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2010 Winter Olympics: Johnny Spillane ends an 86-year drought for U.S. Nordic Combined

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The same skier who gave the United States its first world championship in nordic combined seven years ago, ended an 86-year wait when he gave his country its first medal in the sport that is traditionally dominated by Europeans.

"I'm just thrilled," said Johnny Spillane, Steamboat Springs, Colo., who earned a silver medal Sunday afternoon in front of 4,500 screaming fans at the Whistler Olympic Park's cross-country ski course. "It took a lot, a lot of hard work ... As Americans, the Olympics is it for us. And maybe sometimes that puts a little too much pressure on the team, and people expect things that might not be possible. But going into this year, we have three guys who are very consistent and very strong and it didn't take anything special today. It wasn't like this was a miracle event. And we still put three guys into the top six."

Spillane took the lead with less than 800 meters left in the race but said he didn't have enough left in the tank to hold off Jason Lamy Chappius, France, who won the event with a time of 25:47.1. It was a thrilling sprint to the finish among the top six skiers. Spillane's silver-medal time was .4 seconds behind the Frenchman, who incidentally was born in Montana and has an American mother.

Italy's Alessandro Pittin won the bronze with 25:47.09. Park City's Brett Camerota finished 36th with a time of 27:56.6. Billy Demong finished sixth, just 17.9 seconds behind the winner.

"Obviously it's a great day for the U.S.," said Camerota, who hopes to earn a spot in the team relay competition with Spillane, Todd Lodwick, who finished fourth, and Demong. "It's great to see finally, all of the training, all of the hard work ... finally we get our first medal. That's a huge goal; that is the goal."

In nordic combined, athletes compete in ski jumping first. They are ranked according their finish and that determines when they start the cross-country race. While Camerota finished the jumping in 10th place, Demong finished 24th after the jumps.

Demong was disappointed but not for long, as he said he knew the team was in a good position to win that first, historic medal.

"The first Olympic medal," said Demong with a slight smile. "That's just a huge victory for all of us. Over the last 10 years, all of us, me, Johnny and Todd (Lodwick), have carried this team at some point. We all drag each other along. I'm ecstatic. Even after I finished 24th in jumping, I said to myself, 'It's OK because Todd is second and Johnny is fourth.' We're good to go."

Spillane worked with Lodwick, also of Steamboat Springs, Colo., to control the speed at the front of the pack.

Spillane said no one really wanted to lead the pack, which burns more fuel in the grueling 10k race.

"We kept trying to get different people to lead ... We were lucky because some of the other guys actually took pulls," he said. Lodwick led nearly two laps, with Spillane and others taking over here and there. Then Spillane sprinted from the pack, which he hoped was enough to separate him for good from the group.

"I tried really hard to get away because I wanted to get a gap and hopefully ski away with it. I went for it; it's the Olympics, and you have to try as hard as you possibly can. I went for it, and unfortunately I was a little too tired coming down the home stretch."

All four of the skiers who sprinted together across the finish line fell to the ground in exhaustion.

"The race was typical of what we've been seeing from nordic combined this year," Spillane said. "It was fairly exciting, and a lot of different guys have a chance to win ... I sprinted up that hill and I got a little too far into the red zone and I didn't quite have it at the very end."

He said the U.S. athletes couldn't have been in a better situation at the end of the race. Demong called it his best race ever because he made up so much time going from 24th to sixth in the cross-country section.

"I really just wanted to catch up to Todd and Johnny," said Demong. "I gave it my all; I had nothing to lose ... It does make it that much sweeter that I was able to finish in that group with those guys. Honestly, today was a team success."

Spillane agreed and felt the U.S. finishing 2, 4 and 6 only helped them going into the other two competitions next week.

"We were all in a good position going into the last K (kilometer) and a half," Spillane said. "That's all you can hope for. We might not get a ton of recognition but it was nice that the hard work paid off."

Spillane said the Olympic milestone was special in a different way than earning the first World Championship title for the U.S.

"Because it's every four years, it definitely makes it special," said Spillane who has struggled with injuries the last six years. "There are only so many opportunities in your lifetime that you can be on your game at an Olympic event."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com