Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • Bill Demong skied glumly across the finish line at the Sochi Olympics on Tuesday, soaking wet and all alone, far behind the winner in a stadium only half-filled with fans on account of the gloomy, miserable weather.
Nothing like Vancouver, in other words.
There would be no gold medal this time, no magic moment like when he proposed to his girlfriend after the medal awards four years ago. No swarm of celebrating teammates or phalanx of reporters, or overwhelming sense of satisfaction after all the years he had spent helping to build his sport and his nation’s place in it.
No, in his final individual race of his Olympic career, in his fifth Olympics, the first American to win gold in Nordic combined cruised across the line way back in 31st place, helpless to explain what happened.
"It’s kind of devastating, really," the Park City resident said, his voice cracking. "I swear I felt the same tingle today that I did in Vancouver."
Right up until the competition, anyway.
In Nordic combined, competitors ski jump first, then later contest a cross-country ski race, starting at various intervals behind the leader, based on their jump scores. Demong is typically a decent jumper, and had been pleased with his performance in training for the large-hill event that he won in Vancouver.
But when it was time to shine, Demong fell far short of expectations.
Inexplicably, he jumped almost 10 meters shorter than he had been jumping in practice — nearly 11 shorter than he had in Vancouver — which put him in 38th place and meant he had to start the cross-country race 2 minutes and 18 seconds behind the leader. In Vancouver, he had the sixth-best jump of the competition, and started just 46 seconds behind, ultimately winning by four seconds.
When he landed, stunned, he held out his arms, as if to ask what happened.
"I don’t know," he said later. "Nothing felt that bad, nothing looked that bad. Coaches were, like, not super sure. And that’s the problem. I think I’m old enough and wise enough to be able to have expectations and follow through on them, and then a day like today happens and it kind of throws you for a loop."
Norway’s Joergen Graabak ultimately succeeded Demong as champion, beating countryman Magnus Hovdal Moan by 0.6 seconds. And Taylor and Bryan Fletcher — the Park City residents are the future of the U.S. program, with Demong and six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick soon to exit the stage — enjoyed solid performances, in 20th and 22nd place, respectively.
But Demong was the story, a proud former champion shocked to find himself left behind. He made up barely four seconds in the 10-kilometer ski race.
"I need to go figure out what did go wrong today," he said. "Everything feels like it’s in the right place. … If I’d been 10th or something, sure, it’d be easier to shrug it off. But as it is, it’s like, why do I feel like what I would deem perfect and be that far out? It’s kind of frustrating, for sure."
Demong and his teammates have one more chance at a medal, in the team event on Thursday.
Lodwick expects to compete, after jumping but not skiing in either of the individual events so far, to allow a shoulder injury to heal. The Fletcher brothers are strong enough to give the American team an outside shot at the podium.
However it turns out, though, Demong will be remembered for the nearly two decades he spent toiling in a sport that’s all but invisible in his country, helping transform the U.S. program from international also-ran to respected contender. He worked his way up, from a 34th place finish at the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan to a world championship in 2009 and finally his gold medal in 2010 — guiding those who followed him, along the way.
"There’s more than words there, my feelings for it," Taylor Fletcher said. "He’s always been like a father to me on the World Cup circuit. He’s kind of helped raise me and shoot me in the right direction. … Our whole entire team has benefited from what he’s done."
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