Wednesday, February 10, 2010

U.S. finally on the right nordic track


By JEROME SOLOMON Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Billy Demong summed up the mental approach for the U.S. nordic combined ski team at the 2010 Winter Olympics thusly:
“Compared to the past, we're not trying to believe that we can. We don't believe that we will. But we believe that we can.”
Huh? Did he get that from Dr. Phil or Yogi Berra?
“There's a subtle difference between those three,” Demong said. “We're in the good place.”
A place the U.S. team has never been.
At a pre-Games news conference Tuesday, the U.S. team sounded as if it is in a place that could make nordic combined — a combination of ski jumping and cross-country skiing — one of the exciting events of the upcoming Games.
The Americans are downright confident they can make history.
In the wake of the Decade of Destiny for lovable losers (see: Red Sox, White Sox, Saints, etc.), the U.S. nordic combined squad should be the favorite.
There have been 83 medals awarded in the nordic combined — one of the original Winter Games sports — since 1924, and none has gone to an American.
It is more than just a running joke that the last time Canada hosted the Olympics the top finishers were done with their victory news conferences before the U.S. team crossed the finish line.
That was a long time ago.
After slow and steady progress toward respectability, this year's U.S. entry is talking openly about the possibility of a fantasy finish with Americans taking all three spots on the medals stand.
“If things break right, it can be done,” said American Todd Lodwick, who ended a two-year retirement in 2008 and is making his fifth appearance in the Olympics.
That is an indicator of how far the U.S. has come since Calgary in 1988. Demong, Lodwick and Johnny Spillane, the first American to win a world championship (2003), each has a World Cup victory this season.
Lodwick, 33, returned to competition last year to claim the first gold medals (in the individual combined and normal hill sprint) at the world championships in his career. Demong, 29, took gold in the large hill sprint at the same event, setting the stage for this year's expectations.
Though they never swept a World Cup event, the three were 1-2-3 during points in several races this season. The team has even discussed strategy if such a situation were to arise at Whistler Olympic Park.

Put past behind them

This team of world champions, who willingly launch themselves off a ramp into the air at 60 mph, believes this is the year.
“You're only as good as you believe you are,” combined head coach Dave Jarrett said. “You can try to kid yourself thinking that you're better than you are, but these guys have a strong grasp on reality. They know exactly what it takes.
“The three — John, Todd and Bill — have done it on numerous occasions in different conditions, on different jumps and different courses.
“It doesn't have to be an out-of-body experience for them to win.”
Perhaps out-of-body isn't required, but they do need to put out of mind previous Olympic failures.
Demong crashed on his first jump of the team event at the 1998 Olympics, wrecking the team's chances.
In 2002, destiny's team was destined to a fourth-place finish in the team event in Salt Lake when Lodwick was overtaken in the first leg of the relay race.
Lodwick had the best finish (fifth and seventh) in individual events four years ago at Torino, leaving the U.S. in its current medals-free status. He retired after the disappointment, thinking he would never earn an Olympic medal.
But he and the U.S. team are back this time with a new mindset. Time and working with a sports psychologist, as many elite athletes these days do, have helped them reach a different level.

No more ‘what-if'

“There are great expectations,” Lodwick said. “We're talking about it, not just asking, ‘What if?'
“It's not that we're medals hopefuls, we're contenders in the sport, and that's a big step for us and it's a good feeling. It's not a nervous feeling.
“It just seems like this Olympic Games is different. It seems like it's a little bit of destiny.”
This team believes in destiny.
“Of course we believe,” Demong said. “We know that we're good enough to do it.”


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