Austria edges US for gold in Nordic combined relay 

Skis too slow for a snowstorm did in the Americans, still stuck with a golden goose egg in Nordic sports at the Winter Games.

Austria's Mario Stecher knew he had the better skis in the Nordic combined 4x5-kilometer team relay and stayed in American Billy Demong's slipstream much of the final lap, finally zipping past him on the last downhill and cruising into the stadium for a 5.2-second victory Tuesday.

"I had a little bit more speed," Stecher said, "and the skis were a little bit better, too."

No matter, the U.S. team was perfectly satisfied with its second silver of the Vancouver Games; nine days ago, Johnny Spillane won the first U.S. Olympic medal in Nordic combined.

"It's an Olympic medal," proclaimed Todd Lodwick, the only five-time U.S. Olympic skier. "We won silver today, and that's huge. It's huge for us. It's huge for the team. It's huge for the morale of everybody.

"We came here to be one of the best in the world and two events, two medals," he said. "Of course, after the jumping we thought we had a chance at gold — and we did. We pushed the pace, and we kept it high and kept everybody else away. All my teammates and myself left everything out there as much as possible. That's all we can ask for."

Stecher and his teammates, Felix Gottwald, David Kreiner and Bernhard Gruber, defended Austria's title from the Turin Games with a winning time of 49 minutes, 31.6 seconds. Germany won bronze, finishing 19.5 seconds back.

Demong erased a 14.1-second deficit he inherited from Spillane on the final exchange.

"I felt really good on the hills today, and Mario was a little better on the downhills," Demong said. "He picked better (skis) for these conditions, I picked about an hour ago when it wasn't snowing yet. But I felt good, I had the fastest time for the last leg, so I did everything I could, and he was a little stronger there at the end."

Demong figured he had to shake Stecher on the last uphill and thought for a second he had done so only to hit him with his pole right at the top.

At that point, he realized the gold was gone.

"We were hoping to be fighting for the win, and we were," Spillane said. "Maybe it didn't quite go as we wanted at the very end, but you can't complain at all. Every single guy gave 100 percent effort. It's the first medal ever for the U.S. in the team event, so it's definitely a good day."

The Americans' previous best finish in this event was fourth in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Spillane's silver medal in the normal hill competition on Feb. 14 was the first U.S. Olympic medal in Nordic combined — a ski jump followed by a brutal race of speed around a cross-country track.

Now, he has another.

And this time, he got to share it with Demong, Lodwick and Brett Camerota.

The Americans started two seconds behind the front-running Finns after an excellent performance on the large jump hill that had them stoked for the relay race, their strong suit.

Austria began the cross-country race 36 seconds behind Finland but quickly closed the gap.

Before Vancouver, the only medals won by the Americans in Nordic sports — biathlon, ski jumping, Nordic combined and cross-country skiing — were a silver by cross-country skier Bill Koch in 1976 and a bronze by ski jumper Anders Haugen in 1924.

It was a perfect morning on the jump hill but snowing by the time the race started two hours later, much to Demong's disappointment.

Camerota started things off, giving the Americans a 2.6-second lead over Finland on the exchange with Austria just 3.7 seconds behind. Lodwick, the Americans' fastest skier, was hoping to build a big lead on the second leg because the other countries were saving their top skiers for last. But Spillane started just .3 seconds ahead of Gottwald, who, like Lodwick, came out of retirement for these Olympics.

Gottwald broke away from Spillane to give Stecher a big cushion on the anchor leg. That meant Demong had to expend energy catching up, and on slow skis that taxed him too much.

Demong caught Stecher on the final lap, but Stecher realized he had the better skis. So his strategy was to stay with the American until they entered the stadium.

"When Billy has to make up that gap it costs quite a lot of power for him," Stecher said. "And the self confidence is for sure a lot better for me then. He's a really good skier, but today we had maybe the better material, better skis than the U.S. guys. It was an amazing job by our service team."

Demong said he, not his wax technicians, picked out his skis that turned out to be too slow for the snow.

"This is a fast finish," Spillane agreed. "And if you don't have fast skis it makes it that much tougher."

The Americans celebrated nonetheless, for this podium finish was decades in the making.

"We've been through hell; we've been through high water," Lodwick said.

In between the world championships, the World Cups, and these Olympic silver medals, the team has overcome a lot: Spillane has had four shoulder surgeries and two knee operations; Demong recovered from numerous injuries, including a diving accident that fractured his skull; and Lodwick bounced back from a bike accident in France where he plowed into a moving car.

"These things, I think they just make us stronger, and we've persevered over the last 10 years to get to this point," Lodwick said. "We feel like we've earned this silver medal, and we've earned this spot in history."

The Americans knew they had it in them after dominating the world championships last year, where they won three titles but lost a shot at a sweep when Demong couldn't find his bib when he got to the top of the hill in the team relay, resulting in a disqualification.

This time?

"I kept it around my neck all the time and checked it several times," Demong said.

Maybe this medal will ease the sting of that dreadful day back in 2009.

"I won on the last individual last year, but it was bittersweet," Demong said. "I wish I could have broken that medal into four pieces."

This time, he doesn't have to.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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