Spillane defeats rivals, gets guaranteed spot on Olympic Nordic team

By Eddie Pells, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Spillane punches Oly ticket in Nordic combined

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — After a signature win in his hometown Wednesday, Johnny Spillane looked over his shoulder and pointed in the direction of the house where he grew up only four or five blocks away.

Spillane knows as well as anyone, though, that no path to the Olympics is ever that short.

Despite being slowed and stopped by injuries that have ended five of his seasons this decade, Spillane made his fourth U.S. Olympic team, defeating rivals Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong at Nordic combined Olympic trials.

Spillane won the world championship in 2003 to become the first American to take a major international competition. Since then, he’s been a more frequent guest in the operating room than the medals podium.

Shoulders. Back. Two knee surgeries only a few months ago. Some kept him out longer than others. None of them were easy to overcome. Then again, nothing about Nordic combined — ski jumping followed by a brutal test of speed over a 10-kilometer cross-country track — is easy.

“It was definitely very frustrating to have it happen so many seasons in a row,” Spillane said. “But I enjoy doing this so much, it wasn’t something I was about to stop doing.”

Despite not winning, Lodwick and Demong are virtual shoo-ins on what is expected to be the strongest American team ever. The United States has never won an Olympic medal in Nordic combined but is expected to contend in 2010.

Demong won gold and bronze medals at this year’s world championships.

Lodwick should make his fifth Olympic team, putting him in extremely rare company: According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, only bobsledder Brian Shimer has been in five Winter Olympics and only two other athletes, Chris Witty and Willie Davenport, have combined for five Winter and Summer Games.

Not that Lodwick or Demong were mailing this one in.

“I think if you tell a competitive group of people to go out and race for fun, you’re kidding yourself,” Lodwick said. “It’s going to be a push to the finish line. We didn’t make any money today but we’re still out there hauling to the finish.”

And doing it in front of quite an audience.

Lodwick is also from Steamboat Springs, which has long been a hotbed for Winter Olympic athletes of every ilk — and especially fond of Nordic combined.

It was in 1995 that Steamboat was starting to get into the Nordic scene, hosting its second World Cup event in what has become a near annual ritual. The winner that day: Todd Lodwick. He planted an American flag in the ground after he crossed the finish line. And serving as a forerunner: 15-year-old Johnny Spillane.

They’ve been chasing each other around that track ever since.

“I’d rather have three of us battling than none or just one,” Lodwick said. “I drove that train alone for a long time. But I still feel like I’m at least in the front seat of a two-door pickup.”

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