Published: February 2002
Altitude? You call 6,000 feet "altitude"? Not if you're from Steamboat, Colo. The Europeans may be sucking Soldier Hollow wind during the cross-country component of the nordic combined.Altitude? You call 6,000 feet "altitude"? Not if you're from Steamboat, Colo. The Europeans may be sucking Soldier Hollow wind during the cross-country component of the nordic combined, but anyone who lives and trains at Steamboat will be squarely in his element.
That is one of many thoughts caroming through Todd Lodwick's sleepless mind on the eve of the jumping component of the nordic combined. He thinks about how much better he's been jumping in recent months. He thinks back to his World Cup wins at Steamboat last year and Lillehammer in December.
He's disgusted that Americans have won only two medals in the history of Olympic nordic competition, and have never won gold. He's thinking he's ready to break through his own big-event mind-block. And he's trying not to think about Nagano.
The following day, though, his first jump is Nagano all over. He's overeager and short. Coach Jan-Erik Aalbu calmly takes him aside. "Relax," he whispers. "Don't try to kill it." Second jump: right on the money. Still, the flyweight jumpers take commanding leads into the cross-country.
The next day, Lodwick starts fifth, 45 seconds behind the leaders as he pushes out of the stadium. After one lap, he has gained little, but feels good and takes it up a click. By the time he tucks the downhill into the stadium at the end of two laps, he's within half a minute. The crowd smells blood, and shakes the stadium with foot-stomping and chants of "USA!" Lodwick puts the hammer down, and as altitude begins to work its evil, all hell breaks loose.
First the Norwegians falter¿Hammer and Vik. Then the Finn, Lajunen. Lodwick overtakes them, stronger with every stride. But the lone holdout is one tough competitor: Austria's Felix Gottwald. Frantic teammates and coaches scream splits from the side of the trail. "18 seconds! ... 14! ... 10!" Now Lodwick can clearly see his prey. Like a wolf, he closes.
With one kilometer to go, it looks like a sprint to the finish. It isn't. Gottwald hits the wall before the final downhill. And Lodwick, America's first nordic gold-medal winner, skates alone to the finish.
It will be America's only nordic medal for the 2002 Games. But there are other promising finishes: Bill Demong finishes six spots behind Lodwick; Justin Wadsworth matches his personal best eighth-place finish against a much tougher 30K Freestyle field; 15-time U.S. champ Nina Kemppel notches a ninth in her final Olympics; and jumpers Alan Alborn and Clint Jones (age 17) both nab top 15s on the big hill. Perhaps U.S. nordic skiing, at long last, is shaking its curse.