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Lodwick in Norway 12 02 01

It is early morning at the Bear Hollow Olympic Park outside of Park City, Utah where the U.S. Nordic Combined Championships are being held. A 63-degree heat wave has melted everything but the white, alphorn shaped in-runs and parabolic landing hills of the 90- and 120-meter Olympic jumps. Though U.S. Nordic Combined doesn't typically attract huge crowds, this is the National Championship¿2001's final and perhaps most important competition. And yet, aside from the course volunteers, U.S. Ski Team officials and press, as few as five of the 50 spectators aren't related to the competitors!

On this warm day in late March, Nordic Combined clearly gets no respect. Not from the pure jumpers or hard core nordic racers who dismiss Combined as a refuge for back markers who can't cut it as pure jumpers or skiers. U.S. Team members Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane, however, could care less what the jumpers or nordic racers think. As America's best hope for an Olympic Nordic Combined Team medal they are totally focused on the two 90-meter jumps and 10k cross-country race on Soldier Hollow's brutal hills.

In answer to the same criticism, however, one testy Norwegian coach fires back, "The pure Yumpers won't train hard for racing cross country and the cross-country skiers don't have the balls to yump."

By balls, winds blowing up the 90-meter hill can float jumpers to new records, or tip them over to grinding wrecks. Winds were the reason SLOC demolished the Olympic Park sparkling new 90 and 120 meter jumps, then rebuilt them in a protected gallery of red rock. Crashes, as recorded by ABC Wide World of Sports' rag doll "Agony of Defeat," are relatively rare, but spectacular.

Standing next to the 90-meter jump, I watch Todd Lodwick tuck the long steep in-run. By late morning, dozens of competitors have hurtled down the in-run and each time, I feel my stomach muscles tense. So far two jumpers have wrecked. Not seriously. Though both walked away, it's the vector into the ground that gets you¿that Icarian instant when the euphoria of flight flashes into the desperate fear of falling as the white ice and green pine bows rush upward a millisecond before a blinding red flash rocks your world.

With the Olympics less than a year off, a broken collar bone, a torn ACL or a fractured wrist can spell the end of any medal hopes. No Parade of Athletes. No flowers, tears or hand over the heart. No recognition for a decade of hard work. One serious crash and it's over.

I hear the whoosh of air as Lodwick launches up and out. Among the air sports¿bungee jumping, hang gliding and sky diving¿ski jumping comes closest to pure flight. Locked in a human airfoil, he hangs over the scrub oak and beyond that, the passing 18-wheelers and minivans on Interstate 80 before he floats out of sight toward the scattered spectators far below.

A moment later, he skis into view on the arena's circle of snow then turns toward the scoreboard. His is a long jump with good style points. While the distance makes sense, I have trouble calculating the style component. In a scoring anomaly that harkens back to 19th century Norwegian winter carnivals from which the sport evolved, Lodwick is graded on distance as well as the grace of his flight and landing.

If Lodwick hopes to win Nationals, he must fly beyond 90 meters then stick a telemark landing. Forget a solid parallel, or simply throwing a huge jump and landing upright, in Nordic Combined's convoluted scoring system style accounts for up to 50 percent.

Unless you have a masters in math, don't try to add the distance to style points. The important thing is that each 13 point difference equals a minute handicap. That means Lodwick will need to make up 56 seconds on team mate Bill Demong during the afternoon's 10K skate race.

Born in 1976 to parents Dennis, a contractor, and Jeannie, a school teacher, Todd Lodwick is the second of four sons. His dad wanted to keep the boys involv in active sports and so when Todd was five years old he dropped him off for an Easter Egg Hunt with the Buddy Werner League at Howelsen Hill. Named after the U.S. Ski Team legend who died in avalanche while filming in France, the Buddy Werner league strives to develop well-rounded skiers. The Easter Egg hunt led to Lodwick's learning to alpine and freestyle ski before turning to jumping.

