U.S. Wins First Nordic Combined Medal Johnny Spillane of the U.S. Nordic combined team took home a silver medal Sunday, the first time the U.S. has won a medal in the sport. Tom Steitz, former head coach for the U.S. Olympic Nordic Combined Skiing Team, discusses the win.

U.S. Wins First Nordic Combined Medal

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Yesterday in Vancouver, an 86-year drought was finally broken. The U.S. had never before won an Olympic medal in Nordic combined. That's an event that pairs ski jumping with cross-country.

Then yesterday, Johnny Spillane took silver and was a whisker away from getting the gold, and that's not all. His teammates Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong were hot on his heels, finishing fourth and sixth.

This is tremendous validation not just for these athletes but also for their coaches who've been waiting for this moment for decades. And we're joined now by the man called the godfather of Nordic combined, former coach Tom Steitz, who took over a team that was an international laughingstock back in 1988. He's in Vancouver.

And Tom, talk about this incredible validation yesterday. You were, what, at the finish line watching this event wrap up?

Mr. TOM STEITZ (Former Head Coach, U.S. Olympic Nordic Combined Skiing Team): Yeah, I had the great pleasure to stand in the finish line and actually be just five or 10 feet, less than 10 feet, from Johnny as he skied his way into the history books, and I can tell you the emotion on the American side and from so many other nations.

As I thought about it, one of the things that really sort of struck me is how happy our competitors were to see us finally get this done.

My back, I swear it still hurts from the bear hugs from the Russian coaches. I mean, they're big guys. And I have almost as many emails and phone calls from around the world from our competitors and the nations that we go head to head against. And it's really an amazing sort of spectacle.

BLOCK: Take me back now to 1988. The U.S. team finished last at the games in Calgary. I've read that there were skiers, U.S. skiers, still out on the course even after the press conference for the medalists was over, and that's when you came to the team, right?

Mr. STEITZ: Yeah, in 1988, that was arguably one of the lowest points. You know, it's safe to say we were at the bottom of the barrel. You know, this was the result of an investment and a commitment to a plan by a lot of people, and I think what we've proved to ourselves today and what a lot of the Olympic family is talking about is, you know, it takes a decade or more, it takes a well-thought out plan, it takes committed leadership. And of course, it takes tremendously talented athletes, along with a bunch of money to fund this thing.

BLOCK: You know, competitive as I'm sure all these guys are, I was struck by what Bill Demong said after the race. He finished sixth. He said: The monkey is off our backs. It feels like we all won.

Mr. STEITZ: Yeah, it does feel like we all win. And that's one of the things that I'm most proud of as I look at this team of athletes and coaches. I mean, you know, the first thing they do is look around to see where each other is out on that cross-country course to try to strategically help each other during the race, and this is a team that truly celebrates everybody's victory.

I mean, we've worked hard on sort of sharing the ups and downs as a team and sort of committed to Team USA instead of being sort of - or trying to show or having attitudes that bring up athletes that are more focused on their own individual success.

BLOCK: When you think about the future of Nordic combined, Tom, what do you think it means now to have this medal, this silver yesterday?

Mr. STEITZ: Well, I think the pressure is off of us. It's a tremendous sense of relief. And, you know, they don't know it, but there's a lot of really lucky eight-, 10- and 12-year-olds running around out there playing in the snow with skis on their feet. These are the young men and women that Johnny Spillane and the others have really sort of paved the road, you know, the road to gold for.

BLOCK: You know, I happened to be watching this event yesterday in the company of about a dozen 10-year-old boys, and they were hooked. They were really paying attention and watching.

Mr. STEITZ: You know, they will, right? And so we know we've hooked sort of the youth of the world or the youth of snow sport. And in these sorts of sports that are really only known as Olympic sports, you've got to have medals to be a legitimate contender, and you've sort of got to have current medals because, as you said, you watched it with a bunch of 10-year-old boys. If in the next Olympics, there isn't that magical event, you know, they're liable to develop an affinity for one of the other Olympic sports, right, and they won't want to be Johnny Spillane when they grow up.

BLOCK: Well, Tom Steitz, you've been waiting for this for a long time. Congratulations and thanks.

Mr. STEITZ: Okay, thank you.

BLOCK: Tom Steitz, former head coach of the U.S. Olympic Nordic Combined Skiing Team. He says keep an eye out for the two Nordic combined events still to come, including the team relay.

Mr. STEITZ: The relay race is absolutely - yeah, that's as exciting as it gets.

BLOCK: And that relay event next Tuesday.

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