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Historic finish for U.S. as Spillane nabs silver in Nordic combined

Johnny Spillane cruises down the final hill of the Nordic Combined cross country race. (Tom Peterson / MCT)
Johnny Spillane cruises down the final hill of the Nordic Combined cross country race. (Tom Peterson / MCT)

WHISTLER, British Columbia. — Johnny Spillane, tantalizingly close to Olympic gold before a finish-stretch surge by France's Jason Lamy Chappuis, can nonetheless savor a runner-up finish in Nordic combined.

That's because Spillane, 29, from Steamboat Springs, Colo., won America's first Olympic medal in the sport Sunday, ending a drought that began 86 years ago when the U.S. competed in the first Games.

"I'm just thrilled," he said. "This took a lot of hard work. As Americans, the Olympics is it for us. Maybe sometimes that puts a little too much pressure on the team, and people expect things that might not be possible."

It was possible Sunday.

The event, which combines a morning session of ski jumping followed by a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) cross-country race in the afternoon, has long been the property of European and Scandinavian nations.

But with three finishers in the top six Sunday — Spillane's teammate Todd Lodwick was fourth, 1.5 seconds from a bronze medal, and Billy Demong sixth, 17.9 seconds out — the U.S. finally proved itself on the sport's biggest stage.

Lamy Chappuis, the runaway World Cup leader with five victories this season, finished the race in 25 minutes, 47.1 seconds for gold. He nipped Spillane by just four-tenths of a second, passing him about 30 yards from the finish and hanging on. Alessandro Pittin of Italy took bronze.

"I just went for it," said Lamy Chappuis, a 23-year-old born in Missoula, Mont., to a French father and American mother. "Johnny was pretty good. I just tried to catch him. It was good to have a view in front of me and a goal to catch him."

Spillane crossed the finish line and collapsed.

Lodwick, second after the jump and the race's defending world champion, led for much of the race before Spillane made his move with less than a kilometer to go, opening a 30-yard gap on the lead group. Did he go too early?

"I tried really hard to get away," Spillane said. "This is the Olympics. You try as hard as you can."

Demong, from Vermontville, N.Y., recovered from a poor jump to put himself in medal contention with a stirring effort that fell just short. He started 24th, 1:20 behind the leader. At the midway point, Demong had cut his deficit to 11 seconds.

Seven years after Spillane won a breakthrough title in 2003, the first American to win gold in a Nordic world championship, he is again a trailblazer. He has overcome several injuries the past years, the latest requiring knee surgery in September. He hurt the same knee again while hunting in October. Now he's America's first medalist in the sport.

"How do you boil up 86 years of emotion and frustration?" said Tom Steitz, U.S. Nordic combined coach for five Olympics until this one.

Like this: As her son finished. Spillane's mom, Nancy, dropped to her knees in the snow and wept. Standing beside her, Steitz did too.

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