Feb 18, 2014 11:53 PM by Greg Smith
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - Four years ago, Bill Demong had an unforgettable day in the Nordic combined large hill competition. He won the United States' first Olympic gold medal in the sport. Then, that night, in front of celebrating friends and family, he proposed to his girlfriend, who is now his wife.
But Demong probably wants to forget the large hill event at the Sochi Games. He stayed in Nordic combined after the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games to nurture the next generation of combiners - and to hopefully defend his 2010 gold medal in Sochi.
But on a rainy day at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center, Demong finished 31st, 2:13.8 behind winner Joergen Graabak from Norway. It was Demong's last individual Olympic event. He plans to retire after this season.
"I swear I woke up feeling like today was the day," said Demong. "I felt the same tingle today that I did in Vancouver. And right up until I landed that first competition jump, I didn't see anything coming. I feel great body-wise. It's devastating, really."
"If I'd been 10th, it sure would be easier to shrug it off," he added. "As it is, how could I do what I would deem to be perfect and be that far out? It's frustrating."
Rounding out the podium were Magnus Moan of Norway and Germany's Fabian Riessle. Taylor Fletcher had the top finish for the Americans in 20th, just ahead of brother Bryan in 22nd. Todd Lodwick did the jump, then sat out the ski to rest the shoulder that he separated a month ago.
After the large hill jump, Demong was as down as the weather. He had jumped to 38th place and was confused about why. He had had good jumps in training and even in the trial jump before the competition.
With the Gundersen start, which converts jump points to time differentials, he started the 10-kilometer cross-country ski race 2:18 back from the leaders. In Vancouver, he finished sixth in the jump and quickly overcame the 46-second deficit. This time, he knew he was out of the medals. The Nordic combined field has become tighter since he last won gold four years ago, with skiers jumping farther and skiing faster.
"You can throw the entire field inside what used to be the gap between the first five skiers," explained Demong.
But using the same reasoning, anyone can win, too.
"Joergen (Graabak) said to me when I congratulated him, ‘That's my first victory,'" said Demong. "There's a lot of talent out there."
Taylor Fletcher is one of those talented guys. One of the fastest skiers in Nordic combined, Fletcher skied the fastest 2.5-kilometer and made up over a minute of his 2:13 deficit on the leaders. But he was unable to gain much beyond that.
His fitness this year is not what it was last season, when he finished third in a world cup and helped the U.S. reach the world cup podium for the first time in the team event, then take the bronze medal as a team at the 2013 World Championships. In competitions this year, he has battled with jumping and often not made the cut to compete in the ski-race portion of Nordic combined. Without racing under his belt, his endurance is lacking. Still, he was happy about his large hill finish and glad that he could ski much of the 10-kilometer race with brother Bryan.
"To finish 20th at the Olympics is 26 places better than my last individual on the big hill in Vancouver," he said.
The large hill results continued a tough streak for the U.S. Nordic combined team in Sochi. In Vancouver, Demong, Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Brett Camerota contributed to Team USA's four medals in the sport. But life has changed for the team since then. Demong married and is now a father. Lodwick has had recent personal struggles, and Spillane and Camerota retired. The Fletcher brothers are the new blood in the U.S. Nordic combined program, and Taylor said that there are not words to describe how much Demong has given to the U.S. Nordic combined program.
"Bill's almost been like a father to me on the world cup circuit," said Taylor. "He's helped raise me and shoot me in the right direction."
Team USA's hopes now rest on the team event on Thursday.
"There's no heads to beat on the wall," added Demong. "There's no team bonding that needs to happen. There's nothing glaringly wrong right now. We're there. We need to perform."