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Demong: This is the start for US in Nordic sports

ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Sports Writer

WHISTLER, British Columbia – Billy Demong will be doing more than hoisting the U.S. flag in Sunday’s closing ceremony at the Vancouver Games.

He will, in a sense, be carrying the banner as the first U.S. Olympic champion in Nordic sports – biathlon, ski jumping, Nordic combined and cross-country skiing.

Before these games, the only Olympic medals won by the Americans in Nordic sports were a silver by cross-country skier Bill Koch in 1976 and a bronze by ski jumper Anders Haugen in 1924.

On Feb. 14, Johnny Spillane’s first of three silver medals in Nordic combined – a ski jump followed by a brutal test of speed over a cross-country course – changed that. Demong, of Vermontville, N.Y., had another breakthrough 11 days later when he won the Nordic combined large hill.

Biathlete Tim Burke was aiming for a similar success story in Vancouver after becoming the first American to wear the overall World Cup leader’s yellow bib a couple of months ago.

But his games were gruesome, with the worst performances of his otherwise spectacular season coming at the absolute worst possible time.

“Pretty awful,” Burke said. “I had high expectations. My races were bad, much below my normal level. It’s just the way racing goes. There are ups and downs and I hit a funk. That’s sport.”

His big hopes were shared at home, where there was more interest than ever in the Europe’s most popular winter sport, one that combines the rigor of cross-country skiing with the calm precision of rifle marksmanship.

“Everyone’s been watching. They’ve been disappointed,” Burke said. “But the Nordic combined team’s fantastic.”

Nordic combined and biathlon were the two sports the Americans had never won a medal in at the Winter Olympics.

While Burke, of Paul Smith’s, N.Y., now has to look toward the 2014 Sochi Games for that biathlon breakthrough, the Nordic combined team gets to bask in the glow of Demong’s gold medal and Spillane’s three silvers.

One of those came in the team relay that also landed Todd Lodwick, Spillane’s neighbor in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Brett Camerota, of Park City, Utah, on the podium.

So confident was Demong on Thursday that he tucked a diamond engagement ring into his bag before the competition in hopes that he’d have a special moment to pop the question to his fiance, Katie Koczynski, a former skeleton racer on the World Cup circuit.

“When I put that ring in my backpack and took it to the start line I knew I was going to have to perform so I could pull it off,” Demong wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

He had dropped to a knee during the victory party at the U.S. Ski Team house following the medal ceremony that night. Let the record show, she said yes.

“I’m not one for showboating … but what the hell,” Demong said.

Kikkan Randall, of Anchorage, Alaska, and Caitlin Compton, of Minneapolis, were sixth in the women’s sprint for the best American cross-country finish at these games heading into the weekend’s classical long-distance events.

Kris Freeman, of Andover, N.H., is hoping to put the Americans on the podium in cross-country for the first time in 34 years Sunday, in the men’s 50-kilometer mass start classical race.

The Americans weren’t factors in the ski jumps, but they would love to see women’s ski jumping added to the schedule in Sochi. Lindsey Van, of Park City, Utah, is the world champion. She was barred from competing in Vancouver after the IOC said there weren’t enough world-class female jumpers to merit inclusion.

U.S. Nordic director John Farra is hoping Demong’s gold results in more attention and dollars for his programs.

“We’re fighting an epic battle against the Nordic nations that have five times the budgets and more Nordic culture than we have,” Farra said. “But this just provides proof that we can win, that our programs work, that we have the right coaches and the right athletes.”

The task now for Nordic combined is to build on this success.

“That’s a really big goal of mine and Johnny’s and Todd’s – that this does not just become some blip on the Nordic combined U.S. history chart,” Demong said. “This the just the beginning for a sport we’re going to be really good at for a long time.”


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