Twelve years later he was competing at the Lillehammer Olympics. His 14th overall finish promised a bright future for the 17 year-old who only started to nordic ski two years earlier. Building on his Lillehammer finish, Todd was the U.S.'s highest seed at Nagano. Based on his fourth place ranking in the Combined World Cup, he was poised to kick one of the Scandinavian gods off the Olympic podium. One jump was all that stood between him and a medal. The jump, however, fell short and Lodwick finished 20th overall.

Todd has had four long years to think about what went wrong. And four years to train for Salt Lake. In that time, concentration and desire can waver. Witness World Cup Nordic Combined champion Bjarte Engen Vik of Norway, who retired in April, a brief 10 months before the 2002 Olympics. "The background is simple," he said. "I lack the motivation to continue."

Vik may have run out of steam but Lodwick will still have to go through Ronny Ackermann of Germany, Austria's Felix Gottwald, Finland's Jakko Tallus and Norway's Kristian Hammer to claim a gold medal. It will take skill and conditioning as well as support.

Lodwick confesses, "We not only have the coaches we need but we also have the teammates, equipment and money. In the past, even if we were the best in the world, we didn't have the coaches or support." Even so, while crowds in Europe often exceed 50,000 spectators, in the U.S. (outside of Steamboat) the sport is run in a vacuum.

Now 24 years old, Todd Lodwick has won World Cups in Oslo, Norway, and Schonach, Germany in 1998 and Steamboat in 1996. His finishes make him something of a phenomenon, albeit an anonymous phenomenon in the U.S.

Forget the average guy on the street, most Alpine skiers, and even many Nordic skiers remain clueless about Nordic Combined--its disciplines or enigmatic scoring system. If Lodwick plans to popularize the sport, he needs to finish on the podium¿a goal he has worked toward since he joined the team in 1993.

He admits, "I would rather do Nordic Combine than anything else...including landing a 25 inch trout." For a hardcore fly fisherman, this speaks volumes.

There are other distractions in Todd Lodwick's life beside fishing. Starting with his May marriage to Sonny Owens, his high school sweetheart. Sonny knows him better than anyone and admits, while Todd is enormously strong, the press and pressure to win, wear on him. Having been raised in Jackson, Wyo., where she competed in alpine skiing, she is sensitive to the stress Todd faces. She says, "The difference between a good athlete and an excellent athlete is the ability to put everything else aside on competition day, forget other people's expectations and do what he knows he can do."

When dealing with the press, Lodwick projects a polite, even disarming, country boy's demeanor, but then he has no illusions about fame and does not picture his face on the cover of Sports Illustrated....unless, of course, it is for winning a gold medal. That said, the chance of Sports Illustrated publishing a cover of the Nordic Combined gold medalist, even an American gold medalist in place of a hockey, figure skating or even downhill phenom, ranges from hopeless to non-existent.

In his attempt to win an Olympic Medal, Lodwick resembles a Nordic Don Quixote, tilting at towering jumps, and brutal cross country courses. To win, he must beat the Norwegians, Fins, Germans and a few determined Swiss who have held a virtual lock on the Olympic podium for 78 years.

And yet, at five foot ten inches, 145 pounds and 25 years old, Lodwick may have the perfect build. It's his mind game that needs work. Norwegian Jan Erik Aalbu, the U.S. team's jumping coach is convinced that 80 percent of jumping is mental. He readily admits, "Todd is a great athlete, but his jumping has been too up and down this year. His move is better, but his flying is not that good and it may be a confidence thing. That said, he jumped way better today than he could hope for."

The U.S. Nordic Team's Luke Bodensteiner agrees, "Todd is a tough as nails competitor who doesn't like to lose. When he started out, jumping was his strength. It's a tough combo, you need to be strong enough to race cross-country, but quick enough to jump...training hard for one, has a negative effect on the other."

And therein lies the problem. Nordic Combined is one of the few sports you can try too hard! Jump too early and you fall short, go out too fast in the cross-country leg and you blow up. It's a balance between quickness and endurance, fast and slow twitch muscles. Train your slow twitch muscles for cross-country and you loose jumping's fast twitch explosiveness. Train for fast twitch and you bonk in the 10k.

