SOLDIER HOLLOW, Utah —Until the day a U.S. athlete can claim supremacy in nordic combined -- or even claim an Olympic medal -- Todd Lodwick will have to be satisfied with Americans' expertise in other sports. Finland won the event this year.
"Do you watch a lot of the Norwegians?" he said. "They don't have a clue how to throw a football. It's pathetic."
Perhaps, but at least that adjective no longer applies to U.S. skiers' results in nordic combined.
Lodwick, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., finished seventh in the European-dominated event Sunday, the best result by a U.S. Olympian since Rolf Monsen finished ninth at the 1932 Lake Placid Games. He was seventh after Saturday's ski jumping and hoped to move up on the strength of his skiing ability, but he didn't have enough of his usual fortitude to gain any ground in the 15-kilometer cross-country race.
"It was a difficult day for myself," he said. "I had very high expectations going into these Olympic Games. A little bit more luck [Saturday] on the jumping hill, a little bit more luck on the cross-country course and maybe I get a medal."
The gold medal was won by Samppa Lajunen of Finland. A silver medalist four years ago at Nagano in the individual and team nordic events, the 22-year-old part-time rock guitarist made up a 53-second deficit on a frigid but brilliantly sunny day with a total time of 39 minutes 11.7 seconds. A lively crowd filled the stands and cheered throughout the race, ringing cowbells and chanting for various favorites.
"That was one of the best competitions I've ever skied," Lajunen said. "After the last World Cup [a 15th-place finish at Liberec, Czech Republic Jan. 18], I was not feeling very good or very confident, but for the last two weeks my training has been perfect."
Jaakko Tullus of Finland, the leader after the ski jump phase, finished second, 24.7 seconds behind. Austria's Felix Gottwald, who defied conventional wisdom by training at sea level and vacationing in Miami before the Games, finished third. An outstanding skier, Gottwald used a strong finishing kick to move up from 11th after the ski jumping to finish 54.8 seconds behind Lajunen.
The other U.S. entrants had mixed results. Bill Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., eighth after ski jumping, faded to 19th. But Matt Dayton of Breckenridge, Colo., moved from 33rd to 18th, posting the seventh-best time on the cross-country course. Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs, Colo., fell from 26th to 35th. "One of the things this group always does is we have our expectations right up there with everyone else's," U.S. Coach Tom Steitz said. "The results aren't very good, but [Lodwick's finish] is the best result ever. As long as we continue with a positive attitude, we'll keep getting better."
Lodwick, 25, won a World Cup event in December and finished in the top 10 in nine events this season. Everything would have had to fall into place for him to move up Sunday, and he knew early in the race he faced a tough battle.
"I tried to ski relaxed the first couple of laps and maintain some speed," he said. "When Felix passed me going into the second lap, it was a little demoralizing because I knew I had to catch four people to get to the podium. He made it five.
"When he passed me and made up 40 seconds, that took a little wind out of my sails."
Although understandably deflated, he looked at the positive aspects of owning the best-ever U.S. Olympic finish.
"I'm not very, very, very happy with my result, but I'm definitely satisfied," he said. "When I crossed the finish line, even though I was disappointed in my racing, I was seventh. I was happy with my finish."
That will have to suffice for now, but Steitz believes it won't be long before U.S. skiers won't have to settle for moral victories.
"If you look at the last few years, our seasons have been full of first-ever things," he said. "We had two people win World Cup events [Lodwick and Demong]. Up until five or six years ago we had never won a medal at the world juniors, and in the last seven years we've won five medals. It's turning around, and it takes more time.
"Ten or 12 years ago none of the other nations knew we were alive. Now, other coaches are friends of mine and they're very afraid of us. I talked to the Austrian and German [coaches] and they asked me how Todd was doing. They lay awake at night worrying about us."