Nordic combined superstars Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick get mainstream media attention

Posted By: The Ski Channel on February 3, 2010 1:35 pm


Thank you, Vicki Michaelis and USA Today for hipping mainstream media readers to the wonders that are Bill Demong and Todd Lodwick. Click here to go to the source, but here’s what Vicki reported today:

Todd Lodwick retired in 2006 as the most accomplished Nordic combined athlete in U.S. history. Yet he never had medaled in the world championships or the Olympics, so he came back before the 2008-09 season with one goal: “To put some hardware around my neck.”

He did that, in dramatic fashion, winning two world titles in individual events last February. Lodwick, whose previous best individual finish at worlds was 13th, had come a long way in his short time back.

It helped that his U.S. teammates, particularly Billy Demong, also had come a long way in recent years. Lodwick no longer had to carry as heavy a load of expectation.

“He came back in a much better place because the pressure was off,” Demong says. “It wasn’t his responsibility to lead the team anymore.”

Through much of a career that now spans five Olympics, Lodwick, 33, was the leading light for the USA in the sport, which combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing. But in last year’s world championships, Demong also won two individual medals, a gold and a bronze.

“Winning is not as big a pipe dream as it was,” U.S. Nordic combined head coach Dave Jarrett says.

Significant victories are coming with such regularity that Jarrett says winning the first U.S. Olympic medal in Nordic combined at the Vancouver Games won’t take an extraordinary effort. The team event, especially, holds much promise for ending the medal drought. The Olympics also includes two individual events, which begin Feb. 14 at the Whistler venue.

“All it’s going to require is for those guys to do their normal competitions,” Jarrett says.

Different approach

At World Cup events, podium finishes are the new normal for U.S. athletes. Lodwick had two last season, in his first two competitions back, and two this season. Demong had 10 last season (including five wins) and has one victory this season. Johnny Spillane, who won the USA’s first world title in 2003, also has a World Cup win this season.

“I drove the train for a long time,” says Lodwick, who compiled 24 World Cup podium finishes, including six wins, before retiring. “I still feel like I’m at least in the front seat of a two-door pickup, riding shotgun.”

Lodwick says he needed his two-year retirement to realize how much he enjoys the journey — a perspective Demong gained seven years ago, after a harrowing swimming pool accident in 2002 sidelined him for a season.

Demong dived into a shallow pool, and his head hit bottom, causing a 7-inch fracture in his skull but, miraculously, there were no long-term effects. Demong took a season off to allow the injury to fully heal.

He enrolled in college classes, worked as a carpenter and improved his endurance by competing in marathons.

“I definitely credit that experience with where I am today,” says Demong, 29, now a four-time Olympian who grew up near the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic venues. “I think, if I had never gotten hurt, never had time off, I would have found it really hard to find the stamina to stick around this many years. Instead, I came back so fresh and I could see already this far ahead. I knew it was going to take time. I didn’t expect to be fighting for podiums again until 2007 — until I was.”

Demong won a silver medal in the 2007 world championship. The next season, he won six World Cup medals. Then came last year’s week-after-week World Cup successes, culminating with his performance in the world championships.

The biggest factor in the breakthrough, Jarrett says, is Demong’s improved jumping technique, which he altered after 15th- and 25th-place finishes in the 2006 Olympics by gradually pushing his jump positioning to more aggressive levels.

“Ski jumping is really a mental thing, and it took Bill awhile to get to where he is, especially on the jumping hill,” Jarrett says. “But he’s a hard worker. He’s willing to take a chance and change things.”

Demong, a high school cross country runner, also took up cycling after the 2006 Games for offseason training. He entered dozens of bike races the last two summers. Learning bike racing tactics has helped him in cross-country skiing, he says, and the low-impact nature of cycling helps him put in more training miles than he can running.

“There’s definitely a physical benefit in the long term,” Demong says. “There’s also a huge mental benefit. It’s sort of an offseason outlet to go race and also get those hard efforts.”

Jarrett, a U.S. Nordic combined athlete alongside Lodwick and Demong in the 1990s, became the team’s assistant coach in 2002 and head coach in 2008. A kinesiology and applied physiology major in college, he emphasizes much more endurance training for cross-country skiing and power training for jumping.

“We’ve really, really overhauled our approach,” Demong says.

Lodwick has embraced it all, training with more zeal than ever.

“He’ll admit, looking back, that he may have squandered some talent because he was lazy or depending too much on his raw talent and not putting in the work to maximize it,” Jarrett says. “Now he’s willing to do everything he can to make his raw talent that much better.”

Says Lodwick: “Before, it was something I had to do. I had to go run. I had to go roller ski. I had to get on my bike. I had to go to the gym. Those are things I get to do now.”

Lodwick estimates he does “40% more work, probably 100% more of the right work in the right direction.”

Another shot at gold

Lodwick retired on the heels of a disappointing 2006 Games. He hoped to improve on his oh-so-close seventh- and fifth-place individual finishes and fourth-place team finish in the 2002 Games. Instead, he was eighth and ninth in the individual events in 2006, and the team finished seventh.

Lodwick returned to his hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the jumping hills and cross-country course are two blocks from downtown, and began working in real estate, coaching one day a week at the local ski club and spending more time with his wife and daughter, Charley, now 4. He also has a 1-year-old son, Finn.

Six months into his retirement, he was doing TV commentating on a Nordic combined race. As he watched, he was thinking, “What if? What if I did come back?” He started talking with family and friends. His wife had the final say.

“If this is something that you really want to do,” he says she told him, “I don’t want to hear you complain about shoulda, coulda, woulda 10 years from now.”

He told coaches he wanted to earn his way back on the team, and he did, with three consecutive wins on the second-tier Continental Cup circuit to open last season.

“He got a feel for the real world,” Jarrett says. “When he decided to come back, he came back with a real inner purpose. … It’s an intrinsic motivation that ‘I want to do this.’ “

Within months, Lodwick got the spoils he wanted — two world championship gold medals around his neck.

“You look back at people’s careers,” Lodwick says, “and regardless of how many World Cup victories they have, the question always arises, ‘Does he have any medals?’

“I think if you look back at some of the footage from world championships, I’ve never had a bigger smile on my face.”

Now he’s back to his game face. He placed in the top six in all but one of the seven World Cups he competed in this season. In Vancouver, where Lodwick will become the fourth American to compete in five Winter Games (bobsledder Brian Shimer and luger Mark Grimmette and skier Casey Puckett are the others), Olympic fulfillment awaits.

“I’ve got hunger,” Lodwick says. “Yeah, big time. One goal met, but there’s still some goals out there.”