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Saturday, February 16, 2002
 
Americans chase first Nordic combined team medal

Associated Press


PARK CITY, Utah -- The U.S. Nordic combined team's 0-for-23 medal streak could end Sunday. The fans can feel it, the Americans expect it, and even the mighty Europeans must sense it.

Todd Lodwick finally has the help he needs to propel the U.S. team into medal contention.

Proving they're no longer just Todd Lodwick and a bunch of other guys, the U.S. team, featuring three Coloradans, soared into third place after the opening half of the team competition Saturday.

"We're feeling like we've got a real good chance to do something special tomorrow," said Lodwick, whose strong first jump sent a strong message on the smaller hill at Olympic Park. "I'll be surprised if we're not sliding for a medal tomorrow."

The Americans will start Sunday's 20-kilometer cross-country relay at Soldier Hollow 1 minute, 34 seconds behind Finland, by far the best jumping team at these Olympics. Austria is second, 44 seconds back.

Although the United States has no medals in 23 Nordic combined events at 19 Olympics, Lodwick, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., virtually predicted one in the team competition after he took seventh in last week's individual race. It was the best showing ever by an American in the sport. Seventh also is the best U.S. team finish, in 1994.

Lodwick was on that team, as well as the 1998 team that struggled to 10th. But he's never had as much help as this year. Teammate Bill Demong, of Vermontville, N.Y., who fell in Nagano, had the team's best jump on Saturday, landing 94.5 meters down the hill and scoring 126 points on his final attempt.

"The guys have put so much pressure on themselves," said coach Tom Steitz. "We're our own worst enemy, but today every one of them is going to go home and feel good about themselves."

Lodwick's first jump, scored at 119.5 points by distance and style, gave the Americans the early lead, but they promptly fell to fourth after a weak jump by Matt Dayton, of Breckenridge, Colo., who's a much better skier than jumper. He scored 97.5 before improving by six points on his second try.

"I was a little bit off at the takeoff, and I let one of my skis drop down a little bit," Dayton said. "But we're definitely in good shape for a medal."

Johnny Spillane, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., the other U.S. member, did his part by not making any mistakes.

Flag-waving Americans in the crowd anticipated a big finish from Demong, and he delivered with a perfect takeoff and landing that helped the U.S. team leapfrog Japan and Germany into third.

"We all really decided to let the crowd help us, to enjoy it, to bask in it," Demong said. "It really worked for us. I knew it was going to be a different jump and I felt like I tagged into one."

The competition was delayed by two days because of swirling winds, and the U.S. athletes used the downtime to build each other's confidence.

"The last couple days, we just sat down and had a meeting, and we were like, `Let's just go out there and have some fun,"' Lodwick said.

The Americans are counting on their skiing proficiency to make up the deficit Sunday, and Dayton could be the key. He had only the 33rd-best jump in the individual competition but moved all the way up to 18th in the next day's 15K race.

Finland, looking for its first gold in an event added to the Olympic program in 1988, showed its depth by recording four of the top six jumps. Samppa Lajunen, the gold medalist in the individual, had the two best marks at 128 and 129.5 points.