Airborne And Cross-Country, Billy Demong Seeks A Second Gold

In the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Billy Demong made Olympic history by being the first American to win a gold medal in the Nordic Combined. Now, he's headed back to Sochi try to repeat his success. Melissa Block talks with Demong about the very different skills required to compete in a sport that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Billy Demong made history by winning gold in Nordic combined.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gold medalist and Olympic champion representing the United States of America, Billy Demong.

BLOCK: The U.S. had never before won gold in the sport dominated by Europeans. Well, this week, Demong heads to Russia to try to repeat his success. He'll be competing in his fifth Olympics. His event, Nordic combined, brings together two skiing disciplines. It starts with a ski jump and performance in that portion dictates starting position for the 10 kilometer cross country ski race later in the day.

I asked Billy Demong to describe what it takes to excel at those two really different components.

BILLY DEMONG: The ski jumping is - it's a very technique-drive sport and when done right, it's like a golf swing. It's about being relaxed and allowing the training to come forth. That's obviously tough because it's not swinging a club at a golf ball on a tee box. It's hurdling down an icy in-run at 60 miles an hour and trying to throw yourself forward into a flight position. So it takes a great deal of confidence and technique in order to do it right. It's also an adrenalin rush. It's something where after five or six jumps in a training session, I'm as tired as if I'd ridden my bike or roller skied for six hours.

BLOCK: Is it terrifying when you're at the top of the hill about to jump?

DEMONG: When jumping is going well, when you have that foundation of confidence and technique, it's amazingly safe-feeling and it's really enjoyable. Once you get into the air, you feel almost at peace and you just kind of lay on your skis and go for it, like a little fighter jet. Now, when it's going poorly, when you're struggling, it's an incredibly dangerous and scary sport.

Now, on the flipside, cross country skiing is obviously, you know, a really tough endurance sport. It's something where the more you train, the better you get and it's something that takes years and years to develop the base of fitness that's required to be a world class cross country skier and it's certainly something where not only just training, but also having a mentality and having a good threshold for pain is really important, especially Nordic combined where it's head-to-head.

You're in a pursuit format so the first person to cross the finish line wins. It comes down to who can put up with the most pain for the longest time. It's two totally different sports and I get a totally different sense of enjoyment out of both.

BLOCK: I'm thinking it must take almost two different sides of your brain to do those two sports, two really different sports really well.

DEMONG: Absolutely. And especially in a day event where you have two hours between, you have to be able to change hats and go from in the ski jumping portion especially, feeling as though you're light and free and relaxed and just focusing on, you know, letting your body do its thing and then you switch hats to being like this - I kind of almost envision myself as being bigger and stronger and meaner and more angry than anybody else out there in order to brace myself for the pain that I'm going to put myself through in the race.

BLOCK: Well, all of that paid off in 2010 in Vancouver. What are your expectations heading to Sochi? Do you think you could do it again?

DEMONG: I'm happy to report that really, this year, I've felt myself come back to form. The cross country's always sort of been there for me, but jumping I struggled at over the last couple years and I made a huge investment in equipment and energy and time spent on my foundation of technique this last summer and I go to Sochi with the belief that I can do it and it's much the same situation as Vancouver where I'm not afraid to fail.

I'm not going to lose any sleep. My mother's not going to love me any less if I don't bring home a medal, but at the same time I know I can. And I'm just excited to get over there and focus on process and try to do what it takes to be in the fight.

BLOCK: Well, Bill Demong, best of luck in Sochi. Have fun.

DEMONG: All right. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Billy Demong begins his quest to win a second gold medal in Nordic combined on February 12.

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