ELAINE THOMPSON / AP Enlarge
WHISTLER, B.C. — Austria has defended its gold medal in the Nordic combined team relay, edging the Americans, who settled for their second silver medal of the Vancouver Games.
Billy Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., had a slight edge over Mario Stecher heading into the stadium at Whistler Olympic Park but stumbled at the turn and the Austrian zoom past him on the straightaway for a 5.2-second victory Tuesday.
Austria's winning time in the 4x5-kilometer relay after a jump off the large hill was 49 minutes, 31.6 seconds. Germany won bronze.
Austria's team of Stecher, Felix Gottwald, David Kreiner, and Bernhard Gruber defended its title from the Turin Games in a race the Americans led much of the way.
It looked like the United States was finally going to get rid of its golden goose egg in Nordic sports at the Olympics as Demong erased a 14.1-second deficit he inherited from Johnny Spillane on the final exchange. He and Stecher took turns in the lead until the Austrian's strong push at the finish.
The Americans' previous best finish in this event was fourth in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Spillane's silver medal in the normal hill competition Feb. 14 was the first U.S. Olympic medal in Nordic combined — a ski jump followed by a brutal race of speed around a cross-country track.
Ten days later, he has another.
And the American team, which includes Todd Lodwick and Brett Camerota — couldn't have been happier.
The Americans started two seconds behind the Finns after a fantastic performance on the jump hill that had them stoked for the relay race, their strong suit, with Lodwick proclaiming, “Come on! Let's throw down!”
Austria began the cross-country race 36 seconds behind Finland but quickly closed the gap.
Before the Vancouver Olympics, the only medals won by the Americans in Nordic sports — biathlon, ski jumping, Nordic combined, and cross-country skiing — were a silver by cross-country skier Bill Koch in 1976 and a bronze by ski jumper Anders Haugen in 1924.
Camerota started things off, staying in Janne Ryynaenen's slipstream until entering the stadium, where he gave the Americans a 2.6-second lead over Finland on the exchange. Austria was just 3.7 seconds behind.
Lodwick, the Americans' fastest skier, was hoping to build a big lead on the second leg. But Spillane started just .3 seconds ahead of Gottwald.
By the midpoint of his 5-kilometer leg, Demong was 2.2 seconds behind Stecher.
He briefly overtook the Austrian before falling back and trailing by .6 seconds at the three-quarter mark of their leg. He stayed in Stecher's slipstream, then passed him on an uphill heading toward the stadium, where it was neck-and-neck until he stumbled.
This podium finish was decades in the making.
The Americans have a combined 15 Olympics among them. They've honed their cross-country prowess because they weren't strong jumpers early in their careers and were forced to make up big deficits on the course. They've focused on improving on the jump hill, and it showed yesterday.
“That was sick!” Lodwick hollered after sticking a jump of 136.5 meters. “How could I not be happy? I mean, I threw down, and it's just been an unreal week so far.”
It got even better four hours later.