Park City •Â Nine guys were chasing Todd Lodwick up and down a grueling and snowy trail, with a single guaranteed spot at the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia on the line.
But Lodwick was chasing history.
And he caught it, long before anybody could catch him in the cross-country portion of the U.S. Olympic Trials for Nordic combined on a bright sunny day near Kimball Junction on Saturday. The victory in front of hundreds of fans who lined the course to cheer and wave flags and ring cowbells assured that the 37-year-old from Colorado will become the first American to compete in six Winter Olympics.
"Unbelievable," he said.
"For sure, this has been one of my best performances of the year," the former world champion added. "It just proves that we stick to the plan and we're doing everything right as a team. We've been training hard and pushing each other, and today I was the best. It hasn't been that way on the World Cup circuit, but I know that we're going to have one of the strongest teams in Sochi."
The Americans do figure to be a top contender, after their historic performance at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
There, Park City's Billy Demong won the first individual gold ever by an American in the sport that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing, and helped the relay team Lodwick included Â take silver while now-retired Johnny Spillane won two individual silvers.
But Demong wasn't on his game Saturday.
He had to start the 6.2-mile cross-country race 36 seconds behind Lodwick in Nordic combined, scores from a single ski jump determine how far behind the leader each athlete starts the cross-country race then lost 20 seconds along the way and finished third, behind Bryan Fletcher, who had started third.
"I just went out hard and tried to see if I was going to make up any time," Demong said. "Right away, he started actually moving further away, so I think I kind of knew early on that I didn't have it."
Lodwick finished in 25 minutes and 27.6 seconds, with Fletcher 17.3 seconds behind and Demong 56.1 seconds back. Taylor Fletcher finished a distant fourth, 1:19.5 behind Lodwick, but impressively made up 36 seconds his brother made up almost 35 after a disappointing ski jump that ranked eighth out of the 10 competitors.
All of those athletes are likely to compete in Sochi, though, because the remaining four places on the team will be decided based on results at international competitions in the coming weeks and Demong and the Fletcher brothers, all of whom also live in Park City, are unquestionably the other top Americans.
"I have no doubt that the top teammates and the top guys are going to go, and we're going to be very strong in Sochi," Lodwick said. "But for me, today, to put the emotional side away and compete at my best especially in front of everybody here is very humbling."
Arguably the most accomplished American ever in Nordic combined he has won three world titles, six World Cups, and stood as the cornerstone of his nation's steady progress in the sport over two decades Lodwick jubilantly stomped his ski on the finish line as he crossed, and soon showered his young daughter with kisses.
The Steamboat Springs native will be the first Nordic combined athlete to compete at six Olympics, and just the seventh American to do so. But all of the other Americans were summer Olympians who competed in either equestrian, fencing or shooting, most recently in 2004.
"It's definitely a monkey off the back," he said. "But I don't think there was any doubt in my mind, even before this competition, that I was going to make my sixth team, as long as I stuck with the plan, trained hard and competed well."
1. Todd Lodwick 25:27.6
2. Bryan Fletcher +0:17.3
3. Billy Demong +0:56.1
4. Taylor Fletcher +1:19.5
5. Adam Loomis +1:41.5
O Todd Lodwick is victorious at the U.S. Olympic Trials for Nordic combined, finishing more than 17 seconds ahead of Bryan Fletcher.
• Lodwick will be the first American ever to compete in six Winter Olympics.
• Park City's Billy Demong, who won individual gold and relay silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games, finished just third Saturday.