Peter Graves, a former U.S. Ski Team coach, is a noted nordic television commentator for Universal Sports, columnist for Ski Racing Magazine and a longtime follower of the nordic scene. You can watch highlights of the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships on UniversalSports.com presented by High Sierra. Graves reflects on an historic day for U.S. nordic skiers, who now lead the medal count at Nordic Worlds.
When the late social reformer of the 1800's, Amos Bronson Alcott mused that, "success is sweet and sweeter if long delayed an gotten through many struggles and defeats," he might have been talking about this day – February 20, 2009.
I'll always remember where I was when I first heard the news about Bill Koch winning the silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Winter Games on the trails of Seefeld near Innsbruck in the men's 30K event. As a cub reporter for a small Colorado radio station, I scoured the wires, with their comforting clacking sound banging away in the news room for late breaking news. Sometime in the afternoon of a February day 27 years ago, came word that the US had won its first ever medal in cross country skiing. Kochie had done it. After years of trying, the impossible had come true.
Friday, at the 2009 FIS Nordic Ski World Championships in Liberec, it has been another dream day for USA nordic skiing fortunes. Although we have at times been knocking at the door, it's been a long time coming, and ever so satisfying.
Van Sport's First Champion
It started with the story of 24 year-old, 13-time U.S. women's ski jumping champion, Lindsey Van, who became her sport's first ever World Champion to start the day. It was a day much anticipated by many women for many years. And Van became the champion. The Park City native, who has been a pioneer for women's ski jumping, laid down a massive leap of 97.5 meters in her second jump to get the win. First round leader Ulrike Graessler of Germany was second. "This is for everyone", a happy Van told me. "This is for all the women who have been pushing the sport over the last 10 years."
Lindsey Van celebrates her win. (Getty Images/AFP)
Van admitted to some butterflies after a 63-meter trial jump. "It was a hard day and hard conditions, but I am a happy girl today," she told me after the competition, draped in an American flag in the outrun. "This morning when I woke up, I felt like any other normal day. I was treating this like any normal competition. I fet relaxed and knew what I had to do. The second jump was just awesome. It was one of my best jumps... and during the flight I said yes, yes, this feels really good. I am having a great jump."
Women's jumping and the Olympics has received much attention in the last few years. But Van wanted to talk about what today was all about. "I have had only about five minutes to myself all day, so it hasn't really sunk in yet. I can't describe it, but it's like nothing else. I hope this will have an impact on the entire sport," she said with a smile. Van noted that she has been working on an improved in-run position, and that, too, may have helped. A total of 13 nations took part in this debut event.
Lodwick Doubles Up Gold
It was a gold medal day for the U.S. Nordic Combined Team, as well. Yesterday, Todd Lodwick ended the cross country portion of the combined in first place with Billy Demong in third. Friday, amidst unnerving winds gusts and blowing snow, Lodwick, a Steamboat Springs native won the gold. This victory for Lodwick continues to demonstrate why the U.S. Team is viewed by the world as being one of the best. Past medals at Nordic Worlds have come from Johnny Spillane in 2003 and Demong in Sapporo in 2007.
This is Lodwick's first medal in a World Championship event. Demong ended the day in a respectable fifth place in an event that clearly benefits jumpers.
Lodwick, a seven time Worlds team member, said Billy and Johnny were the first to congratulate him on the outrun. "We had a great day, watch out for us in the team event. I am so happy to be back. I love this hill, it reminds me of my home hill in Steamboat, and that gave me confidence". Lodwick needed plenty of confidence, as he was taken off the start bar at the top of the jump three times, due to the snow and wind conditions. Lodwick, who will be a favorite for Vancouver 2010, took over two years off, following Torino, and has come back stronger than ever.
Todd Lodwick becomes a World Champion. (Getty Images/AFP)
Freeman's Extraordinary Day
Friday's men's 15K classical event was fraught with difficult decisions about waxing. With the temperatures hovering around 32F, this can be a coach's nightmare - what skis to use, what flex, what wax? U.S. Head Cross Country Coach Peter Vordenberg and the U.S. waxing team came up with a great choice of hairies, waxless skis that have the ski base scuffed with sandpaper. It was to prove the perfect choice on the tough Liberec course that features long, hard climbs.
New Hampshire's Kris Freeman skied to an extraordinary fourth place, just over a second out of the bronze. This marked the second time Freeman, who skied with NENSA in the East during his formative years, had a fourth at nordic Worlds. The talented distance skier, who has type one diabetes, has also suffered this year from painful compartment syndrome, which hurts his legs and numbs his toes. "This season has been a frustrating one for me, and so this feels especially good. The waxing was tricky and we made the right choices. I paced my race really well. I only wished the race was about 100 meters longer as I was catching the bronze medalist." Freeman, who will not race any of the skating events here, as it would hurt too much, said he would be operated on on March 3 in Vail. So, his season will come to an end next week.
After two days, Vordenberg was delighted. "Kikkan's [Randall] and Morgan's [Arritola] race yesterday and this today with Kris shows us we are capable of having a great Worlds. Today's race went really well. The skis were excellent despite difficult conditions. The staff did a great job. Kris stuck to his plan and it worked really well. He skied the best race he could have and that, really is what it's all about - go as fast as you can on the day."
Kris Freeman grimaces in the finish of the 15K classic. (Getty Images-Richard Heathcote)
There's little doubt this day's significance will not be lost on the U.S. nordic community, a tight-knit group, that will remember, in years to come, where they were when they heard the news. I surely will.