U.S. Wins Its First Olympic Gold in Nordic Skiing

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February 25, 2010

With all the success the USA has seen in Vancouver, nobody should be surprised to see the stars and stripes bring home another gold. But in the Nordic combined? Since an American had never medaled in the event before these Olympics, it seemed like a long shot.

It was, but Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane nonetheless earned the gold and silver medals, respectively, in the large hill edition of the Nordic combined on Thursday in Whistler, B.C. Austria's Bernhard Gruber finished third.

The Americans have struggled historically in Nordic sports — biathlon, ski jumping, Nordic combined and cross-country skiing — winning just two Olympic medals ever in the events before their Vancouver breakthrough. One came way back in 1924 when Anders Haugen brought home the bronze in ski jumping in Chamonix, France, while Bill Koch claimed a silver in cross-country skiing for Team USA in 1976.

The Nordic combined, an event that couples ski jumping and cross-country skiing, has been dominated by the Norwegians throughout Olympic history, a reasonable fact given that they invented the sport. All three Nordic combined events (large hill, normal hill and team) begin with the ski jump, with the longest jumpers getting a head start on the field for the 10-kilometer free-technique cross-country ski race.

The large hill was the final event of the three and, and Spillane took silver in each one of them, surpassing the U.S.'s previous Nordic medal total by himself.

The Americans worked together on the 10-kilometer ski, and the eventual top finishers were aided considerably by teammate Todd Lodwick, who finished 13th.

"Once I saw those two guys pull away, I jumped in front [of the chase group] and tried to slow down the pace," Lodwick told ESPN.com.

By freezing out much of the other competition, Lodwick was able to create a 49-second gap between Demong and the chase pack at the three-quarter turn, all but assuring the USA of two spots on the podium.

Demong and Spillane took advantage of some controversy in the ski jumping to get a sizable cushion in the cross-country portion of the event. Many of the world's top Nordic skiers were hampered by wet snow and a driving tail wind that shortened their jumps and put them too far back in the pack to be a factor, especially with Lodwick's stifling defense in front of them. Gruber and a few others capitalized with better conditions during their runs.

The tough conditions drew varied reactions from the skiers.

"It's a joke," Norway's Magnus Moan told ESPN.com on his way to a 15th-place finish.

Lodwick was much more forgiving of the elements.

"It's an outdoor sport," said Lodwick. "The jury can do what they can do. They can't really control nature.?

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