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Johnny Spillane becomes first American to medal in Olympic Nordic combined

By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, February 15, 2010; D01

WHISTLER, B.C. More cowbell. Johnny Spillane has finally given this country a reason to stock up on the winter sports staple, so drop the bread and toilet paper, Washington. More cowbell.

Spillane won a silver medal Sunday in Nordic combined -- the United States' first medal ever in the discipline that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing. He was leading until being passed by France's Jason Lamy Chappuis near the finish line. The 0.4 second margin was the closest finish in the sport in Olympic history.

"I was just glad there wasn't anybody else coming through at that point because I was pretty tired," said Spillane, 29.

American Todd Lodwick led much of the race before falling to fourth, behind bronze medalist Alessandro Pittin of Italy.

"I gave it my all; I left it all out there," Lodwick said. "Fourth is probably the worst number to be."

Bill Demong, starting in 24th after a poor showing in the ski jump, began the race 1 minute 20 seconds behind the leader and fought his way to sixth place.

"I was toast on the last lap," said Demong, 29. "After a disappointing jump, I was just going for broke."

Timing is everything, and the dramatic finish happened at the perfect moment for the sport. With Alpine skiing canceled for the day -- again -- NBC had plenty of air time to devote to Nordic sports, and probably plenty of shots of cowbell-ringing fans. They are a staple at skiing competitions the world over (you can even get a cowbell app for your mobile phone), but at the Olympics, the United States hasn't had many reasons -- beyond Christopher Walken's instructions -- to ring peal over its Nordic programs. Before Sunday, no American had ever won an Olympic Nordic combined medal. No American has ever won an Olympic biathlon medal. One American, once, won an Olympic cross-country medal.

This is not a tragedy. Americans do not have to be good at everything, much as we sometimes think we do. We are better at many more sports than, say, the Norwegians, who put the "Nor" in Nordic. Football and basketball are examples. And yet the Norwegians seem happy with their place in the sporting world.

But if the United States is going to fund programs such as Nordic combined and biathlon, it ought at least to be respectable. I have long thought that the Nordic sports should be a fish-or-cut-bait proposition for America, and once Uncle Sam bought new tackle and fancy lures and threw some lines off the pier, the catch is finally coming in. Cutting their losses and reallocating those precious Olympic funds to other programs would certainly be an option, but probably not the best one.

The USOC's increased attention to Nordic sports has already paid off in World Cup podiums and world championship medals. But it's the Olympic glory that's crucial -- because let's face it: that's when Americans (read: sponsors) are paying attention.

International sports federations want to see America competitive as well. They want to compete in front of U.S. crowds and rake in U.S. dollars (just as soon as we print some more).

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of -- where else? -- Norway is one of the greatest biathletes in history. He has nine Olympic medals; just three Winter Olympians have more. He understands the importance of American involvement in the Nordic sports.

"It's important for us to have good athletes from more and more nations," Bjoerndalen said. "Hopefully we can have more races in the U.S. in the future. If we want to make the sport more interesting in the U.S., it is absolutely necessary to have guys like [biathlete] Tim Burke and other good athletes."

So a lot was riding on whether this would be the year, finally, when the Nordic combined and biathlon programs ended their Olympic medal drought. That's why I tried a Nordic doubleheader Sunday -- or a Nordic combined combined, as my colleague Barry Svrluga put it -- at Whistler Olympic Park. Shouldn't Valentine's Day be spent with those (sports) you love? It was not to be in the men's 10-kilometer biathlon sprint. A heavy rain that turned to heavy snow and then to light sunshine wreaked havoc with the field. Burke, the top U.S. contender, is ranked No. 5 in the world, but his start coincided with the heaviest rain. He had three shooting penalties and finished a surprising 47th.

Biathletes who started before the deluge fared well. Twelve of the top 15 finishers were among the top 15 starters; in other words, they got underway before the course became intractable. How much of an impact did the weather have on it? The overall World Cup leader, Simon Fourcade, finished 71st. This would be the equivalent of Kobe Bryant failing to score in the NBA All-Star Game. Or failing to find the gym.

Vincent Jay of France took the gold with perfect shooting. Emil Hegle Svendsen of -- where else? -- Norway won silver and Jakov Fak of Croatia took the bronze. Helped by his No. 13 start, Jeremy Teela was ninth, the best finish by an American.

So it was up to the U.S. combined team to make history, and it did. Although really, the result shouldn't have been surprising. Together, the three Americans have competed in 12 Olympics (Lodwick in five, Demong four, Spillane three) and have 16 World Cup victories. Spillane is ranked eighth in the world, Demong 10th and Lodwick 13th. That, plus a 2-4-6 showing here, bodes well for the United States in the team competition Feb. 23.

Lodwick's frustrating fourth-place finish will also help. He is 33 and has already retired once, only to come back after two years; this is likely his last shot at an Olympic medal.

Asked if he was happy about his finish, he sarcastically replied, "Of course I'm happy with fourth place," before adding, "Of course it sucks." As Demong said: "We all share in [Spillane's] success. Now I am sure this motivates us so much more to get our own."

In other words, you've got nine days to buy those cowbells.

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