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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Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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