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U.S. nordic skiers are a quiet power

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America's top nordic combined athletes may be among the world's best skiers, but they're third-rate trash talkers. Team USA won't sling a single bulletin board nugget at their European and Far East competitors. They just ski jump and cross country race. Leave the smack to the NBAers.

Modesty aside, the American nordic combined team goes into the 2002 Winter Games with its best team ever. The squad's alpha-dog, Todd Lodwick, has won five World Cup events over his career and struck gold at the world junior championships in 1996. Teammate Bill Demong is just days removed from his first World Cup win (albeit against a weakened field) and skied the anchor leg for the gold-medal relay at the 1999 world juniors. And Colorado's Matt Dayton has recorded a top-5 World Cup finish this season.

America is quietly developing into a nordic combined power.

Still, the Yanks' Olympic history in nordic combined is thin. The United States have never caught a whiff of the medal podium.

"No matter how good we are, no matter how many World Cups Todd wins and Billy wins, we're still the underdog," said U.S. nordic combined coach Tom Steitz.

"Would a sane man put his money on us? I don't know."

But the Americans go into the 2002 Winter Games cautiously confident.

Lodwick has adopted an "Olympics are just another competition" mantra. It's a way to ease the pressure, he says. You know, take care of business ? the rewards will come. Still, Lodwick dreams of capturing Olympic glory just a few hours drive from his native Steamboat Springs, Colo.

"We all have goals as young kids to have a medal around our necks," Lodwick said. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime. It's never out of the back of our heads. We're always thinking about it every day."

Steitz says Lodwick is a podium contender in the individual events whenever he steps into skis. Demong and Dayton's World Cup performances have hinted at the ability ? particularly on home snow ? to finish among the elite.

"With three guys going into (the Games) relaxed and confident, and with the home field advantage, anything is possible," Steitz said.

Traditional nordic combined powers Germany, Finland and Austria remain the money favorites in the team relay event. But Team USA's familiarity and comfort with the altitude and dry snow at Utah Olympic Park and Soldier Hollow could nudge them onto the medal podium. "Home field advantage" may hinge on Team USA's ability to make the right equipment and waxing decisions on competition days.

"With everybody skiing well and the crowd boosting us up, the team event could be a really good (couple) of days for us," Steitz said.

E-mail: jswensen@desnews.com