Fast twitch, slow twitch, jump further, ski faster, sometimes Lodwick would just like to go fishing. His grandfather taught him to fish, but Todd mowed lawns to pay for his first fly rod. It was a Sage, an expensive graphite stick that he strapped to his 10 speed bike. He still rarely travels without a fly rod and reel and a spectrum of brightly colored flies. Then too, his favorite T-shirt depicts brown, brook and rainbow trout swimming against a turbulent white, background.

Not everyone, however, supports Lodwick's obsession with things piscatorial. The U.S. Ski Team coaches wish he would focus exclusively on jumping and forget the fishing, golfing and duck hunting. "I've been asked to give up everything else but Nordic Combined," Lodwick laughs. "But I'm not going to go easy."

It occurs to me that timing is critical to both fly-fishing and Nordic Combined. I can see Lodwick cast a fly next to an undercut bank where a huge rainbow is rising to passing, spent wing spinners. The tiny white and black imitation settles gently at the end of a hair thin tippet, floats for a moment, then disappears into a dimple that echoes across the surface. Todd raises the rod tip, the line straightens and a deep, rolling splash breaks against the bank.

There are lessons in fly-fishing that can be applied to nordic jumping. Blow the presentation or miss the hook set, or jump too early or too late and game over. In fishing you lose a trout, but in competition if Lodwick is a tenth of a second late, he will jump short and face a major handicap in the 10k nordic race.

Listening to him describe the rise of a huge rainbow to a tiny midge, it's obvious that he needs to fish in order to jump and to deny him that solitude on a stream would destroy his chance for a medal.

He readily admits, "People need releases to stay sane. I use fishing, golfing and duck hunting to get away and clear my head." Pausing for a moment, he then adds, "Jumping depends on giving 100 percent. If you give 50 percent in either jumping or fishing you'll only fly half as far or catch half as many fish. But if you give 100 percent anything is possible."

Fishing, however, is far from Todd Lodwick's mind as he waits for the start of the 10K at Utah's Soldier Hollow. By virtue of two strong jumps, U.S. Team member Bill Demong has earned a 56-second head start. With air temperatures sweltering in the high sixties and the course conditions softening from snow cone to ice water, chances do not look good for a charge from behind.

Lodwick, however, is confident. "If you don't believe you can do it, then you've shot yourself in the foot before you started." he says. He has caught Demong in the past and to beat the heat, he hacks his ski team uniform into a pair of ragged peddle pushers.

Leaning into his poles and skating powerfully up the first hill Dehe perfect build. It's his mind game that needs work. Norwegian Jan Erik Aalbu, the U.S. team's jumping coach is convinced that 80 percent of jumping is mental. He readily admits, "Todd is a great athlete, but his jumping has been too up and down this year. His move is better, but his flying is not that good and it may be a confidence thing. That said, he jumped way better today than he could hope for."

The U.S. Nordic Team's Luke Bodensteiner agrees, "Todd is a tough as nails competitor who doesn't like to lose. When he started out, jumping was his strength. It's a tough combo, you need to be strong enough to race cross-country, but quick enough to jump...training hard for one, has a negative effect on the other."

And therein lies the problem. Nordic Combined is one of the few sports you can try too hard! Jump too early and you fall short, go out too fast in the cross-country leg and you blow up. It's a balance between quickness and endurance, fast and slow twitch muscles. Train your slow twitch muscles for cross-country and you loose jumping's fast twitch explosiveness. Train for fast twitch and you bonk in the 10k.

Fast twitch, slow twitch, jump further, ski faster, sometimes Lodwick would just like to go fishing. His grandfather taught him to fish, but Todd mowed lawns to pay for his first fly rod. It was a Sage, an expensive graphite stick that he strapped to his 10 speed bike. He still rarely travels without a fly rod and reel and a spectrum of brightly colored flies. Then too, his favorite T-shirt depicts brown, brook and rainbow trout swimming against a turbulent white, background.

