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2010 Winter Olympics: US Nordic combined success decades in the making

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Former U.S. Nordic combined coach Tom Steitz was too wired to sleep after watching the three men he once recruited as pimple-faced teenagers inspect the sparkling silver medals around their necks.

Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane, along with teammate Brett Camerota, took second Tuesday in the 4-by-5-kilometer team relay. Ten days earlier, Spillane broke the Americans' 86-year Olympic shutout in Nordic combined with an individual silver.

Steitz, who stepped down as U.S. coach in 2002 but served as Lodwick's personal coach at the Turin Games, now works as a management consultant. He remains a godfather figure to the American athletes and their families.

"It kind of came to me at 2 in the morning," Steitz said Wednesday. "I'm done. I can rest, finally, after 22 years. I don't feel like I need to worry about this anymore."

No longer will he wonder whether the path he forged so long ago would lead to the podium, as he had preached so often while seeking money and sponsors for a sport Americans knew little, if anything, about.

"We had to start from scratch in so many ways," Steitz said. "We had to find the athletes, the coaches, the corporate partners, the sponsorships and put it all together. It takes a long, long time."

Steitz figured it was folly for athletes in obscure winter sports such as Nordic combined — a ski jump followed by a brutal test of speed over a cross-country track — to succeed by training on their own.

So he developed a program that borrowed heavily from the old Soviet Union's doctrine: Identify talent early on, move the athletes to a central training facility wean out those who don't show consistent improvement.

Tough love for a tough task.

His system has been used as a blueprint for other sports, including cross-country skiing, where top athletes Kris Freeman, Andy Newall and Kikkan Randall were recruited as teens to train in Park City, Utah. America's best biathlete, Tim Burke, is another a product of this pipeline approach.

"That's the model that we'd like to have for all our sports," said Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. "You train harder when you train together. You just push each other harder."

"Tom Steitz was the guy who built the team we have today," said Demong, now 29. "He also made us buy in to the team approach, and that has become our motto — that we are a band of brothers that feed off and share each other's successes in training and competition."

To start out, Steitz insisted all his athletes move to Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he lined up host families.

He discovered Lodwick, now 33, as a local 15-year-old daredevil who was fearless on the jump hill but had never skied a cross-country course in his life. Demong, who was a cerebral 15-year-old from upstate New York, had tremendous endurance and aerobic capacity — but he had never ski jumped. Steitz promised to teach them both.

He didn't have to go far to find Spillane, now 29, who lived just six houses down from him in Steamboat. Spillane skied and jumped but wasn't as talented as the others. What he had was an unmatched work ethic.

Good thing, too, because Steitz was about to put them through hell.

"We tried to have the best minds in exercise science come up with the hardest physical training possible," said Steitz, who also developed performance-based metrics to measure the progress of both athletes and coaches.

He went through dozens of athletes and numerous coaches who couldn't cut it.

"In professional sports, the first thing we do when a team loses to go get a different coach," Steitz said. "I brought the same thing to the Olympics."

In the early days, Steitz found opposition at every corner.

He remembers taking one ragtag bunch to Norway in 1989 and receiving neither a warm welcome nor a dry wax cabin to service the team's skis, as required. Complaining to his hosts, he says he was told, "You're Team USA. It's not going to make a difference. Go wax in the parking lot.'"

It's a tale he relished relaying to Norwegian King Harald V nine years later, in 1998, when his efforts began to pay off and the Americans won the prestigious King's Cup.

"I think anybody who knows Tom knows he's passionate and fought tooth and nail to get every resource possible for the sport," U.S. Nordic director John Farra said.

Dave Jarrett, whom Steitz recruited to ski for the team in 1992, is widely credited with taking the Americans' training to new heights after succeeding Steitz, who left coaching in 2002 to become founding partner and CEO of Colorado-based 3 Peaks Leadership, a corporate consulting firm.

"I feel strongly that Tom was the foundation layer for our program," Demong said, "but our recent success also draws a lot upon the physiological training methods and increasingly more efficient programs that Dave Jarrett has put together over these past eight years."

Steitz concurs.

"He's done a great job putting the roof over the house, if you will," Steitz said. "They've continued to push and find better ways to do everything. That's one of the things that we instilled in coaches and athletes, is that you always have to be on the lookout for a way to do your job better."

Demong said the Americans have fundamentally changed their training techniques under Jarrett.

They do massive amounts of training on the cross-country course while other countries focus on the jump hill. They do weight-training at different times of the year from other teams, and they have adopted tapering schedules from endurance athletes, toning down the work before competitions so they can be at their peak.

"We don't train like any other team," Demong said. "They think we're crazy."

Spillane said the new training techniques played a major role in the Americans' dominating the world championships last year and winning two silver medals at the Olympics heading into the third and final race Thursday.

And it bodes well for the future, he suggested.

"Our younger guys are training much more than we did at that age because we have proven that it is possible to do so without burning out," Spillane said.

Steitz said he feels as though he's handed things off to Jarrett in their own sort of relay. Only it's not the last leg of their journey — just the start of something big.