Bill Demong

U.S. Nordic combined seeks encore after 2010 Olympic breakthrough

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Go out on top? Bill Demong had every reason to Feb. 25, 2010.

The Vermontville, N.Y., native had won the first U.S. Olympic gold medal in Nordic combined, capping a bountiful Games for the team, successfully proposed to his girlfriend and was named the Closing Ceremony flagbearer. All on the same day.

His post-Olympic spoils would include throwing out the first pitch at a Mets game (perhaps not so prized in recent seasons), meeting President Barack Obama and renovating his Park City home with his wife, Katie. He took up cycling and enjoyed the gold-medal life.

Demong earned a break after about 15 years cultivating the U.S. Nordic combined program, along with Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick. Enough “What is Nordic combined?” questions. Enough cash-strapped European adventures, like crashing at a German mental institution for $14 a night.

But he felt compelled to come back.

“I really didn’t think our program was at a point where they could afford to lose all its best guys at once,” said Demong, who famously fractured his skull diving head-first into a shallow swimming pool in 2002. “I really felt I needed to stay on as a measuring stick, as a mentor.”

Demong (an Olympian since 1998), Spillane (since 2002) and Lodwick (since 1994) all stayed on, but the road the last three seasons has not been paved with gold.

Americans won zero medals at the 2011 World Championships and made a total of four podium appearances over more than 50 World Cup races the last three seasons.

Spillane tore an ACL and MCL jumping off a cliff into a lake five months after the Vancouver Olympics. He retired in April.

Lodwick battled asthma issues. He’s now 37 and hoping to make an American record sixth Winter Olympic team.

A new-and-old U.S. team hopes to regain that 2010 Olympic form the next two months. It began this weekend at the first World Cup event in Finland.

Financial issues remain, but these guys are having fun.

Demong and one of the team’s emerging stars, Taylor Fletcher, engaged in playful bets the last two seasons. They resulted in Fletcher wearing a Captain America suit and Demong dressing as Aquaman in Europe.

“It’s a good punishment,” Demong said. “That kind of attitude and those antics keep us fresh, light, motivated. You don’t want to be the guy wearing the costume for two weeks.”

On Feb. 24, the U.S. won its first World Championships medal since 2009, a bronze in a team event. They were powered by stars-and-stripes mustaches.

Demong’s favorite training partner — Scout

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But what about Demong? He’s yet to work his way back into Olympic medal favorite form with one individual World Cup podium finish since Vancouver and 15th- and 23rd-place finishes at the World Championships in February.

The confidence is still there, though.

“The thing that tipped me toward coming back is I’m really now at my peak physical age,” Demong, 33, said. “I definitely feel like I’m coming back as a contender.”

Perhaps the greater threats are the Fletcher brothers, Bryan and Taylor. They’ve steadily moved up the World Cup ladder (bettering Demong and Lodwick last year) and, in their mid-20s, can carry U.S. Nordic combined after Sochi.

“Now, I can comfortably walk away and know that we’ve successfully passed the baton,” Demong said.

Cross-country season storylines

French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

Karolina Pliskova
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No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Later Thursday, top-ranked Novak Djokovic had a second straight win ceding just five games, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 over Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis. Djokovic undefeated in 2020 save his U.S. Open default for smacking a ball that inadvertently struck a linesperson, next gets Colombian lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galán.

Nobody else in Djokovic’s half of the draw at the start of the tournament made a French Open semifinal before.

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

MORE: Serena Williams ‘struggling to walk’

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

Nathan Chen
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Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix Series until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

MORE: Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch

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