Billy Demong

The War Horse rides, again

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When you check in to the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid, N.Y., owned and operated by Ed and Lisa Weibrecht, there proudly on display is the bronze medal their son, Andrew, won skiing the super-G in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Of all the medals the U.S. Ski Team won in Vancouver, that bronze seems perhaps the most incredible. Andrew Weibrecht? Who?

Super-G silver medalist Andrew Weibrecht on the flower ceremony podium // photo Getty Images

Now there’s only thing more incredible than the bronze he won four years ago. It’s the silver he won Sunday in the 2014 Sochi super-G.

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Bill Marolt pivots to Tiger Shaw

When Bill Marolt took over 17 years ago as president and chief executive officer of what is now called the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., he proclaimed its goal was to be the "best in the world." For sure, the United States had produced great skiers: Andrea Mead-Lawrence, Billy Kidd, the Mahre brothers, generations of the Cochran family, Bill Johnson, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street, the cross-country racer Billy Koch. Absolutely, unequivocally, the American union was blessed with mountains east and west, even north in Alaska.

When Marolt took over, however, his goal was audacious. The U.S. Ski Team had enjoyed limited international success for about a decade. Its cash situation was, to be gentle, precarious. "Best in the world"? Little wonder the Europeans -- who dominated the winter scene -- might have laughed. Heartily.

With Wednesday's announcement that Tiger Shaw is due to take over for Marolt after next February's Sochi Games, the time is now to give credit where credit is due.

US Ski Team Speed Center Grand Opening

The United States is now a Winter Games powerhouse. Why? Because of the U.S. Ski Team.

At the Vancouver 2010 Games, the U.S. team won the medals count, with 37. Again -- why? Because the U.S. Ski team won 21.

A little comparison, for those who might yet be stuck in the past, or can't -- or don't want to -- get past their feather boas:

It is absolutely true that in Vancouver Evan Lysacek won gold in men's figure skating. But in the ladies' individual skating competition, no American won a medal of any color. That marked the first time there was no medal in women's singles since 1964, underscoring -- despite the massive hype and drama television loves to play up -- the weakness in the U.S. skating program.

That has not changed. At the 2013 worlds, U.S. women managed to finish fifth and sixth.

Reality, geography, politics and power check:

The 2014 Games are, of course, in Russia, where Vladimir Putin is president. The costs for those Games are already north of $50 billion. Mr. Putin did not oversee the spending of that much money not to win important medals. In Russia, figure skating is important (recall the judging controversy at the 2002 Games). Outside of South Korea's Yuna Kim, who is ethereal, who thinks the Russians aren't going to run away with the figure-skating medals?

The corollary? That leaves the real action in Sochi in the mountains.

Which leads back to the U.S. Ski Team, which has been planning for Sochi since even before Vancouver.

For instance, in 2014 because of new events added in 2011 by the International Olympic Committee, there will be 48 medal opportunities in snowboarding and freeskiing, up from 24 in 2010.

In these so-called "action sport" events, U.S. athletes have been at or near the top of the world rankings over the past seasons.

Meanwhile, in alpine skiing, Ted Ligety won three golds at last year's world championships. And Bode Miller is only the greatest all-around male skier the United States has ever produced.

The U.S. women, to echo the slogan, are the world's best:  Mikaela Shiffrin, just 18, is the No. 1 slalom skier anywhere, Julia Mancuso one of the top big-event racers ever. Lindsey Vonn, the most successful female ski racer in American history, a four-time World Cup overall champion and the 2010 Vancouver downhill gold medalist, now has something to prove; she is making an ahead-of-schedule recovery from last February's knee injury, cleared for on-snow training and heading Friday for Chile, the ski team's other big announcement Wednesday. Vonn's original target to be back on skis: November.

In cross-country, Kikkan Randall and Jesse Diggins and, for that matter, the entire women's relay team are for-real contenders to win the first Olympic medals for the U.S. in the discipline since Koch in the 1970s. On the men's side, Andy Newell is in the hunt, too.

