In the mid-1990s, where did Nordic combined sit in America's Winter Olympic hierarchy? "We were at the bottom of the barrel," says Tom Steitz, the U.S. Nordic combined coach from 1980 to 2002. "We owned last place." Over the past decade, Steitz has led the push to snare more funding for the obscure sport, which mixes ski jumping and cross-country skiing. But he recalls the days in which Nordic combined athletes trekked through Europe like broke college students, sleeping in elementary school gyms, piling into tiny rental cars like circus clowns, begging other countries to drive their skis to events (there just wasn't room in the backseats). "We had to get creative," says Steitz. "There were times we moved from town to town pretty quickly. I probably still owe some people money."
Can Steitz's creditors accept Olympic medals as collateral? Prior to these Olympics, the U.S. had never won an Olympic medal in Nordic combined, a sport that has been contested in the Games since 1924. Countries like Norway (the sport's namesake), Finland and Germany have dominated the event. But to borrow a phrase from the host country of the Vancouver Olympics, the Americans now own the podium. Thanks in part to an infusion of coaches, technicians, physiologists and other ski specialists devoted to the team in recent years, Johnny Spillane on Feb. 14 clinched the first American Olympic medal in Nordic combined when he won a silver medal in the individual "normal hill" event (the designation refers to the competition that's held on the smaller of the two ski-jumping towers, but there's nothing normal about hurling yourself 100 m off a ramp on skis). But America's second-place finish in the team event on Wednesday, behind gold-medal winner Austria, was even sweeter, as it showed the collective strength of the program.
Nordic combined, the sport with the terribly unsexy name, started in mid19th century Norway. It is an anomaly in the Winter Olympics because it mixes two wildly different disciplines. Yes, both ski jumpers and cross-country racers wear skis. But other than that, you might as well mix ice dancing with speedskating and call it a day. Cross-country racing requires extreme endurance, while ski jumping requires insanity. "It is kind of stupid," says Finland's Janne Ryynaenen of the odd combination. Ryynaenen nailed the longest leap of the day, 138.5 m from the takeoff, during the ski-jumping portion of the Nordic combined team event. "It makes no sense," he adds.
Regardless, the sport more than made up for its oddness in entertainment during Wednesday's competition at Whistler Olympic Park. In the team event, four skiers from each of the 10 countries complete one jump in the morning. Their combined jumping scores determine their position for the afternoon 4-by-5-km cross-country relay. For example, on Wednesday, the Finns, who finished first in jumping, got a 2 sec. head start on the U.S., which finished second, and a 2 min. 19 sec. advantage over the Italians, who leapt like little bullfrogs and finished last in the jump. There's a 2½-hr. break between the two events. "You put on your jump hat for a few hours, and as soon as jumping is over, you go snort down a sandwich and put on your cross-country gear," says Bill Demong, a member of the U.S. Nordic combined team who is competing in his third Olympics.
But you don't just change your clothes. "You change your mind-set completely," says Demong. "[Ski jumping] is very technical, and you've got to be really relaxed and just focused on swinging through it, essentially. In [the relay], you've got to get your game face on and get angry, get going ... You've got to be ready to hurt."
Though the U.S. didn't club the entire field on Wednesday, its team still sent a strong message to Europe, which has typically dominated Nordic combined: This sport is no longer yours. The day started out strongest for the Finns, who were counting on the event to increase their paltry medal tally. Finnish Olympic officials had set a goal of 12 medals for the country in Vancouver; to date, it has one. In the last three Olympics, the Finns won gold, silver and bronze in the Nordic combined team competition. "It's not big; it's phenomenal," says Pasi Uusivuori, a manager at a Finland-based medical-technology company, on the status of the sport in the Scandinavian country. "It's bigger than life."
The Finns, however, will have to deal with more disappointment. They shined in the air, taking the top spot in the ski-jumping competition, but broke down on the ground, finishing seventh in cross-country. (Norway, the patriarch of the sport, came in fifth.) In the afternoon, a steady snowfall turned the cross-county course into a postcard. American Brett Camerota, who at 25 is the youngest member of the U.S. team and supposedly its weak link, finished almost three seconds ahead of Finland's Ryynaenen in the first leg of the relay, giving the Americans the lead. American Todd Lodwick, making his fifth Olympic appearance, held it, but Austria slowly gained ground, and Felix Gottwald opened a 14-sec. gap against the third American racer, Spillane.
In a 5-km cross-country race, a 14-sec. lead is a comfortable cushion. Yet Demong's push against Austria's Mario Stecher set up, for this observer's money, the most memorable finish of the Vancouver Olympics to date. It made you seriously wonder why this sport doesn't garner more attention in the U.S. as well as admire Europe's good taste in obsessing over an event that Americans foolishly offer a big fat yawn. After all, what's more engrossing than a good old-fashioned race to the finish?
Demong steadily chipped away at Stecher's lead, cutting it in half after 1.7 km and down to 2.2 sec. halfway through the final leg. "If I were an oddsmaker," said a public-address announcer, a purported Nordic combined expert, "Stecher is the guy you wouldn't want at the end." Was the Austrian toast? Demong finally passed Stecher and for a moment, it appeared as if Stecher was about to give up and ski off the course. Going into the final 0.8-km stretch, the duo was essentially tied.
Stecher built a small lead, but Demong passed him again, this time on an uphill climb. "I hoped to move up a gap of four or five seconds and hold on to the finish," says Demong. "I was like, Ah, I think I'm getting there. And then I hit him with my pole. I was like, Arrgh, he's still here." On a downhill glide, Stecher made the final pass, and Austria won the gold by 5.2 sec.
The Americans were still justifiably jubilant after the race. "We're damn satisfied," says Demong. On Thursday, the U.S. will have one more opportunity to snare that elusive gold, in the individual "large hill" competition. "I'm not surprised," says Tomas Slavik, a Nordic combined athlete from the Czech Republic, of the U.S. performance. "Bill [Demong], Johnny [Spillane] and Todd [Lodwick] came up together as juniors and have been doing this for a long time. America is a force." Now when they trek through Europe on the Nordic combined circuit, the skiers can leave the sleeping bags at home. And they won't have to flee the bagman.