Gold win will help grow Nordic in U.S.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The term "Greatest Day in American Nordic Combined History" has a shelf life these Olympics of raw meat, potato salad and reality show opening-episode casualties.

First, Johnny Spillane won a silver medal in the individual normal hill/10km, the first time Americans had ever medaled in the discipline, an accomplishment rightly hailed as historic and perhaps game-changing for the sport in this country. A week later, the United States took the silver in the team event, which Todd Lodwick pronounced as America's greatest day ever in Nordic combined (and as a five-time Olympian, he should know). And Thursday, the U.S. leaped even further when Billy Demong earned America's first gold medal in the event, winning the large hill/10km with Spillane taking silver.

"It definitely has not sunk in yet, but every hour or two, I get a glance at the reality and it gives me chills," Demong said Thursday evening of the significance of winning America's first Nordic gold. "I don't know what to say, but in 10 years, maybe I will. Right now, I'm focused on the fact that we came in as a team that had expectations that met our abilities and we achieved them. My only hope is we did some long-term good for the sport and will get young kids trying it and building the program more."

Hear that, America? Time to start building some ski jumps in the backyard. Or at least for Nintendo to release a killer Wii Nordic combined.

"It's an exciting sport," Demong said after the race. "I hear more and more people that are coming out to watch. I love this sport. It is becoming more mainstream. That popularity is really important for our sport."

Well, becoming more mainstream is a relative term. But at least people no longer ask whether they carry rifles in their sport. And it isn't so far-fetched to imagine the sport growing with the team's success. Action sports are increasingly popular, and Nordic combined really is exciting to watch. Demong said what he likes about the sport is that it has the thrill of ski jumping but that unlike the near-anorexic ski jumpers, you can actually eat something beyond a rice cake in Nordic combined and unlike cross-country skiers, you don't have to wake up at dawn and ski all day long.

Which is not to imply the sport isn't every bit as demanding as any other. All winning that first gold required was decades of competing in the sport for the U.S. overall. And competing in four Olympics personally for Demong. As well as living in a bunkhouse chopping wood for heat and fishing for his dinner. And overcoming a skull fracture suffered after he foolishly attempted a dive into the shallow end of a pool. And finishing one frustrating spot short of the podium in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Then working another eight long years before finally grabbing that medal.

"Honestly, if we had medaled like we planned in 2002 when I was 21, I would have skipped town and gotten on with my life," Demong said. "And that would have been a major mistake. Having gone through all this makes it so much more enjoyable. The major difference between now and then is we were trying to believe we belonged, but we didn't fully believe we deserved it like we do now."

Demong, Spillane and Lodwick are extremely close, training together so much (300 days a year, they say) that they spend more time with each other than with their families.

"Part of the recipe for our success has been that, 14, 15 years ago, we bought into the idea of living together and being together," Demong said. "All of us have carried each other, allowing us to build on each other. I know that today Todd did everything for us in controlling the group behind us. In my mind, I know he's entitled as much to this medal as me."

The U.S. came tantalizingly close to gold in the previous two events here. Spillane and Lodwick held the lead in the individual normal hill/10km before being passed in the final stretch (Lodwick finished fourth). Skiing the anchor leg of Tuesday's team relay, Demong was neck-and-neck with Mario Stecher heading into the stadium, but couldn't hang with the Austrian, who better calculated the best wax for the snowy conditions.

The wax, the skis, the conditions and, most importantly, the many years of training finally all came together Thursday. Although some others might question those conditions. Because of high winds, the jump was halted and skiers who already had done their jumps had to go again. Demong finished the jump in sixth place, which gave him a 46-second deficit behind the leader, Austria's Bernhard Gruber. Spillane was 34 seconds back.

With Lodwick working to slow the pace of skiers in the back (the tactics of cross-country skiing are similar to cycling), Demong and Spillane controlled the lead. The two alternated first and second until the final stretch, when Demong, the fastest skier on the team, bolted away to the gold. "I think if I didn't have the energy that comes with crossing that line to a medal, I would have fallen on my face," he said.

Instead, he landed atop the podium, which must have provided a pretty nice view of how far he and his teammates have taken the sport.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.