The Olympic sport Nordic combined is not for the timid: It features long-distance ski jumping and a grueling cross-country ski race.
Bill Demong crosses the finish line to win a Men's Nordic combined of the Tour de Ski in Val di Fiemme, Italy, on Jan.10.
Bill Demong crosses the finish line to win a Men's Nordic combined of the Tour de Ski in Val di Fiemme, Italy, on Jan.10. Armando Trovati/AP
But this year, the United States will arrive at the winter games with one of the best Nordic combined teams in the world.
One man leading the team is Bill Demong, who has gone ski tip to ski tip with the world's best.
Becoming A Contender
In March last year, Demong won the coveted King's Cup Nordic combined, the first American to claim that prize since 1968.
This sport, with soaring jumps and nail-biting cross-country races, is one of the trickiest in the Olympics. For Europeans, it's as popular as figure skating. Demong says his victory in Norway was a sign that he and the U.S. team have arrived.
"Definitely when we compete, I think the other countries take notice, and it's more exciting and more fun for us, because we do have that belief there," Demong says. "We're not trying to come out of the dregs and make something happen."
Demong first emerged on the world scene at the Nagano Olympics 12 years ago when he was still in high school. He didn't win a medal that year. But he slowly shouldered his way into the middle rank of Nordic combined skiers, testing himself against the dominant Europeans and Scandinavians.
"He has traveled all over the world, and he is still very much at heart a 'north country' boy," says Helen Demong, his mother.
Demong's parents raised him and his sister, Kate, in the backwoods of New York's Adirondack Mountains, where hard winter can last seven months of the year.
"I've always been a natural outdoorsman," says father Leo. "So it was always just a natural thing to take the kids with me, you know?"
Helen adds, "I have photographs of Bill and Kate in the dead of winter, putting on their bathing suits and diving off of our porch into the deep snow. Just this fearless quality."
Lake Placid was a 20-minute drive from home, close enough that Demong started training at age 7. Kris Seymour coached him as a kid and says it was clear early on that Demong was different.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Demong says a skull fracture in 2002 helped him find joy again in competing.
Demong says a skull fracture in 2002 helped him find joy again in competing. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
"He's really physiologically a little bit of an anomaly," Seymour says. "As far as endurance athletics go, he was given a set of genetics that have made him superior to most."
A Setback That Made Him Stronger
But Demong's steady progress came to a crashing halt in 2002, after the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Demong fractured his skull and was lucky to be alive. His doctors doubted he would ever compete again.
"That was when I kind of took the time to get away from the sport — clear my head a little bit — and make the decision to come back," Demong says.
Demong credits that year off with helping him find the joy again in competing. He relaxed, found his rhythm.
In 2009, he reached the podium 10 times in World Cup races, an astonishing record for any Nordic combined racer and unheard of for an American.
Last February, he grabbed the gold medal at the Nordic combined World Championships.
The Upcoming Games
Demong was born right after the 1980 Lake Placid winter games, and there's a photograph of a pregnant Helen standing in front of the blazing torch.
Thirty years later, the goal is to take all the pieces — the family, the winter days in the Adirondacks, the years of competition — and put them together in Vancouver.
"When you know that you're good enough, when you have that faith, it's about arriving at the Olympics on autopilot and ready to just do what you do best and enjoy that," Demong says.