The pride of Vermontville may be America's best hope for an Olympic medal in nordic skiing
by Phil Johnson
In some quarters in the Adirondacks it is called “the one-minute rule.” When the topic is winter sports, no conversation can go for more than sixty seconds before the 1980 Winter Olympics come up.
There is a lot of that talk these days on the eve of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, in Salt Lake City. Ironically, if a medal does come back home to the Adirondacks this time, what the likely bearer knows about the Lake Placid games will all be second hand.
Bill Demong was born in Saranac Lake in March 1980—a month after the closing ceremonies—and as far as home-grown talent goes, he is the real deal. He grew up in nearby Vermontville and attended school in Saranac Lake; Vermontville is still home base when he is not off training or competing.
Today Demong is one of the top two nordic combined athletes on the U.S. national team. He is the current U.S. champion in this event, where participants both jump and crosscountry ski, two disciplines that require very different skills. Combined is one of four nordic events, along with skiing, jumping and biathlon. L.S. nordic coaches have set a goal of two medals in 2002. If Demong has the best day of his young career, he could fulfill half of that objective. “We all think about that one day,” says Demong. “It is always in the back of your mind. We’ve been talking and thinking about it for four years. It used to be pressure. But the closer it comes, the more it seems like an opportunity.”
If this seems awfully low key for an American athlete in nordic, where Olympic success has come only twice since 1924, you have Bill Demong pegged just about right.
His mom, Helen, is a music teacher in Saranac Lake. His dad, Leo, is an aquatic biologist for the Department of Environmental Conservation in Ray Brook. Sister Katy, a nationally ranked junior competitor in the biathlon, is a sophomore at St. Lawrence University. So far, Bill has passed on higher education in order to concentrate on his sport.
Demong started skiing as a youngster with his dad and soon was competing in the local Bill Koch program, the Little League of nordic activity. He began ski jumping at age nine under the tutelage of Larry Stone, a former U.S. Ski Team special jumping coach long affiliated with the Lake Placid-based New York Ski Education Foundation.
Demong has vivid memories of his first competition away from home, a junior event held in Rumford, Maine.
“I was pathetic. I was scared to death,” he recalls.
Things started to click at age thirteen. “But then I grew six inches. My elbows and my knees switched places and I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t until sixteen that I put things back together.”
Progress was made quickly. That winter he finished fourth in the jumping competition in the Junior Olympics, earning him an invitation to be a part of the summer program at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. It was the turning point in his career.
Working with former nordic combined competitor Joe Lamb of Lake Placid, Demong and three others in the summer program became the core of what European coaches now call “the wolf pack”: young, aggressive, American competitors who work as a team.
That team, anchored by Demong, won the world junior relay championship at Saafelden, Austria, in 1999. Last summer the team trained in Europe against the best from Norway, Finland, Germany and Austria. Demong finished second overall in the six-competition series. It was a confidence builder.
If Demong is going to perform at that level in Salt Lake, he’ll be bucking a long running back-of-the-pack tradition in U.S. nordic results. The only Olympic medal in modern times was a silver in the thirty-kilometer cross-country competition by Bill Koch in 1976. And that was due, at least in part, to luck. Koch had an early start position and warming weather during the day softened the snow, slowing down the favored racers who started later. No such luck since, although Demong’s current teammate Todd Lodwick of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, has four World Cup victories to his credit and should be a contender at Salt Lake. The Olympic nordic competitions this winter will be held about forty miles from Salt Lake City, near Park City: The jumping will be at Utah Olympic Park, and the cross-country course is at Soldier Hollow. There are three events spread over the two weeks; all competitors jump and ski. The first event is the individual competition, in which each person takes two jumps on the ninety-meter hill followed by a fifteen-kilometer ski the next day. Four-man teams compete in the second event: each member takes two jumps on the ninety-meter hill then skis a five-kilometer relay lap. The third event, the sprint, consists of one jump on the 120-meter hill followed the next day by a 7.5-kilometer cross-country race.
