VANCOUVER, BC (Feb. 9) - With 13 trips to the Olympics between them, 2010 U.S. Olympic Nordic Combined Team members Billy Demong (Vermontville, NY), Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane (both Steamboat Sprints, CO) are far from star struck at these Games in Vancouver. More so than ever, they're the stars.
"It just feels like this Olympic Games, it seems different," said Olympic Trials winner Johnny Spillane after landing on the world's biggest stage for the fourth time at just 29 years old. "It seems like it's a little bit destiny."
Since the competition began in 1924, the U.S. has never medaled in an Olympic nordic combined event, yet Americans swept the three individual events at last year's World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, and are considered to be among the favorites in the Olympic team event.
Nobody has seen the squad come further than Lodwick, who will tie a U.S. Winter Olympic record by appearing in his fifth Games. From his inauspicious first appearance as a 17-year-old in Lillehammer to medal "hopeful" in 2002 and 2006, the 33-year-old veteran takes pride in how far he and the team have come.
"Now, I feel like we've come to be one of the stronger teams out there," said last year's world champion in both the normal hill and the 10km mass start events. "To watch this team go from just kind of showing up at big events to being contenders – and (from) not winning any medals at the World Championships or Olympics to having three guys who have been world champions – has been a pretty incredible experience."
Last year's king of the large hill in Liberec, Demong said much of the progress is due to the U.S. Team's strong commitment to the sport over the past decade – including top facilities, technicians and sport scientists.
"We have really evolved our training program with the help of our coach Dave Jarrett over the last 10 years," he said. "We've implemented a lot of new training modes and cut out some of the things that we didn’t believe in.
"It's made for a really good preparation season, especially in our final three-week camp leading into this."
But surely the weight of the team's strongest medal expectations to date is wearing on the trio, right?
"I think people expect that there'd be added pressure with all the expectations that are on us now, but at the same time, when those expectations meet your own, it's a little more comfortable," Demong said. "I think, going into these games, I'm in a much more positive place."
For his part, Spillane has had possibly his strongest season ever, adding his first International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup victory to his hometown Trials triumph despite injuring his knee in July and undergoing major surgeries in August and again in October.
"Because it was my knee, it was the first time that all I could really do was rehab," said the workaholic Spillane, who said he overexerted himself in past efforts to contend with injury. "That forced time off kind of allowed the rest of my body to recover. I haven't felt this good physically since the 2003 season both for jumping and cross country."
The big three will be joined at Whistler Olympic Park north of Vancouver by teammates Brett Camerota (Park City, UT) and Taylor Fletcher (Steamboat Springs, CO), each with World Cup points to their credit this season.
Camerota also made the trip to Torino and said he's in a different place for his second stint after rushing to prepare in 2006.
"For me, jumping's been going really well," he said. "I've worked really hard on the cross country side of things."
For the 19-year-old Fletcher, the pressure of his first Olympics is lessened by the company of a pair of hometown heroes and another veteran Olympian.
"It's awesome being on (the team) with Johnny, Billy and Todd," he said. "We've got a very strong team, and I’m just going to look up to them and see what I can do to follow in their footsteps."
More than 6,000 Steamboat Springs residents turned out on a closed-down Main Street to bid Lodwick, Spillane and Fletcher farewell.
"Being able to come back to that town, it's fantastic," Fletcher said. "The whole community, the whole town gives full support, even if the results aren't exactly what you wanted."
The normal hill competition takes place Sunday, then the athletes getting a break before the team event Feb. 23 and large hill competition on Feb. 25.