The Nordic combined team proved the breakout stars of the Vancouver Games. Billy Demong and Todd Lodwick figure to be back. And the Fletcher brothers, Taylor and Bryan, are killer fast on skis. Any sort of jumping and the skiing will take care of itself -- which the rest of the world knows full well.

Sarah Hendrickson won last year's women's ski jumping world championships -- though she suffered an injury to her right knee in a training jump last week in Europe.

Back to snowboarding: the U.S. roster is so good and so deep that Shaun White, the two-time halfpipe gold medalist, is going to have to compete, and hard, to defend his title.

These are just some of the faces and names that will be on TV come February.

As complicated as Bill Marolt's job is, it's also thoroughly elemental. It's USSA's job to put these athletes in position come next February to deliver peak performance.

The record shows that few, if any, sports organizations have been run as well as the U.S. Ski Team since 1996.

Indeed, few organizations anywhere are now run with the vision -- and the winning culture -- of the ski team.

Since 2009, USSA has been headquartered at the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, where staff, trainers, coaches and athletes across all the disciplines mingle in a building that is part office and part state-of-the-art training center -- the better to exchange stories, ideas, laughs, whatever. This is how a common culture is not only built but nurtured.

This fall will mark the third season of the Copper Mountain Speed Center in Colorado -- where racers can, early-season, train full-on downhill, with speeds of 80 mph and jumps of 50 to 70 meters.

For 16 of the last 17 years, USSA has recorded a balanced budget.

It has an endowment that now measures $60 million.

All of this is, in large measure, thanks to the leadership of Bill Marolt.

"I think if I've done one thing," Marolt said, "I brought focus and a sense of direction that ultimately everybody bought into. And out of that focus and direction, you can create that culture of excellence. Then -- you can create a lot.

"More than anything, I brought the sense of focus."


That is what Shaw inherits. This is his challenge and his opportunity.

An alpine skier himself who raced in the 1984 Sarajevo -- under then-men's coach Bill Marolt -- and 1988 Calgary Games, where he finished 12th in the giant slalom and 18th in the super-G, Shaw has since gone on to make himself into a successful businessman.

Shaw recently served as a senior director at Global Rescue LLC, responsible for business development and new markets. Before that he was director of inventory strategy at Dealertrack, overseeing a wide range of automotive retail sales issues.

Marolt will turn 70 in September. Shaw turned 52 last Saturday.

It's one more mark of Marolt's professionalism that there was a process to recruit, identity and put in place his successor. Shaw will become chief operating officer Oct. 1, then move into the top job next spring.

"I'm going to be involved right away in whatever Bill wants as he tutors me," Shaw said in a telephone interview, adding about Sochi and referring again to Marolt, "It's his show. The Olympics are his show. He built the institution to get the athletes to the podium, all that infrastructure.

"What I hope I learn in the time I spend under him is what has made him so successful. The primary goal of mine is to keep us No. 1 in the world, whatever it takes. What he is doing works. We want to emulate that, replicate that and -- improve on it."


Mustache party: historic bronze for U.S. Nordic combined team

Anchored by Billy Demong, the fan favorite from the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, the U.S. Nordic combined team raced Sunday to a history-making bronze in the relay at the 2013 world championships at Predazzo, Italy. The third-place finish made for the first-ever U.S. team world championships medal in Nordic combined. The best prior world championships result? Fourth, in 1995.

Of course, the U.S. men took silver in the relay at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The bronze Sunday came as U.S. women -- Kikkan Randall and Jesse Diggins -- won gold in the team sprint at the 2013 worlds. That made for the first world championships gold medal the U.S. cross-country team has won, ever; the only Olympic medal the U.S. cross-country team has won dates to 1976, Bill Koch's silver in the 30-kilometer event.

For those who believe third is just two lonely places away from first, Sunday's bronze serves as an important reference beyond its place in history. It gives renewed legitimacy to prospects the U.S. Nordic team might -- might -- be able to recapture the magic of its breakout performance in Vancouver.

