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WINTER OLYMPIC PARK — The U.S. Nordic combined quartet embraced in a group hug — while the Austrians piled onto winning anchor Mario Stecher.
Brett Camerota, Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Bill Demong had just took silver — their sport’s first American team relay medal at the Olympics.
“This is the greatest moment in Nordic combined history for the USA, and we’ve earned it,” said Lodwick, 33, who ended a two-year retirement in 2008 for last year’s world championships and a fifth chance at Olympic glory.
Calling it the biggest accomplishment in team history says a lot, considering that Lodwick, Spillane and Demong have each won individual world championships in the sport that combines ski jumping and Nordic skiing. Spillane also won the first Olympic medal, a silver in the individual Normal hill/10K, on Feb. 14.
“The greatest part about this medal for me is I get to share it with my teammates,” said Lodwick, of Steamboat Springs, Colo.
The team received their hardware hours later at a ceremony attended by several thousand at the Whistler Medals Plaza. It was the Austrians, however, who got to hear their national anthem there after coming from behind to edge the Americans by 5.2 seconds following one ski jump per person and later the 4X5-kilometer relay.
“As much as it’s hard not to win ... I think everybody can be satisfied because we gave 100 percent effort,” said Spillane, also from Steamboat Springs.
After all four Americans executed solid jumps, the U.S. started the relay in second place two seconds after Finland. However, five other dangerous teams — Austria, Japan, France, Germany and Norway — left within 51 seconds of Finland.
Camerota (Park City, Utah), the first-leg skier and least accomplished member of the team, kept the U.S. ahead, though the pack of five cut considerably into its deficit.
“He skied the race of his life,” Lodwick said. Four years earlier, Lodwick infamously called their No. 4 man “the weak link” after the U.S. placed seventh at the Turin Olympics.
Lodwick’s narrow lead was erased by Austrian David Kreiner on the second of their two laps.
Spillane and Austria Felix Gottwald then were tagged at virtually the same time to start the third leg, and Gottwald made a big push in the final kilometer to open a
14-second lead on the Americans.
That forced Demong (Vermontville, N.Y.) to expend energy playing catch-up. He paced himself well and finally reeled Stecher in about two kilometers from the finish. Fearing Stecher’s sprinting ability, Demong tried to drop him on the final climb as snow fell steadily.
“I needed a good four or five seconds (lead) to have a good chance,” Demong said.
But Stecher weathered the attack. Then on the downhill approaching the stadium he generated extra speed with an outside line while Demong took the inside track.
“That was the main reason why I was having this big advantage at the finish line,” said Stecher, noting also that his skis were faster than Demong’s.
Stecher shot past Demong and then poured on his kick to win comfortably. Demong crossed 14 seconds ahead of German Bjoern Kircheisen, whose team took the bronze.
The race was shown on NBC television Tuesday night, and Demong is hoping the team’s success will help increase the popularity of Nordic combined.
“What we hope is that after this, people aren’t going to wait again until Sochi (Olympics in 2014) to watch,” Spillane said. “What we want is for them to pay attention when we’re doing 25 World Cups a year, to pay attention when we’re doing well at World Championships.”
The U.S. Nordic combined squad has also accomplished what the country’s biathlon and Nordic skiing teams talked about doing, but so far haven’t. Biathlon has never won an Olympic medal and its best at the Olympics is ninth place; the cross country skiers haven’t won a medal since 1976 and their best here is sixth.
The Nordic combined team medal was also satisfying for the Americans in light of a fair amount of adversity. Demong, a four-time Olympian, fractured his skull in a 2002 diving accident and cost his team at the World Championships last year after inexplicably losing his bib; Spillane has dealt with a spate of injuries and had knee surgery last year; and Lodwick escaped serious injury after being hit by a car while cycling on the Tour de France course last summer.
Then there was the pain of finishing fourth as a team in 2002 on home soil in Salt Lake City and not having an Olympic breakthrough until last week.
“These things, I think they just make us stronger,” Lodwick said. “We persevered over the last 10 years to get to this spot.”
All that’s eluding them now is an Olympic gold medal. The U.S. will get a final chance in the individual large hill/10K on Thursday.
Contact staff writer Matias Saari at email@example.com.