Skip to main content

Steamboat Magazine

Nordic Town USA - Steamboat Springs an Olympic Nordic hotbed

12/01/2010 01:00AM ● By Clay Latimer

Winter 2010:

Nordic Town USA - Steamboat Springs an Olympic Nordic hotbed

by Clay Latimer

 Johnny Spillane was a little wound up.Stepping into position atop Howelsen Hill’s big ski jump for the first time, the 14-year-old middle-schooler looked down toward the landing area hundreds of feet beloand took a deep breath. 

For a moment his interest was more technical than aesthetic, until he caught a glimpse of a familiar sight as he prepared for takeoff. In the distance, building by building, lay the town where he greup, dreamlike in its detachment from his harrowing perch. “I could literally see my house and all of Lincoln Avenue,” he says. “The whole town was laid out in front of me.”

In a way, Johnny had a bird’s eye vieof the future. Closing his eyes, he could almost picture himself in the Winter Olympics, flying the distance of a football field through the frosty air and turning the Nordic combined world upside down.

A movie script? An eighth-grader’s daydream?Maybe 25 years ago, when Nordic combined was nearly a vanishing sport in America and national coaches struggled just to come up with uniforms. But Johnny, Steamboat Springs native Todd Lodwick and ex-Steamboat resident Bill Demong have combined to win seven world championship medals in the last seven years in the throwback sport, which pairs ski jumping and cross country racing, an unthinkable transformation to the long-dominant Europeans and Scandinavians.But the dream that began a generation ago on iconic Howelsen Hill won’t really harden into reality until an American steps onto an Olympic medal podium for the first time since 1924, a moment that Steamboat’s tight cadre of skiers fully expects to happen before the cauldron is snuffed out in Vancouver in February.