Not everyone, however, supports Lodwick's obsession with things piscatorial. The U.S. Ski Team coaches wish he would focus exclusively on jumping and forget the fishing, golfing and duck hunting. "I've been asked to give up everything else but Nordic Combined," Lodwick laughs. "But I'm not going to go easy."

It occurs to me that timing is critical to both fly-fishing and Nordic Combined. I can see Lodwick cast a fly next to an undercut bank where a huge rainbow is rising to passing, spent wing spinners. The tiny white and black imitation settles gently at the end of a hair thin tippet, floats for a moment, then disappears into a dimple that echoes across the surface. Todd raises the rod tip, the line straightens and a deep, rolling splash breaks against the bank.

There are lessons in fly-fishing that can be applied to nordic jumping. Blow the presentation or miss the hook set, or jump too early or too late and game over. In fishing you lose a trout, but in competition if Lodwick is a tenth of a second late, he will jump short and face a major handicap in the 10k nordic race.

Listening to him describe the rise of a huge rainbow to a tiny midge, it's obvious that he needs to fish in order to jump and to deny him that solitude on a stream would destroy his chance for a medal.

He readily admits, "People need releases to stay sane. I use fishing, golfing and duck hunting to get away and clear my head." Pausing for a moment, he then adds, "Jumping depends on giving 100 percent. If you give 50 percent in either jumping or fishing you'll only fly half as far or catch half as many fish. But if you give 100 percent anything is possible."

Fishing, however, is far from Todd Lodwick's mind as he waits for the start of the 10K at Utah's Soldier Hollow. By virtue of two strong jumps, U.S. Team member Bill Demong has earned a 56-second head start. With air temperatures sweltering in the high sixties and the course conditions softening from snow cone to ice water, chances do not look good for a charge from behind.

Lodwick, however, is confident. "If you don't believe you can do it, then you've shot yourself in the foot before you started." he says. He has caught Demong in the past and to beat the heat, he hacks his ski team uniform into a pair of ragged peddle pushers.

Leaning into his poles and skating powerfully up the first hill Demong is away quickly. Lodwick waits. Ten seconds pass, then twenty. By the time 56 seconds elapse, Demong is out of sight. Ignoring the heat and snow conditions, Lodwick starts after him.

At intervals during the first lap, Lodwick cuts Demong's lead to 38 seconds. If he can maintain that pace, the National Championship will be decided at the finish line.

There are moments, however, when training, technique and desire fall short. Demong gathers it up on the second and third laps and finishes 58 seconds ahead with Johnny Spillane also of Steamboat taking the bronze medal.

On this sweltering late March day, Todd Lodwick leaves everything on the course. Lying exhausted in the slush at the finish line, it is a full two minutes before he can stand, pick up his skis and walk off.

During an interview afterward he admits, " People say that the hardest conditions are when it's very cold but I don't think they've skied in 65 degree weather. I've beat Bill by 1:40, but going out of the gate I knew it was going to be a hard race. I tried to go as fast as I could the first lap to see how I felt and just blew up." And then in a nod to Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane, he said, "I've won the last four national championships so it's good to see Bill and Johnny coming up. It's good to have a team that I can believe in..."

Nordic Combined owes much to Icarus. Perhaps more than any other sport, the combination of jumping and skiing offers little beside a volatile mix of highs and lows, success and failure, euphoria and pain. It is a sport that kicks the hypothalamus into overdrive filling competitors with addictive endorphins or tripping them into black slumps.

During the awards ceremony, Lodwick smiles for the cameras, raises the flowers and perhaps dreams of February 2002 in Salt Lake City. The crowd thins and he stays to answer one last question.

"So is there life after Nordic Combined?" I ask. Still recovering from the race, he thinks for a moment then confesses, "If you win an Olympic medal in anything you can make a lifestyle out of it. I love this sport and Olympic medal or not, I want to give something back to it. For me it's a life choice."

