Katie Koczynski

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."


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."'