Lap after lap, Olympic champion Billy Demong chased Italy's Lukas Runggaldier. It was just 18 hours since he flew over 4,000 miles back to Soldier Hollow to hopefully pickup a win or two in the FIS Nordic Combined Continental Cup to gain the U.S. Ski Team an extra quota spot on the World Cup vital in preparation for Sochi.
Up the draw out of the stadium, past the Day Lodge, screaming down the twists and turns, Demong couldn't shake him. The two were stride for stride coming into the 2002 Olympic stadium. Finally, on the very last turn into the finish, Demong made a strategic move to cutoff Runggaldier from the inside corner. Then it was a horse race to the finish with Demong taking the win by a mere second.
That was Billy Demong the athlete. Now, meet Billy Demong the ambassador. Before he had even caught his breath, Demong had his arm around Runggaldier a friend from the World Cup and congratulated him on the battle. Demong apologized, of sort, for his sprint to victory. After all, this was his home course. Maybe in Italy, it would have been different. They shook hands as friends and rivals.
Then the 2010 Olympic champion spotted a crowd of 25 Soldier Hollow Charter School kids alongside the track. He skied over to welcome and thank them for coming out. The kids were mesmerized, peppering him with questions. He answered them all patiently and with genuine excitement. He was clearly right at home!
"Thinking back to my own experience meeting (1976 Olympic silver medalist) Bill Koch at the Bill Koch Youth Ski League Championships in 1988, I know how powerful having successful role models can be for kids," said Demong, a Lake Placid native who is now raising a family in Park City. "I also know that as athletes age and develop, they need accessible mentors who can share their own trials and tribulations.
There's been a lot of talk lately about Olympic Legacy. On the eve of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Utah is pulling out all the stops. This weekend's Olympic Trials in Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined are not only a showcase of elite talent, but an evolution of the grassroots programs that have provided thousands of local boys and girls with an opportunity to be like Billy Demong.
It's the very reason Demong is at Soldier Hollow, where staff and volunteers have set aside their own resort holiday preparations to give U.S. athletes a better opportunity to be Best in the World. "Our staff gives up a lot for events like this," said Soldier Hollow's Howard Peterson, himself one of the key visionaries of Utah's Olympic Legacy when he was USSA Secretary General in the late '80s. "It gives them a great feeling to know that their work helped athletes."
That vision is not lost on Demong, who has made Park City his home. "Venues like the Utah Olympic Park and Soldier Hollow are the pinnacle of Olympic Legacy. Venues that have maintained economic viability and continue to create opportunity for youth participation in Olympic Sports as well as hosting high-level international competitions that our developing athletes desperately need for experience. On top of it all, these venues serve as bright ambassadors of the Winter Olympic sports and models for the IOC and future hosts to aspire to through their sustainability and commitment to Winter Sport."
This weekend Billy Demong will be a part of the extension of that legacy in the Olympic Trials where aspiring Olympians will look to start down the road to the realization of their own dreams.
By the way, Demong's return to the USA was successful, winning two of three races at Soldier Hollow and earning that quota spot. Thanks to the Utah Olympic Park and Soldier Hollow for making the opportunity possible.
It was a great way to start the holiday. Merry Christmas!
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.