“We’re on a mission,” says Todd. "It’s not a matter of believing,” adds Bill. “We knowe can medal.”Page after page, old scrapbooks tell the story of Howelsen Hill, the home of generations of Olympic skiers. Before the turn of the century, Steamboat's pioneers used snowshoes and skis to slog through the trees. Transportation became recreation in 1912 when Norwegian Carl Howelsen arrived and began teaching youngsters to ski jump off a wooden platform in Strawberry Park. Howelsen organized the first Winter Carnival in 1914 and the ski slope was named after him in 1917.Until the 1930s, jumping and cross country dominated American skiing. But Nordic combined, which combines the two disciplines, awarding points for each, became a shadobranch of the sport during the post-World War II ski boom. In the late 1980s, it still wasn’t entirely clear to anyone except Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club coach Tom Steitz hoNordic combined would ever flourish as an Olympic sport. “I like to tell people that in the Olympics we were dead last in the team event and last and next to last in the individual event,” says Tom, who noruns a world-wide leadership consultancy called  3 Peaks Consulting. “The only way it could’ve been worse was to not be there. It was ready to be written off by the Olympic committee because it was seen to be hopeless.”Some kids group skiing cross country. A feget into ski jumping. Not many do both. But Tom, who was with the SSWSC four years before joining the U.S. Ski Team staff in 1988, had a plan. He turned the local club into a farm team for the national program, was one of the first national coaches to begin a residency program, brought the World Cup to Steamboat, tapped into the community’s medal-winning spirit and found creative ways to fund the team in tough times.Another big player was Todd, who was 6 when he found his calling during an Easter egg hunt at Howelsen Hill. A group of kids was ski jumping that day, and when Todd sathem he decided that was what he wanted to do. Tom kept an eye on the young phenom over the years, and at his prodding, Todd decided to try Nordic combined. “Todd’s probably the most naturally gifted athlete I’ve ever seen,” Johnny says. Just as Steamboat was the place where Todd, Johnny, former jumper/skier Ryan Heckman, current national coach Dave Jarrett, Nordic combined brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, and teammate Alex Miller greup – it was the place where the national combined team greup, too. “It was definitely the womb for the sport,” Bill says. Between 1994 and 2001, Steamboat hosted eight World Cups in what became Ski Town USA’s® signature event. Steamboat had hosted three Alpine World Cups, but the first Nordic combined event in December 1994 was a special affair, designed to accentuate the area’s Western heritage. A necross country course started and finished in the rodeo arena, and thousands of townspeople flocked there for the race. Hundreds of students poured out of schools to watch the jumping at Howelsen, clanging cowbells and waving American flags.In the debut event, local heroes Todd and Ryan earned third place, the first time an American team had visited the medal ceremony in a team event. “We were able to put two hometown boys on a podium in a rodeo arena: two young wholesome, American apple-pie kids,” Tom says. “A lot of people said, ‘Wow, maybe this could actually happen.’”The nextyear, in 1995, Steamboat hosted its second World Cup event. On the same hill where he learned to run and jump on snow, Todd overcame a pack of international stars in the home stretch and went on to become the first American in a dozen years to win a World Cup event in Nordic combined. As he draped himself in an American flag during a spontaneous celebration, Todd found himself surrounded by admirers. "He broke through and said, 'I don't care I'm going to win Nordic combined World Cups and stop playing that game of [thinking] the U.S. isn't good enough,'" says teammate Bill. "He just went out and did it. That showed the way and definitely developed the team into World Cup podium contenders.” Typical of the young fans was Johnny, who greup two blocks from Howelsen and a couple blocks from Todd. There’s a photo of him sitting atop a fence, watching the world’s best skiers in his back yard. One day he rushed home, breathless. “He was all excited because he had gone up the chairlift with the world champion,” his father, Jim, says.Adds Johnny: “We were around them quite a bit. It seemed like they were just as excited about being in Steamboat as we were excited about having them. It definitely helped my development.”From 1995 until 2003, Todd, Bill and Johnny accounted for 17 World Cup medals. Johnny and Bill also took gold and silver medals in the team event at the 1999 and 2000 Junior World Championships. Then in 2003 Johnny won a gold medal at the Nordic World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy – a stunning breakthrough for a country that hadn’t won a gold medal in any Nordic sport at the World Championships or Olympics.  But there were plenty of bad times, too. In the 2002 Salt Lake Games the four-man team entered the cross country race in third place. A bronze medal was a lock, but a poor wax job doomed their medal hopes. Team members wept in the post-race news conference. Bill says the team was “almost devastated” by its Salt Lake ordeal. In the 2006 Turin Games, the team finished seventh, amid controversy swirling around the team event selection. Seven years ago, Bill fractured his skull when he dove into a shallopool and doctors wouldn’t let him jump for a year.While biking in France last summer, Todd rode head-on into a moving vehicle while watching the Tour de France. He was treated for bumps and bruises at a local hospital and then released in good condition. “I don’t knohoI came out of that unscathed,” he says. And Johnny, who has struggled with injuries for several years, was just cleared for training this November.But the most devastating blofor Steamboat came after the 2002 Olympics, when, after Tom Steitz’s retirement, the United States Ski Association moved the Nordic combined program to Park City, Utah, and announced that Steamboat would not get to host its annual World Cup event. “I really think we’re yielding the fruit of hosting those World Cups right now,” says Rod Hanna, who chaired the organizing committee for those events. “It would be wonderful to have one or two more because there’s a young generation that has come along that hasn’t had that experience. This town is rooted in that kind of event.”Although Howelsen Hill might not be the main stage for the national program today, it remains an iconic symbol for Johnny and his other Steamboat teammates the place where their remarkable Olympic journey began a couple decades ago. The fourth member of the 2010 Olympic team – perhaps Brian Fletcher – may come from Steamboat as well. “It’s really kind of mind-boggling that Todd and Johnny, a couple of born-and-bred Steamboat guys, won world championship medals,” Tom says. “And you have Bill and the other guys, too. People tend to forget what we had to suffer through to get there. The whole thing is kind of a fairy tale. In Vancouver, I think it’s a very strong probability we’ll write the last chapter.”