First U.S. Nordic combined medals resonate 10 years later

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Heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics, no American had ever earned a medal in Nordic combined. The U.S. had only won one medal in each of the event’s constituent disciplines — cross-country skiing (Bill Koch in 1976) and ski jumping (Anders Haugen, who was bumped from fourth to third in the 1924 Olympics when a scoring error was discovered 50 years after the fact). 

But the U.S. team had plenty of confidence heading into Whistler Olympic Park. In the 2009 world championships, Todd Lodwick won two individual events; Bill Demong won the other.

In Whistler, with the unprecedented burden of expectations, the team delivered right out of the gate.

In a thrilling finish, with the top four separated by 1.5 seconds, 2003 world champion Johnny Spillane took silver in the normal hill event to break the medal drought. Lodwick finished just out of the medals in fourth.

Spillane would go on to take another silver in a 1-2 U.S. finish behind Demong in the other large hill event. The trio of world champions, along with Brett Camerota, added a fourth medal with a silver in the relay.

“It was a special time for our team,” Spillane said Wednesday. “We came in with high expectations. We were able to get off to a good start and carry that momentum.”

Lodwick made his Olympic debut in 1994 at age 17 and was within striking range of the Olympic podium in 2002, finishing fifth and seventh. Demong debuted in 1998. Spillane followed in 2002.

The Olympics on home snow in Park City proved to be a springboard to greater success. Lodwick kept making World Cup podiums. Demong was third in the World Cup season standings in 2008 and 2009.

“We were in a fortunate position with the Salt Lake Olympics,” Spillane said. “We had really good funding from an early age, and we got put into this development that really committed to being the best in the world.”

All three of the breakthrough U.S. athletes had some setbacks and time off. Demong and Spillane were injured. Lodwick briefly retired before coming back for 2010.

In Whistler, conditions were good, if a little warmer than ideal. In the idiosyncratic schedule that year, athletes had a nine-day wait from the first event to the relay.

The relay was important. The team had finished fourth in 2002 and was anxious to get a medal for everyone.

This time around, the U.S. finished a close second in the ski jump and would start the cross-country relay only two seconds behind Finland, with more than 30 seconds over the rest of the field. Camerota put the U.S. in first place, and Lodwick made it a two-team race with Austria. Spillane kept the U.S. in striking range. A late surge by Austria’s Mario Stecher to deny the U.S. a gold medal, but Demong comfortably crossed the line for silver.

“To finally be able to do it was really important for the team,” Spillane said. “We were able to put it together at the right time getting everyone to have a good day on the same day.”

The relay also ensured a medal for Lodwick, who had carried the flag for Nordic combined for many years. He literally carried the flag in 2014 as the U.S. flag-bearer in the opening ceremony.

The U.S. hasn’t been as successful in the mentally and physically demanding sport before or since that golden run. But the 2010 medal run has inspired younger athletes like Jasper Good, who started on the World Cup circuit as a teenager and made his Olympic debut in 2018.

“How the U.S. guys performed in 2010 had a huge impact on my excitement for the sport of Nordic combined,” Good said by email. “I vividly remember watching these events on a big projector at Olympian Hall in at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. The room was packed, and Ben (Ben Berend, another 2018 Olympian) and I had to stand on trash cans in the back of the room so that we could see what was happening. Amazing times.”

Steamboat Springs is also Spillane’s home. The Colorado resort keeps its jumps in steady use and hosts a Fourth of July event.

“It’s part of the culture here in town,” Spillane said. “The ski jumps are right downtown, so you grow up looking at them.”

With that foundation and people like Demong working with the next generation, Spillane is hopeful for the future.

“We might not see it this year or next year, but maybe 5-10 years from now,” Spillane said.

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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”