Commentary

It's official: USA on Winter map

Updated: February 15, 2010, 3:12 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Pull on the heavy Norwegian sweaters, throw down a shot of aquavit and heat up the fondue pots. America now is a true Winter Olympian.

Sure, the U.S. has won all manner of medals in other winter sports. Hockey, figure skating, downhill skiing, speedskating, bobsled, even curling -- we've won our share and then some. But to really be made in the Winter Games, you must win something in the old-school Nordic events, the ones where medals normally are reserved for blonde guys with amazing cheekbones who are named Magnus and Sven.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Spillane
Don Emmert/Getty ImagesJohnny Spillane, left, fought neck and neck with France's Jason Lamy Chappuis in the final stretch.

Bill Koch won a silver medal in cross country for the United States in 1976 (and we could finally medal again in that discipline here) and America finally won in Nordic combined Sunday, when Johnny Spillane held on for dear life to win the silver in the individual normal hill/10K.

Yeah, individual normal hill/10K is a mouthful, but get used to it. One of these days, we may not even have to explain that the Nordic combined, like, combines two disciplines -- ski jumping and cross-country -- into one event.

Spillane was fourth after soaring 100½ meters in the morning ski jump, which meant he started 44 seconds behind leader Janne Ryynaenen of Finland heading into the afternoon 10K (the metric system is another thing we need to do something about). He and teammate Todd Lodwick (who started 34 seconds behind Ryynaenen) quickly overcame their time gap, and when Bill Demong joined them in the lead group (despite starting 1:20 behind because of a poor jump), it seemed possible the U.S. could win multiple Olympic medals, or even sweep, in a disciple in which it had never won any.

"As Americans, the Olympics is it for us," Spillane said. "Maybe that puts a little too much pressure on the team and people expect things that might not be possible. But going into this year, we have three guys who are very consistent and very strong. It didn't take anything special today -- it wasn't like this was a miracle -- and we still put three guys in the top six. Obviously, this was a very good day for us and we've worked very hard to be in the position where it doesn't take anything special, it just takes a good day."

Lodwick, who did extra work by taking the lead and setting the pace for much of the race, finished fourth, a half second shy of a medal. He was extremely disappointed -- "To tell you the truth, being fourth really sucks" -- but he took great pride in helping the U.S. to its first medal.

"Team USA really has the opportunity to revolutionize the sport of Nordic combined skiing," Lodwick said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I went out hard and sacrificed myself to push the pace high because I knew if I didn't do that, people would come up from behind. For the good of the team, I pushed the pace hard all the way to the end and that gave a little rest for Johnny."

Plus, could there be any better American name for the first U.S. medalist than Johnny Spillane? With that sort of name, he really should race wearing a trench coat over a T-shirt and jeans.

Spillane had what appeared to be a commanding lead as he skied down into the finish area, but he simply ran out of gas. He disobeyed Satchel Paige's famous advice to never look back, repeatedly doing so in the final stretch, until he eventually saw France's Jason Lamy Chappuis ski past him at the end to win.

"I thought he was going to win going away," U.S. coach Dave Jarrett said. "I remember talking to Johnny and he said, 'I think I got it, I got it, I got it.' And then he got to the top of the hill and he said, 'No, I don't have it.'"

Chappuis is the likely World Cup champ this season, so there's no shame in that. As Lodwick said, "I have to hand it him. Jason is a smart mother------."

Plus, it was still kind of an American victory. Chappuis was born in Missoula, Mont., to an American mother and French father who were ski instructors there before the family moved to France when he was 5.

"Johnny was far ahead of me and I honestly didn't think I could win the gold medal. I thought it was done," Chappuis said in English with almost no accent. "But then he slowed down a little entering the stadium, and I had really good skis and my glide was a little bit better than his."

If the Americans were ever tempted to get Chappuis to race for them, there may no longer be a need the way the program is progressing.

"I'm ecstatic," Demong said. "I was ecstatic even after I jumped and was 24th. I looked up and saw Todd and Johnny in second and fourth and I was like, 'We're good to go.' And going forth, hopefully this will make it that much easier to do it again."

They have two more chances here, the team event and the individual large hill/10K to add to the medal collection. "We will be on the podium in the team event," Lodwick said. "No question, we will be there."

"We see people paying attention more and more as we have more and more success," Spillane said. "Hopefully this will put Nordic combined a little more on the map so people don't just pay attention every four years at the Olympics, but every weekend when we're skiing in the World Cup."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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