In Vancouver 2010, he won a gold medal as historic as it was improbable in the sport with the strange name.
Twelve years later, on the eve of another Olympic Winter Games, Billy Demong has the same advice for aspiring Olympians as he always has:
“Treat the Olympics like any other race.”
These days, at 41, Demong serves as executive director of USA Nordic, the governing body of Nordic skiers in America. He took over leadership of the organization in 2016, a year after closing the books on a nearly 20-year competitive career that included five Olympics, seven world championships and dozens of World Cups.
His sport was Nordic combined. That’s the event that combines ski jumping — the old-fashioned kind — with cross-country skiing. It requires no explanation in Norway; here, it’s almost as well-known as curling.
Few sports are more demanding. First, there’s a ski jump the length of a football field at 60 mph; then a cross-country ski race.
For decades, Americans had been knocking their heads against a wall — one packed full of Norwegians — attempting to make an Olympic podium. In 2010, that wall collapsed. Not only did Demong win individual gold, Johnny Spillane won two individual silvers and the team of Demong, Spillane, Todd Lodwick and Brett Camerota won silver in the four-man relay.
Ever since, Olympians of all stripes — not just Nordic combiners — have wondered what in the world went so right.
To help explain, Demong pulls out his smart phone and shows a video of his gold medal race. He focuses on the part where he’s just crossed the finish line and is bent over his ski poles catching his breath.
To no one in particular, he can be heard saying: “That was pretty good.”
That’s his Neil Armstrong moment.
He’s just won America’s first-ever Nordic combined gold medal — the first gold medal, for that matter, in any Nordic event in Olympic history — and his reaction is “That was pretty good.”
Demong explains: “It shows that’s how much I was in my own head. That’s how much that day was like every other day.”
He remembers it “took a few days for it to set in” that he’d won gold. “I’d wake up and think, ‘did that really happen?’”
Of course, the hard part, Demong is quick to add, is being able to talk yourself into treating the Olympics like any other race.
“To think that way takes a long time. You have to get mature enough, and get your competitive level high enough, where you can look around you and think, ‘These are the same morons from Norway I race all the time’ — and you can quote that, those guys will love it.”
For Demong, that meant three Olympics to get seasoned. He was 17 when he competed in his first Olympics in Nagano, Japan; 21 in the Salt Lake Games of 2002 (where he nearly medaled when the four-man U.S. relay team finished fourth) and 25 in Torino 2006 — all of it setting the stage for Vancouver.
“I’m super happy I did it at 29 and not at 20,” he says.
After the gold, he got his brief taste of celebrity, which for him turned out to be plenty. He did the “Today Show,” showed off his medals (in company with his teammates) on a tour of armed forces bases in the Persian Gulf, did a bunch of media.
“For a few weeks random people would know who I was.”
Two months after the Games he was asked to speak at an Earth Day event on the National Mall in Washington. When he walked in the White House Rose Garden with actress Sigourney Weaver, “at one point it was just me, her and Barack Obama chatting.”
He has no recollection of what they talked about.
Then it was back to New York (Demong grew up in the Lake Placid region) the next day to throw out the first pitch of a Mets game.
“At that point my brain is like, ‘you’re done, don’t do this anymore.’ So I flew home.”
To decompress he took a sledgehammer to the walls of his house at Kimball Junction to get started on a remodeling project. Four months later he had the home he still lives in (with wife Katie and sons Liam, 10, and Renn, 6.)
He figures he made $1 million from racing — in 20 years. “And it all came in about a five-year span. It certainly didn’t set me up financially. But I was smart and lived cheaply and I made some wise investments along the way.”
He was never in it for the money anyway, which is another piece of wisdom he’ll pass on to aspiring Olympians:
“If you’re focusing on the outcome or the reward, I don’t think you’re going to get there. My advice is to gravitate toward focusing on the journey. Success, however you define it, will be the byproduct of doing it right.”