By late May he will have returned from his honeymoon in the Bahamas and will once again be training for February in Salt Lake. For the next three months his will be an exacting regimen filled with running the hills above Steamboat, bicycling through greening aspens and casting a tiny fly to a huge trout.

EPILOGUE
After struggling during summer training and racing, Todd Lodwick decided in the fall to take an unusual six-week break to recharge his batteries. Speculation around the U.S. Ski Team's headquarters in Park City was that Lodwick's best days may have been behind him; taking that amount of time off is almost unheard of in this training intense sport. But Lodwick came back stronger than ever, and on Dec. 2 in Beitostolen, Norway, he won the fifth World Cup race of his career. Lodwick outskied defending World Cup champion Felix Gottwald by more than a minute in comfortable 18-degree temps. "I came back from my break feeling great, and the new skis and new boots have me feeling confident again," Lodwick said. By mid-January, Lodwick was in fourth place in the overall World Cup standings¿and a strong contender for an Olympic medal in February. His teammate Bill Demong was in 18th, while up-and-comer Matt Dayton was 33.l Demong is away quickly. Lodwick waits. Ten seconds pass, then twenty. By the time 56 seconds elapse, Demong is out of sight. Ignoring the heat and snow conditions, Lodwick starts after him.

At intervals during the first lap, Lodwick cuts Demong's lead to 38 seconds. If he can maintain that pace, the National Championship will be decided at the finish line.

There are moments, however, when training, technique and desire fall short. Demong gathers it up on the second and third laps and finishes 58 seconds ahead with Johnny Spillane also of Steamboat taking the bronze medal.

On this sweeltering late March day, Todd Lodwick leaves everything on the course. Lying exhausted in the slush at the finish line, it is a full two minutes before he can stand, pick up his skis and walk off.

During an interview afterward he admits, " People say that the hardest conditions are when it's very cold but I don't think they've skied in 65 degree weather. I've beat Bill by 1:40, but going out of the gate I knew it was going to be a hard race. I tried to go as fast as I could the first lap to see how I felt and just blew up." And then in a nod to Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane, he said, "I've won the last four national championships so it's good to see Bill and Johnny coming up. It's good to have a team that I can believe in..."

Nordic Combined owes much to Icarus. Perhaps more than any other sport, the combination of jumping and skiing offers little beside a volatile mix of highs and lows, success and failure, euphoria and pain. It is a sport that kicks the hypothalamus into overdrive filling competitors with addictive endorphins or tripping them into black slumps.

During the awards ceremony, Lodwick smiles for the cameras, raises the flowers and perhaps dreams of February 2002 in Salt Lake City. The crowd thins and he stays to answer one last question.

"So is there life after Nordic Combined?" I ask. Still recovering from the race, he thinks for a moment then confesses, "If you win an Olympic medal in anything you can make a lifestyle out of it. I love this sport and Olympic medal or not, I want to give something back to it. For me it's a life choice."

By late May he will have returned from his honeymoon in the Bahamas and will once again be training for February in Salt Lake. For the next three months his will be an exacting regimen filled with running the hills above Steamboat, bicycling through greening aspens and casting a tiny fly to a huge trout.

EPILOGUE
After struggling during summer training and racing, Todd Lodwick decided in the fall to take an unusual six-week break to recharge his batteries. Speculation around the U.S. Ski Team's headquarters in Park City was that Lodwick's best days may have been behind him; taking that amount of time off is almost unheard of in this training intense sport. But Lodwick came back stronger than ever, and on Dec. 2 in Beitostolen, Norway, he won the fifth World Cup race of his career. Lodwick outskied defending World Cup champion Felix Gottwald by more than a minute in comfortable 18-degree temps. "I came back from my break feeling great, and the new skis and new boots have me feeling confident again," Lodwick said. By mid-January, Lodwick was in fourth place in the overall World Cup standings¿and a strong contender for an Olympic medal in February. His teammate Bill Demong was in 18th, while up-and-comer Matt Dayton was 33.

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