US Nordic combined team has tough act to follow

Dennis Passa (The Philippine Star) - February 11, 2014 - 5:55am

KRASNAYA POLYANA — Among the tough acts to follow at the Olympics, none may be tougher than the US Nordic combined team's attempt to match at Sochi what it did in Vancouver.

In 2010, the US ended a medal drought in the ski jumping and cross-country combination. Billy Demong took gold on the individual large hill, his teammate Johnny Spillane got silver; Spillane added silver in the normal hill; and the Americans took team silver.

They face a daunting task to equal that effort.

Spillane has retired, Demong is back and Todd Lodwick, a member of the silver-medal team from 2010, is competing in his sixth Olympics, but is fighting a shoulder injury.

Bryan Fletcher, on the team with his younger brother Taylor, is the top-ranked American, 13th in World Cup standings.

The elder Fletcher, who survived a seven-year battle with leukemia as a child, is coming into the Sochi Games with six top-10 finishes since early December, but none on the podium.

"I think that situation is a little bit different. Those World Cups were several weeks ago," Fletcher said yesterday. "I am working to figure out the rhythm of this hill, and we'll see what happens."

Demong, competing at his fourth Olympics, is the next-best American, ranked 24th, followed by Taylor Fletcher at 28 and Lodwick at 53.

The 33-year-old Demong said he is not far from retirement and is hoping to go out with another Olympic medal.

"It was really final that I was done after this," Demong said. "Unless I'm here in a different sport or capacity in four years' time, it's totally off the table."

The 37-year-old Lodwick competed at four World Cup events in December but wasn't able to crack the top 10 in any of them. He injured the shoulder in Chaux Neuve, France, during the second week of January.

He carried the US flag in the opening ceremony, making the hard work he did in physical therapy to get to Sochi pay off.

"Of course after the crash it was devastating and a mental challenge," Lodwick said. "I knew I was going to get here one way or the other. So carrying the flag and what that represents was kind of winning a medal in itself."

The only bright spot recently for the Americans was a team bronze medal at the world championships last year, where they won the cross-country portion thanks to Taylor Fletcher, whose specialty is that portion of Nordic combined.

He says the cross-country course here — built next to the ski hill for the first time at any Olympics — suits him.

"The conditions might be sloppy and sticky and you have to be controlled," Taylor Fletcher said. "I can hold a pace pretty well and hopefully catch as many people as possible."

Lodwick shares his teammate's confidence, saying the Americans should not be written off despite their recent lack of podium results in the World Cup.

"Hey, that's not a bad thing," Lodwick says when asked if the US team didn't raise expectations with its stellar medal showing at Vancouver.

"We haven't competed yet. It's time to unleash again. Anything is possible at the Olympic Games. It's a whole new animal."

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