WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Gasping for air, American Johnny Spillane was gliding toward the finish line, cowbells clanking in his ears, the stars and stripes shimmering in the stands, a gold medal and greatness both within his grasp.
Just a stride and a half away from being crowned an Olympic champion, out of his right eye Spillane caught the blur of a black and white ski suit as France's Jason Lamy Chappuis zoomed past. Spillane was too exhausted and too exhilarated to care.
His silver medal in the Nordic combined normal hill event Sunday marked the first time the Americans had ever climbed the Olympic podium in the sport dominated since its inception by the Europeans.
"Today was a pretty good day for me," Spillane said. "Overall, I'm very satisfied with the result."
Chappuis, the World Cup leader who was born in Missoula, Mont., but who has always raced for France, won the race in 25 minutes and 47.1 seconds, four-tenths of a second ahead of Spillane.
Italy's Alessandro Pittin won the bronze, finishing eight-tenths of a second behind Chappuis and just ahead of American Todd Lodwick, who missed out on the podium by seven-tenths of a second.
Billy Demong, of Vermontville, N.Y., gave the Americans a 2-4-6 finish as he made up for a poor jump that had him starting in 24th place.
Spillane's was only the third Olympic medal in Nordic sports for the Americans, joining Bill Koch, who won the silver in cross-country skiing in 1976, and Anders Haugen, who took the bronze in the ski jump in the inaugural 1924 Games -- although his medal wasn't awarded until a-half century later after a historian discovered a scoring error.
"After 86 years of trying, we are actually legitimate," said former U.S. coach Tom Steitz, who maintains close ties to the American team. "How do you boil up 86 years of frustration? You don't. Everybody starts crying. We are all going to sit around tonight and drink champagne and touch the medal."
Chappuis said he had given up hope of catching Spillane until he saw the American was spent and slowing down upon reaching the stadium at Whistler Olympic Park after having pushed the pace for so long.
"On the last hill, I honestly didn't think I could get the gold medal," Chappuis said. "But then he slowed down a little bit entering the stadium and I had really good skis, so my glide was a little bit better than him, maybe.
"I knew I had the power to pass him."
And he just barely had enough distance to do it.
Spillane was satisfied with silver.
"At that point, I was just happy there was no one else going by me," he said. "I was really tired."
It was the closest finish in a Nordic combined event at the Olympics.
"Four-tenths of a second is, you know, a snap of your fingers," lamented U.S. coach Dave Jarrett.
Spillane and Lodwick, both of Steamboat Springs, Colo., took turns leading the way for much of the race. Spillane looked to have an insurmountable lead as he made his final turn, but Chappuis beat him to the line to win the event which featured one jump on the normal hill and a 10-kilometer cross-country race.
"It's a good day," Jarrett said. "Could it have been better? Yeah. But we're not that greedy."
As Spillane had the finish line in his sights, Chappuis used shorter strides to sweep past him in the nick of time for his first Olympic medal.
"I thought Johnny was going to win going away," Jarrett said. "But there's a reason why Jason is leading the World Cup and has almost clinched the title before almost half the season is over. No. 1, he's been one of the best jumpers all year, and No. 2, he's always there in the last 100 meters sprinting for the victory."
Lodwick, the reigning world champion, started in second place behind Finland's Janne Ryynaenen, who had the longest jump of the day. Spillane started in fourth, 44 seconds behind Ryynaenen and Chappuis in fifth, 46 seconds behind the leader.
Once hopelessly behind the Germans, Austrians, Russians, Norwegians and Finns, the U.S. Nordic combined ski team is now one of the world's powers following its domination of last year's world championships and Spillane's silver medal Sunday.
"I hope it means it will be that much easier to get another," Demong said. "It's always about getting that first one out of the way. So, that makes Todd and I that much more fired up and ready to go for next week."
The Americans will return to Park City, Utah, to train for the relay event on Feb. 23 and the large hill competition on Feb. 25, two more golden opportunities for Lodwick and Demong to also reach the podium.
"It's good to have the monkey off our back and know that we've done it," Jarrett said. "But we still have a goal ahead of us."
Winds blew in just as the World Cup heavyweights were about to jump down the normal hill Sunday, keeping distances down and pushing some of the best skiers to the back of the pack for the cross-country portion of the race, Norway's Magnus Moan and Austria's Felix Gottwald among them.
Chappuis jumped last but managed the fifth-best result, just close enough to the lead to grab the gold from Spillane.
"He's always welcome to change his citizenship to the U.S. and join our team," Jarrett said with a mischievous grin.