U.S. falters down the stretch of Nordic combined

MIDWAY, Utah -- The U.S. media officer opened the news conference by gushing, "This is the greatest day in the history of U.S. Nordic combined skiing!"

Next to him sat the U.S. team. The four Nordic combined skiers stared ahead as if enduring an IRS audit. If this was the greatest day in the team's history, what kind of agony must the worst have been?

After years of work, after years of improvement and after a superb third-place showing in the ski jump segment Saturday, the U.S. skiers awoke Sunday confident they would end the afternoon wearing their country's first Olympic medal in the event. Instead, they skied poorly in the final 4x5-kilometer cross-country race and finished fourth, a minute behind Austria for the bronze medal.

Fourth place might have been the best-ever finish for the U.S. in Nordic combined, but that didn't mean much Sunday.

Three-time Olympian Todd Lodwick attempted to answer one question and had to stop, his voice cracking and his eyes welling with tears. And that, mind you, was a gigantic emotional improvement from the end of the race, when Lodwick collapsed in the snow and needed to breathe through an oxygen mask.

"We don't do this for media attention, we do it because we love the sport," teammate Billy Demong said. "That's why a day like this is so hard. Not because we had to go in there and talk about how we felt to you guys but because this meant so much to us."

It means so much to them and so little to virtually everyone else. There are few winter Olympic sports Americans ignore more than cross-country skiing or ski jumping, and Nordic combined allows us to ignore both.

"Even people who consider themselves knowledgeable about skiing, they don't always know what the event is," Demong said. "There will be people who are into alpine skiing who will ask if it's a new sport. And it's really the oldest sport."

The United States has never medaled in a Nordic combined event though, going 0-for-24 in Olympic competition. After placing third in the ski jump Saturday, the U.S. team was in prime position to end the Olympic drought, entering the 4x5K relay with a six-second lead over the fourth-place Japanese. The team went to bed dreaming about the medal platform. Bronze, for sure, and possibly silver.

"After yesterday's jumping, we definitely were dreaming it," Demong said. "And believing it."

Lodwick skied the first leg and ran out of gas in the final kilometer as he climbed the final, exhausting hill. The German skier caught him in the final stretch and the United States never led again. Just after the German passed him, Lodwick tagged Demong, collapsed in a heap and lay virtually motionless for about five minutes. With help, he finally stood up and leaned on a barrier for support. When Demong finished his leg, Lodwick was back lying on the snow with an oxygen mask, but Demong was so delirious from his own exhausting race that, "I didn't even realize that was unusual, I was so out of it."

"I was on a different planet," Lodwick said. "I gave it my all and it wasn't enough."

"Todd put a lot of pressure on himself to do well here," Demong said. "Todd's been in this for the past decade through all the near-misses and the far-misses. He wanted this more than I can fathom."

What do these guys go through to compete here? Matt Dayton estimates he has a concussion a year from ski jumping. A couple months ago, Demong landed poorly, scraped a layer of skin from his face against the snow and knocked himself unconscious. The next day he was on a plane back home, his face smothered in Vaseline to relieve the pain. Barely a week later, he was back competing -- and finished in the top 10.

The four live and train in Steamboat Springs, seeing each other more than their families. Lodwick lives in a condo and the rest stay with families who take them in. Demong lives in a three-room bunkhouse called the "chicken coop" because legend has it that's what the building was originally. "The chickens are gone but we have goats," he said.

Goats? Does Michelle Kwan live with goats?

In a way then, the day was the epitome of the sport in this country. The U.S. team raced until they collapsed to the ground, raced until they required oxygen masks and medical attention, giving so much of themselves they still were choking back tears 90 minutes after the finish. And at the end of the day they had no medals, no Olympic moment, and no medal ceremony with Sheryl Crow, adoring fans and fireworks.

"We had a great day jumping yesterday and we had 24 hours to deal with the pressure and expectations," U.S. coach Tom Steitz said. "And if there was a little pressure, maybe that was a small part of why we didn't have it today. And as tough as this is for these guys, I've been at these press conferences after finishing last. If you think this is bad, try being 15th out of 15."

The team is not only improving, it is young -- Lodwick is the oldest at 26. They will come to grips with Sunday and move on. They will return to the training sessions and the World Cup circuit and the goats. And they will be back in four years, still trying to finally earn the elusive medal.

"I'm not going to become a bum and start drinking alcohol in the streets because we didn't get a medal," Dayton said. "You go on with your life. There are other chances, other opportunities."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.