Your 2013 world champion bronze medalist Nordic combined team from the United States: Taylor Fletcher, Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick and Bryan Fletcher, all sporting American flag mustaches // photo courtesy Sarah Brunson and U.S. Ski TEam

Candidly, and everyone in the United States associated with a sport like Nordic combined will acknowledge it, as satisfying as a bronze medal at the world championships is, and it is, what matters is the Olympic Games. That's when America pays attention.

That's why what happened in Vancouver was so big. Demong won individual gold (on the large hill), Johnny Spillane two silvers (the large and normal hill) and then there was the relay silver. For years and years, Demong, Spillane, Todd Lodwick and Brett Camerota had put in the work; U.S. Ski Team officials had launched a plan for medals in 1996, and never wavered. Vancouver brought the payoff.

The night he won gold, Demong proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Katie Koczynski. Then he was chosen to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies.

Heady stuff for a Nordic combined guy, for an athlete from an American program that before Vancouver had never, ever won an Olympic medal of any sort.

Now Billy and Katie are the parents of 2-year-old Liam.

Now Billy is 32; he'll be 33 next month.  Lodwick, who skied Sunday's third leg, is 36; he will be 37 in November.

Now, too, the program has seen the emergence of the Fletcher brothers, Taylor and Bryan, who -- like Lodwick and Spillane -- are from Steamboat Springs, Colo. Demong -- originally from the area around Lake Placid, N.Y. -- now calls Park City, Utah, home.

Bryan, now 26, was named the FIS Nordic combined athlete of the week at the end of the 2012 season, after his victory at the World Cup finale at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.

Taylor, 22, won the same award last month for his fifth- and third-place finishes -- his first career podium -- in Seefeld, Austria.

Taylor might well be the fastest skier on the circuit, testament to his own talent and U.S. coach Dave Jarrett's training program, which calls for repeated blocks of intensity workouts.

What has been the sticking point -- as the U.S. team builds toward Sochi -- is not the skiing.

It has been the jumping.

On Sunday, the Americans got a big break.

Taylor Fletcher got a wind-based re-start. Essentially, he got a do-over on his jump. His first jump? 79 meters. The second try? 93 meters. Big difference.

With that, the Americans started the skiing in fifth, about a minute behind the best-jumping Japanese. Taylor Fletcher skied first, Bryan next. Bryan moved to second early in his leg, then tagged to Lodwick in third, 23.3 seconds behind Austria.

Lodwick tagged to Demong with the U.S. a close fourth.

Early in his anchor leg, Demong surged to the lead, ahead of Japan, France, Norway and Austria. With under two kilometers to go, he still held the lead, followed by Norway's Magnus Moan and France's Jason Lamy Chappuis.

Those two attacked on the final climb. Demong fell back.

Lamy Chappuis broke to the finish, crossing four-tenths of a second ahead of Moan. Demong held off Japan's Yusuke Minato and Austria's Mario Stecher; Demong finished 4.2 seconds back of first.

"Honestly, going into the last leg I had a goal to just ski a smart race and not lead it all," Demong said. "I ended up leading almost the whole thing.

"In the end I was a little unsure if the other guys were really going to be fresh, and coming down the last hill, I’m like, 'Don’t look back, you don’t want to know. Just keep chasing Magnus and Jason.’ So I think it was really a relief to come within five meters of the finish line and just glance and say, 'OK, yeah, we’ve got this.' "

All four guys wore U.S. flag mustaches -- a team-bonding thing. They had agreed Saturday night they would do it, and the mustaches were the talk of the news conferences afterward.

Maybe it'll be a trend for Sochi 2014.

"We came in this knowing that we were going to be close for the cross country, knowing the jumping had put ourselves in position," Taylor Fletcher said.

"We don’t come to this competition to lose so we did our best to fight for the podium and fight for the victory. I give it up to our staff, teammates, coaches and, of course," he said, "the mustache was the deciding factor in this."


A fresh look at the Lake Placid model

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- The Olympic spirit is at once real and yet tremendously difficult to define or quantify. If there is ever a place that has that spirit, however, it is here, in this little town of not even 3,000 people.

