Americans claim gold, silver
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- They swore they didn't care which one of them won gold to become America's first Olympic champion in a Nordic sport.
Anyone who watched, knew Billy Demong skied to win.
He attacked on the final hill, hustled into the stadium and raced across the finish line well ahead of three-time silver medalist Johnny Spillane, giving the United States a 1-2 finish Thursday in the large hill competition at Nordic combined.
Challenging wind gusts and pelting rain, sleet and snow on the jump hill did little to dampen the Americans' jubilation.
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"I don't think either of us really cared which one was first or second," Demong, of Vermontville, N.Y., said after ending America's golden goose egg in Nordic sports at the Winter Games by winning the 10-kilometer cross-country leg in 25 minutes, 32.9 seconds.
Spillane, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., was four seconds behind him, and Bernhard Gruber of Austria, who had a 34-second head start after jumping the farthest off the large hill following a restart, was 10.8 seconds back and won the bronze.
Twice before at these Vancouver Games, Spillane was edged for the gold medal on the stadium straightaway, first by France's Jason Lamy Chappuis in the normal hill race and then by Austria's Mario Stecher in the team relay Tuesday.
"Whoever was first and whoever wasn't second didn't really matter that much," said Spillane, the only U.S. multimedalist in Nordic sports. "Skiing into the stadium down that final stretch was quite a bit of fun."
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He knew he couldn't catch Demong and couldn't be caught by Gruber, so he had a leisurely finish to relish his third silver.
Demong started in sixth place and 46 seconds back, but quickly caught his teammate and Gruber on a one-man breakaway from the chase group for a three-man race the rest of the way.
They didn't have to worry about some of the best World Cup athletes catching them after worsening weather in the morning hampered the top jumpers on the large hill, relegating them too far back in the field to be a factor.
The cross-country race was run in much better weather, but the soft, sometimes choppy snow put a premium on the proper wax and ski setup. Unlike the team relay when Demong was done in by bad skis, he had the perfect combination this time to put the Americans atop the podium.
But the damage had been done to the sport's better athletes, including the top five in the World Cup standings, who had terrible jumps in horrible conditions.
"It's a joke," Norway's Magnus Moan fumed of final Nordic combined race at the Winter Games after managing to jump just 112.5 meters in a driving, wet snow and tail wind that pushed him down early.
That had him starting 2 minutes, 21 seconds behind Gruber, who jumped in much better conditions after a restart earlier in the morning. Gruber, ranked 22nd in the World Cup standings, capitalized on a rogue headwind that helped him stay aloft for a top jump of 134 meters.
"It's like a lottery. Some guys got good conditions, some others terrible conditions," shrugged World Cup leader Jason Lamy Chappuis, of France, who won the gold in the normal hill 10km but started this race in 29th and finished in 18th.
The complaints about the wintry weather didn't faze the Americans.
"This is an outdoor sport," Spillane said. "And I can tell you that most of the time, the last five or 10 guys have the best conditions. So, it trades off all the time."
Todd Lodwick, America's only five-time Olympic skier, did his part to help his teammates after also being done in by weather woes.
"Once I saw those two guys pull away, I jumped in front [of the chase group] and tried to slow down the pace," Lodwick said.
It worked perfectly.
"I could see that Todd, in his own way, was doing a job for the team, and not attacking," Demong said. "He was just always at the front, covering those strong guys like Hannu [Finland's Manninen] and [Germany's Bjoern] Kircheisen.
"It shows again that we operate on a team basis."
With Lodwick doing his part, Spillane and Demong took turns trading the lead and using tactics they learned while doing bicycle intervals in France during training last year: accelerating and times, decelerating at others, a tactic that eventually did in Gruber.
"They were just too strong," Gruber said.
American Taylor Fletcher finished in 45th place.
Later Thursday, Demong was voted by his teammates to be flag bearer for Team USA at the closing ceremony on Sunday.
"Being chosen as flag bearer is a phenomenal honor," Demong said. "It could have been any one of my teammates, and it is meaningful that our peers are taking notice of what we've achieved."
Demong's celebration continued Thursday night when he proposed to girlfriend Katie Koczynski.
"I don't remember too much -- it's been a whirlwind of a day," he said. "I think people have really found out how exciting our sport can be, and these Games have been a fantastic way for everything to come to fruition."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.