and the skiers' numbers finally appeared on the "Now Serving" Reader Board From Hell (Ding. No. 236,456. Ding. No. 236,457."). Sixteen years after Lodwick competed in his first Olympics and a dozen years after Demong competed in his, the two joined Johnny Spillane and Brett Camerota to take the silver for the U.S. in the team event of the Nordic combined on a snowy Tuesday afternoon.

"This is the biggest day in the history of U.S. Nordic combined," Lodwick said. And he should know. Not only does he understand the history of Nordic combined in the U.S. but, after two decades in the sport, he's the majority stakeholder in it, as well.

"The biggest rule in my family was that if you start something you better finish it," Lodwick said. "It took awhile -- five Olympic Games, 18 years on the national team and traveling the world seeking out one thing and that was to put an Olympic medal around my neck. I'll feel the joy and shed some tears tonight when they put it on me."

Lodwick, 33, and Demong, 29, have been together since before Nagano. Spillane, 29, joined them before Salt Lake City in 2002. Camerota, 25, came aboard before Torino in 2006. "Together we've been through hell," Lodwick said, "and we've been through high water."

The hell included Demong fracturing a skull in a diving accident seven years, Lodwick getting hit by a car at the Tour de France this past summer, and Spillane undergoing surgeries on his shoulder and knee. There also are the financial sacrifices to keep going in their sport for so many years -- for a time, Demong lived off the generosity of a family that let him live in a bunkhouse rent-free, though he still had to cut his own firewood for heat and fish for his dinner. And then there all those moments sharing cramped living quarters while in Europe for the World Cup circuit and spending approximately 300 days together training and competing.

US Nordic
The silver medal was two decades in the making for the U.S. men's team.

"To tell you the truth, I enjoy the time together," Lodwick said. "We're really good friends. We have a lot in common, and when you get to share those experiences not only as teammates but also friends, it makes it special. I can't think of more honorable athletes to share this with."

The high water includes winning World Cup races, plus Tuesday's silver medal, and raising the level of their sport in America. Public awareness of Nordic combined has risen so much, Demong said, "Coming into the Olympics, not a single reporter asked us anything about what it is we do. It was all legitimate questions about how we were going to do."

The answer is pretty damn well. Spillane won the first-ever U.S. Olympic medal in the sport last week (Lodwick was fourth), and the U.S. nearly won the team gold Tuesday.

The U.S. was in second place after the jumping competition and entered the 4x5km cross-country relay just two-tenths of a second behind Finland and 36 seconds ahead of Austria. Camerota, the slowest of the four U.S. skiers, passed the Finn skier in the first leg but also lost almost the entire lead over the Austrian team. The Austrians closed the gap further on Lodwick in his leg and took a 14-second lead when Spillane ran out of gas in the third leg.

Demong cut more than half of that lead in his first lap of the 2.5-kilometer course and passed Austria's Mario Stecher briefly in the second. But the Austrian whipped past Demong on the final hill leading down to the finish area and pulled away to win by 5.2 seconds. Demong said part of the issue was choosing skis better suited for a day without snowfall, but he didn't blame the finish on that. "I was pretty tired, too," he said. "Let's not forget about that factor."

Lodwick says he still has vivid memories of the opening ceremonies at Lillehammer -- "I remember walking in and seeing my mom right off the bat and taking a picture. I still have the picture on my mantel." Just a teenager then, he had no idea he would be a 33-year-old man with a wife and 4-year-old daughter before finally achieving his dream of a medal.

"You put in so many hours and so much effort and time and energy into trying to be the best in the world," he said. "To hang an Olympic medal around your neck on the biggest stage, it's beyond words. I can't wait to go to bed with it tonight. I'm going to wear it everywhere. I'm going to cherish this medal."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.