Here, the bronze medal that Andrew Weibrecht won in the super-G at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics hangs in a frame behind the check-in desk at the Mirror Lake Inn, run by his parents, Ed and Lisa. Just steps off Main Street -- literally, just a couple steps -- sits the oval where Eric Heiden won all five speed-skating races in 1980; every winter that oval is frozen over and used by kids and, well, anyone with a pair of skates.

A short drive away is the bobsled track. Even closer, standing sentinel over town, is the ski jump. It looks out, over among other things, Whiteface Mountain and and the ski runs and of course, straight down below, the simple cauldron that was used at those 1980 Winter Games, a reminder of how no-frills the Olympics used to be.

Thirty-two years after those Games, all these facilities are in working order. Everything is here, everything works and everything is a short drive -- or a walk -- from everything else. And, of course, everyone, it seems, wants to play hockey in the arena that Mike Eruzione and the U.S. team made famous.

But that's no miracle. That's testament to vision and public policy and the notion that the Olympic spirit matters -- indeed, that legacy matters.

The International Olympic Committee now stresses the notion of legacy -- that a Games shouldn't just come to a particular town and then leave so-called white elephants, a bunch of facilities and venues idling away, or worse, torn down after being built at a cost of millions.

Lake Placid, host to the Winter Games in 1932 and 1980, was way ahead of its time.

Maybe it's time to take a fresh look at the Lake Placid model.

The last editions of the Winter Olympics have gone to big cities -- Vancouver, Torino, Salt Lake, Nagano.

Before that came Lillehammer, and the small-town feel of Lillehammer is what the organizers of the Pyeongchang Games say they aim, in part, to deliver in 2018. Even so, those Korean Games will involve considerable infrastructure costs.

The capital costs of the Sochi 2014 project absolutely will run to the billions. It's unclear if the true costs will ever be known, since accounting will be at the discretion of the Russian government.

The bobsled run used for the 2006 Torino Winter Games cost $100 million to build, $2 million to operate annually. It was announced last month that it is due to be dismantled.

Contrast: the 20-curve, 4,773-foot bobsled track in Lake Placid, re-built for the February, 2000, Goodwill Games, is now a mainstay on the World Cup circuit, the tour making its usual stop here recently.

The track cost about $30 million, according to Ted Blazer, the president and chief executive officer of the New York state Olympic Regional Development Authority.

ORDA's annual budget now runs to about $32 million.

Each fiscal year since 1982-83, the state has kicked in millions of dollars to ORDA, recognizing the value in the Olympic brand in Lake Placid.

Again, and for overseas critics of the American style of Olympic budgeting: every year for 30 years that has been a line item in the state budget, proposed by the governor, reviewed by the legislature; each year, it has been approved, and in some years with significant capital outlays or debt-service obligations.

Since the 1982-83 fiscal year, the state's contribution totals just under $228.3 million.

That is more than just legacy. That is building for the present, and the future.

That commitment has put Lake Placid in position to bid for, say, the 2020 or 2024 Youth Winter Olympic Games. There would be issues, perhaps significant -- where to house that many athletes, for instance, because any new development would have to contend with the fundamental issue that Lake Placid is surrounded by state parkland. Nonetheless, such a bid would seem to be on the radar.

"Having the athletes rub elbows with all the tourists in town, we're doing it in this beautiful pristine environment -- it's who we are," Blazer said. "When you think of Lake Placid -- it's the whole game, it's one neat package right here. It's not the big city where it gets lost. It gives us identity."

Added Jeff Potter, ORDA's director of corporate development, "We have hosted the two Olympic Games. It's just in our DNA to continue that legacy."

The U.S. Olympic Committee opened its current training facility in town in 1989.

Steve Holcomb, the current world and Olympic four-man bobsled champion, said, "Lake Placid is such a small town -- so far out of the way -- but it's so Olympic and so big. They have done a great job. The 'Miracle on Ice' -- they took that and ran with it. They have the Olympic Training Center there and they work really, really hard to make sure they maximize what they have there."

The culture in Lake Placid -- families and volunteers committed to winter sports -- also stands as a key part of why this little town so far out of the way remains hugely relevant in Olympic circles.

