By COURTNEY LEWIS
---- — LAKE PLACID — Billy Demong grew up skiing in the Lake Placid area, where the Olympic influence is palpable.
But he didn’t see himself as a potential Olympian until about a year before it actually happened.
Sixteen years after his first Olympic appearance in Nagano, Japan, he’s about to compete in his fifth Winter Games.
FIRST NORDIC GOLD
Demong could have hung ‘em up after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, walking away as the first American to win Olympic gold in Nordic combined.
But the sport still has a strong pull on him, and he stayed for the Sochi Games, helping groom the next generation and further his legacy along the way.
“It’s funny, I don’t think I ever put the Olympics as a true goal until I was about 16. That’s when I started to see that maybe I had an opportunity,” Demong said.
“And certainly when I was 21, after my second games, I never imagined that I’d still be here.
“It’s been an amazing journey to not only be involved in sport at this level for this amount of time but also to be part of a team that’s gone where U.S. Nordic skiers have never been before and produced results that we’ve never had.”
BUILDING HIS LEGACY
The U.S. Nordic Combined Team climbed the Olympic podium for the first time in 2010. Demong won gold in the large hill event, and Johnny Spillane took two silvers. The Americans also claimed silver in the team competition.
Demong, a Vermontville native, was chosen as the U.S. flag bearer for the closing ceremony.
Nordic combined athletes must master two disciplines: cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
While somewhat obscure in the United States, Demong said he and his teammates had always been pretty highly regarded internationally because of their success in the World Cup and the World Ski Championships.
People at home took notice after Vancouver.
“I think people are much more aware of what Nordic combined is and Nordic skiing, in general,” he said. “The public knows some of the names, and they’re eager to watch the event.”
STARTED AT AGE 9
Demong, 33, began Nordic combined when he was 9 and made his first Olympic team at 17. Nearing the end of his career, he has started thinking about the impact he’s had on the sport.
“A lot of the reason I decided to keep skiing was to help pass the torch to a new generation and also keep building my own legacy, which is growing Nordic combined and Nordic skiing in general,” he said.
These will, in all likelihood, be Demong’s final Olympics — he said he has “no plans to be here four years from now.”
He hasn’t decided when he will retire, but he does plan to compete next season.
The U.S. team has a bit of a younger feel now — Spillane is retired, and 20-somethings Taylor and Bryan Fletcher have joined.
As one of the elder statesmen, Demong has embraced the mentor role. In fact, that was part of his motivation for continuing his career.
“The first couple of years (after Vancouver), I spent a lot of time and energy helping educate some of the younger guys,” he said.
“And since they’ve been getting to the point where they’re beating me as often as I beat them, I’ve been able to step back and focus on my own skiing.
“I think the Fletcher brothers are great athletes and ambassadors for the sport.”
‘A DARK HORSE’
But Demong is not in Sochi just for a curtain call.
He freely admitted his jumping was subpar last season and said that’s where he focused his energy during the summer.
Nordic combined events start Feb. 12. The fact that the Americans aren’t widely considered to be medal contenders doesn’t bother Demong.
“I’m going over with the attitude that I’m capable of medaling as an individual, and I think our team is strong,” he said from Park City, Utah, where he now lives, shortly before heading overseas. “I’m not one of the favorites. I’m a dark horse. But I like being under the radar.”
And ending the medal drought in 2010 has taken some of the pressure off this time around.
“It took a long time to get the results we had in Vancouver, but now the first medals are out of the way,” Demong said. “We’re not afraid to not get one anymore; we can just focus on the process.”
FINDING HIS PEAK
Demong competed in Grand Prix events at the end of the summer and started the World Cup season in December. Seasons are usually geared toward February, when the World Championships or the Olympics are held, and he’s excited the hallmark event is finally here.
“For 10 months of the year, you suppress yourself a little bit by training a lot and not finding your peak form, because by definition a peak is a short period,” Demong said.
“Now it’s time to go through the icing on the cake — put the final touches on your training and allow your very best to come out.
“I look forward to, every year, this month where I’m able to be better than the rest of the year. I’m excited to … see what it feels like to be at my best again.”
Demong has competed in Nordic combined for most of his life, so it’s probably not surprising that at one point during his conversation with the Press-Republican, he used the phrase “if and when I retire.”
Of course, he won’t be able to ski professionally forever. But he does feel compelled to remain involved in the sport.
He plans to work with Nordic skiing clubs and continue promoting Nordic combined.
“I feel like it’s a sport that I love, and it’s a lifestyle sport,” Demong said. “It’s like golf; you can do it forever — well, maybe not so much ski jumping.
“But I’ll continue to race, continue to try to facilitate clubs and get more kids involved. It’s a sport that I’ll be tied to closely for the rest of my life.”
Email Courtney Lewis: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @sportsCourt