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Americans provide a thrill by taking silver in Nordic combined

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; D07

VANCOUVER, B.C. I can't explain when I fell in love with Nordic combined, or why. I only know that I did. Years ago, before Johnny Spillane and Bill Demong and Brett Camerota -- but not before Todd Lodwick -- before I had ever seen it in person, much less on television. I read about the sport and fell in love with the idea of it, I guess. Sort of like an eHarmony profile.

Maybe it's the quirky factor, but curling is quirky and I don't feel the love. Although I have curled. I certainly haven't combined. Well, I've ridden in a combine. I haven't Nordic combined.

Usually my weird obsessions have their roots in the Midwest. This one does not. I can't ski a lick, not even in a straight line, which is about the only way you can ski in Kansas. Ski jumping, as performed by me, would be shish-kabobbing.

So why? Why did I come this close to violating the most basic tenet of sports writing Tuesday for the first time in 26 years and begin cheering in the press box -- or the Olympic equivalent -- when the United States won a silver medal in the team event?

Beats me. Who cares? Huzzah!

"This is huge," Lodwick said. "I think it's bigger than words to describe it."

My editor and I decided to keep me off the mountain, on the slim chance that Germany beat Canada in hockey and our hosts decided just to blow out the big candle and send everyone home. So I watched from the Main Press Center as those plucky U.S. boys came within 5.2 seconds of winning the team event. Austria took gold, with Germany winning bronze.

(A German journalist tried to change the channel at the start of the relay. Nein! cried I.)

The silver was the second Nordic combined medal for the United States in 10 days -- after a drought of 86 years. Spillane won a silver medal on Valentine's Day in the individual normal hill event, the first for the United States since the Winter Games began in 1924.

Tuesday's result was historic in more ways than one. The silver gave the United States its 26th medal of these Games, setting a record for total medals won by Americans in a Winter Olympics not held on U.S. soil. The U.S. record for a Winter Games is 34 medals, set in Salt Lake City in 2002.

But history, schmistory. What a day! What a race! What a time to be a Nordic combined fan!

Trust me.

The Americans' finish in the individual event -- Spillane was second, Lodwick fourth and Demong sixth -- had raised expectations for the team event to a fever pitch. Well, for me, anyway. The team event consists of one jump by each of four competitors. The score of each athlete -- a combination of speed and distance -- is used to determine the starting order for the 4x5-kilometer cross-country relay.

And the United States was perfectly positioned for a medal after the ski jumping. Camerota, Demong and Spillane each finished third in their respective groups. But the 33-year-old Lodwick blew away the field in his group with a jump of 136.5 meters for a 132.2 score. When the scores were tallied, the U.S. team was just 1.2 points behind Finland. That gave the Finns just a two-second head start in the cross-country race, with Austria an additional 34 seconds behind.

Camerota, 25, the least experienced member of the team, led off the relay, followed by Lodwick, Spillane and Demong. The four have competed in a combined (ha ha!) 15 Olympics.

Camerota skied a strong opening leg, passing the Finn near the end and handing a 2.6-second lead to Lodwick. David Kreiner of Austria passed Lodwick about midway through the second leg, but the American stayed on his bindings and took the lead back with about seven-tenths of a kilometer to go. At the end of two legs, the U.S. team had a 0.4 second lead over Austria, with France moving up to third.

Spillane, 30, lost the lead to Felix Gottwald of Austria, who is ranked second in the world. I have Gottwald on my Nordic combined fantasy team. Not really; I wasn't able to get him in the draft. He built a lead of more than 14 seconds.

But here came Demong, who skied from 24th to sixth place in the individual event. If anyone could get the lead back, it was Demong. And he did. He just couldn't hold it. Mario Stecher, ranked sixth in the world, put on a surge at the end and the gold was lost.

In 2002, the U.S. team, which included Lodwick, Spillane and Demong, was fourth, its best finish in the team event before Tuesday. (True story: As an editor, I assigned a Lodwick feature before the Salt Lake City Games, and the reporter thought I was kidding and never wrote it. I don't kid about Todd Lodwick.)

"Home soil, home country, and to be fourth was bad," Lodwick said. "This is redemption. It hasn't sunk in yet, what we've accomplished today."

Four years ago in Turin, the trio was part of the team that finished a disappointing seventh. Lodwick retired after Turin and stayed away from the sport for two years before making a comeback. It seems unlikely he'll hang around four more years, but I will if he will.

Other than making me happy, is it important for the United States to do well in Nordic combined? Not really, except that NBC won't televise it if the Americans don't do well, and these performances in Vancouver ensure that (1) other athletes might be tempted to try it, now that they've seen it, keeping talent in the pipeline, and (2) when I'm old(er) and gray(er) and watching the Olympics from my La-Z-Boy, as God intended, I'll still be able to see my favorite Winter Olympic sport.

Oh joy delicious.

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