Simply put, you grow up here with the Olympic Games in mind. Billy Demong, a gold and silver medalist at the Vancouver Games in the Nordic combined, made his first Olympic team at the Nagano 1998 Games, when he was just 17.

Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke have both been to the 2006 and 2010 Games in biathlon, and are aiming for Sochi in 2014; Bailey is from Lake Placid, Burke from Paul Smiths, a hamlet a few miles to the northwest.

"Growing up in Lake Placid," Bailey said, "you are surrounded by people at every step of the Olympic journey, the Olympic path. There are gold medalists who live in town. There are people who have gotten an Olympic medal and come back to town. You have the Olympics from the organizational standpoint. There is everything in between. There were athletes ahead of us. Billy Demong was the first of us … that was something we saw. You saw what was possible, and that made it so much more motivating."

Echoed Burke, "Growing up around Lake Placid, it seems so much more attainable. In other towns, it's something you might see on TV every four years. For us -- it's something we live every day."

Billy Demong: back at it

Seventh in the normal hill, sixth in the large hill at the just-concluded Nordic combined world championships -- is there something wrong with world and Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong? Just the opposite.

To know Demong is to understand what an incredible accomplishment he just turned in at the 2011 worlds in Oslo, Norway.

It is also to understand why he and the U.S. Nordic combined team, the breakthrough stars of the 2010 Vancouver Games, would seem poised for yet more success in Sochi and the 2014 Winter Games.

That's what sixth place in Oslo will do for you. Or fifth, which is where teammate Todd Lodwick finished in the large hill event. Or fourth, where the Americans finished in the team event.

"When we have people disappointed with fourth, sixth, fifth," Demong said Monday with a laugh, "we have come a long way."


Until Vancouver, the U.S. Nordic combined program had registered a historic oh-fer. In 86 years of Winter Games history, the U.S. team had won no medals.

Fourteen years of consistent funding, improved coaching and training, and planning -- it all paid off in Vancouver, with the U.S. team winning four medals in three events.

Demong and Johnny Spillane went one-two in the large hill event; Spillane won silver in the normal hill; the U.S. team won a relay silver.

Then came the obvious question: what next?

For Demong, it was time to take time off -- take most of 2010 to, as he put it, "live life, so that the motivation comes strong in the next three years."

The life living started with a bang.

Within 24 hours all this happened: He became a gold medalist. He learned he had been chosen to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremony. He proposed to his girlfriend, Katie Koczynski.

As soon as the Games ended, he did the whole media blitz thing. He went ski flying. He attended celebratory parades.

Originally from Vermontville, N.Y., he threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets' game: "I have watched too many people come up short," he said. "I freaking launched it over the catcher's head. He had to jump for it."

He spoke on the National Mall on Earth Day.

He visited U.S. Army bases in the Middle East.

He went back home to Park City, Utah, and re-did his house, among other things adding 400 square feet and moving the kitchen to the other side of the structure.

He and Katie got married. A son, Liam, was born in January.

It wasn't until September that Demong became a Nordic combined skier again. As he put it, "That's a little late."

So sixth place at the 2011 worlds -- that gets the job done, and in two ways:

"I would be going through that media corral and the reporters would be saying, 'You must be disappointed after sixth place,' " Demong was saying.

Hardly: "I'm in a different place right now. That's my best result of the season. It not only gives me confidence I can be really good it also lets me know I can be training well and can be better than ever."

All it takes, he said, is getting back to the gym.

No one has ever accused Billy Demong of lacking the hard-work gene.

"When you are at the top of your game," he said, thinking back to the 2009 and 2010 seasons in particular, "you're like, 'I can ski backward,' or, 'I can skip days training,' or, 'I feel so in control.' That is an important part of getting good.

"What's also important is realizing you have to stay good all the time. Taking time off and struggling through the season is a really good way -- a really good way of getting back in touch with desire and hunger."

He also said,  "As neat a goal as it is to win a gold, it might be even harder to defend it. It kind of freaks me out but it gets me excited.

"And that's the fun part."'