The Soldier Hollow venue should be unusually challenging for crosscountry competitors. For starters, it is just under the 1,600-meter elevation ceiling (about 5,250 feet) mandated by Olympic regulations, so altitude may be a factor. Then there is the course itself. Designed with spectators and television in mind, it is a loop that starts with a long uphill, followed by a longer downhill, then ends with a climb to the stadium finish line.
Here Demong and his teammates may have an unintended advantage. In early September most of the top European competitors were headed to Salt Lake for practice. The Norwegian team was actually en route when its flight was turned back on September 11. Fall training was sharply curtailed and the regular World Cup schedule in nordic combined began in November in Europe.
“The jump training is especially important,” says Demong. “It takes a lot of the guess work out if you know the quirks of the hill.”
In the two-discipline event, Demong has proven to be stronger in the jumps. At Utah Olympic Park in 2001, he won the U.S. specialty jumping championship in the ninety-meter event and finished second on the large hill. The jumps come first in nordic combined competition, with the chase-format cross-country competition based on jumping results. Known as the Gunderson start, the first person to cross the finish line in cross-country wins the event, so the higher you finish in the jumping competition, the fewer people you have to pass to earn a medal.
Demong, a member of Saranac Lake High School’s cross-country running championship team just a few years ago, works very hard on the skiing part of the nordic combined event. He made up more than a minute differential to anchor his world junior relay team championship two years ago and his regular training regimen has a heavy emphasis on the endurance part of his sport.
A typical training day at the team’s headquarters in Steamboat Springs starts about 8:30 a.m. with a three-hour session of specialty training. Since nordic combined requires both quick muscle movement for jumping and endurance for skiing, the morning session will vary in content, but not intensity. Lunch and a nap are usually followed by a sixty- to ninety-minute conditioning program of running or roller skiing. After that there is a strength session in the weight room.
It is not a sport that lends itself to a full social life. There is no Alberto Tomba or Picabo Street personality in nordic combined.
“In general, the World Gup circuit is made up of a nice group of shy individuals,” Demong says. “After a race, most guys congratulate the winners then go hide in their hotel room. You don’t see them out celebrating in bars. All of these guys would feel right at home in Vermontville!”
This will be Demong’s second Olympics. An alternate on the U.S. team at Nagano at seventeen, he didn’t even have lodging in the athletes’ village when he was called for a surprise start in the individual event. He finished thirty-fourth.
In his mind, however, this will be a much different experience.
“Last time, we missed the opening ceremonies. We were in a plane en route to Japan at the time. We watched highlights on TV. We all agreed later that we hadn’t gotten into the Olympic spirit. This time we’ll be there from the beginning. It is important to get into the feel of it.”
One person who did get the feel last time was Demong’s mother, the only family member who was able to go to Nagano.
“There was an enormous sense of pride,” she recalls. “There were more than fifty thousand people at the ski jump when they announced my son’s name as the next competitor. They announced it to the crowd in four languages.”
Helen will be joined by the family this year at Soldier Hollow, delighted to be a part of the event, cheering for the home team, hoping to bring back a medal. If Demong does, he will be the first Adirondack native and resident to come home with a medal since Saranac Lake’s Charles “Tommy” Butler and Jim Lamy won bronze as members of the four-man bobsled at Cortina, Italy, in 1956. (Anne Kilbourne of Saranac Lake and Princeton University could medal as part of a strong U.S. women’s hockey team, and veteran jumpers Casey Colby and Taylor Hoffman of Lake Placid may compete but are not considered medal contenders.)
Realistically, Demong should be pleased with a top-ten individual finish. No American nordic skier has ever finished higher than ninth in Olympic competition and that result was in 1932. He has had just one top-ten result in World Cup competition prior to this season and all the current top competitors from Austria, Germany, Norway and Finland are expected at the Salt Lake games.
But those who carry on with the spirit of 1980 believe in miracles, and Adirondack hopes will be jumping and skiing with Bill Demong this February.
Phil Johnson’s first article for the magazine, on Adirondack bobsledders, appeared in the January/February 1978 issue.