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Bill Demong makes Nordic history

PAUL ROBBINS, Special to the Record

Nothing like lowered expectations to help someone relax…and when an athlete relaxes, sometimes he or she can produce an epic result.

The latest Exhibit A: Bill Demong, freshly minted Nordic combined silver medalist from the just-closed 2007 Nordic World Championships in Sapporo, Japan.

Demong, 26 and a three-time Olympian who survived a fractured skull in a fluke swimming pool mishap in the summer of 2002, is skiing the best of his career. But when he struggled a bit in jump training last week during windy times in Sapporo, he felt he was losing his focus – it’s only at the Olympics or Worlds that skiers spend two weeks or more in one place during the winter.

"I was losing my expectation," he said, referring to his pre-Worlds feeling that his best chance for a medal would be in Saturday’s traditional combined event, i.e., two jumps on a normal hill (in this case, the 100-meter Miyanomori venue) and a 15-kilometer race. So he took a deep breath and relaxed; maybe it wouldn’t be his day, anyway, despite all the preparation.

"It was good today to come into this just trying to do my best," instead of focusing (and goosing the pressure level) on a specific result. Relax and let ‘er rip.

"Everything just clicked. I knew when I got up that I could do well today," he said. "I had a good feeling," after reviewing videos Friday night of good jumps he’d made and discussing things with his coaches, including Park City’s Dave Jarrett.

Demong, the unofficial co-captain of the U.S. combined squad with Johnny Spillane, is a bit of a Nordic nomad from New York’s Lake Placid region – but a Park City resident for nearly five years. He’s been here since the combined team relocated its training base from Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the western slope of the Rockies to Utah Olympic Park and the Wasatch.

At the Nordic Worlds, he jumped to eighth place in the individual competition. He was a minute and 40 seconds back of jumping leader Jason Lamy Chappuis, the Frenchman who was born in Montana when his parents attended the University of Montana.

Demong had one race plan: keep moving forward. In combined, skiers start the race in a handicap formula based on jump results. The jump leader goes out and the others stalk him, their start based on how far back they were in the points. Eighth place is okay, just 100 seconds in a 15K – when you’re skiing like Demong’s been racing this winter – is totally do-able.

And he went out and did it.

"I just kept looking forward, kept looking ahead. I had Atomic rockets and I kept pushing them forward all the time," he said.

While German Ronny Ackermann, fifth after jumping, skied off to his third consecutive individual championships, Demong kept reeling in skiers ahead of him. He caught Anssi Koivuranta of Finland on the final lap, shadowed him and then simply – well, not so simply – out-sprinted him over the last 100 meters to finish second, two-tenths of a second up on the Finn.

U.S. medals in alpine, freestyle and snowboarding are commonplace. In Nordic, it’s blue-moon time. There have been only five Olympic or Worlds medals earned since the Olympics began in 1924 – two in cross-country (both by Bill Koch), one in jumping (a bronze by Anders Haugen in the first Olympics) and two in Nordic combined, starting just four years ago when Spillane won gold in the combined sprint in Italy…and now Demong’s silver snowflake.

He had to work for it. Determination isn’t enough at this level. Even when it seemed he was about to go past Koivuranta, the drama really climbed. They came down a straightaway in the stadium and took a sharp left-hand turn into the three-lane straightaway to the finish. Except they both chose the same lane!

"I made my turn into the first lane, the one on the left, and Anssi pulled over in front of me," Demong said. "It was like he was trying to pinch me into the boards [tent-like markers to identify the course] on my left…"

So he had to thread his way past the Finn over the last stretch; they skied side by side for a bit and Demong inched ahead, and when they got to the finish line, Demong stuck out his left ski and claimed a place in U.S. skiing history as a medalist at Worlds.

It was a kind of a replay for him. On back-to-back weekends in January, Demong lost a photo finish for third place. After the second one, he vowed, "I cut the difference in half over last week, and the next time it happens, I’m going to win the photo finish."

It was as if he willed himself Saturday to beat the photo finish and collect the silver medal without any need for a ruling. It was his first top-10 result at the Olympics or Worlds…and it was a beauty.

It also was a long way from that summer day when, after a Summer Grand Prix event in Winterberg, Germany, he dove into the darkened hotel swimming pool – without turning on the lights. He would have noticed there was barely any water in the pool. Demong fractured his skull and was pulled from the pool by teammate Carl Van Loan.

He says now that was the best thing that could have happened to him because it gave him a year off, gave him the opportunity to see how much he missed skiing…and, having re-stoked the fire of competition, kept him in the sport when he easily might have pulled it over and finished his college studies.

"To be honest," he told a teleconference at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Sapporo time, (12:30 p.m. MT) just before he headed to the airport for this coming weekend’s events in Lahti, Finland, "sitting out a year was probably one of the reasons I’m here now. That was a big growth year. That sort of reset my clock and taught me a lot."

He couldn’t ski jump, so Demong focused on cross-country skiing. He did a few races, including the fabled American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, took some classes at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat, pounded some nails on a construction crew, and got to reassess his sport. He loved it even more, he decided.

"I attribute a lot of the success I’m having now to the hard work and the drive I gained from that year off," he said. He never thought for a moment about retirement, perhaps after the 2006 Games in Torino; he committed himself through the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, he said.

"I always said I’d keep going as long as I’m getting better each year. And I’m still improving." And he’s got a silver medal to prove it.


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