VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Of all the humiliations the once hopeless U.S. Nordic Combined team had to endure some 20 years ago, it is an insult delivered by Norwegian officials that still rankles with former coach Tom Steitz.
At the time, the Americans were widely regarded as a joke in the sport that combines ski jumping and cross country racing.
Before one race in Norway in 1989, Steitz discovered the event organizers had not provided his athletes with the usual heated huts and waxing facilities.
“They looked at me and said ‘You’re the United States, what does it matter? Go wax in the parking lot,” he told Reuters.
Just to rub in the misery, it was raining.
The idea of the demoralized and underfunded U.S. team ever succeeding at Nordic Combined once seemed like a sad joke.
Yet now, after two decades of relentless hard work, the team boasts two world champions and finally looks ready to grab its first ever Olympic medals.
NO HOPES, NO MONEY
Steitz took over in the wake of the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, when the medalists’ news conference for the Nordic Combined team event ended before the Americans had crossed the finishing line.
“We had no hopes to do anything, we had no money, we had no plan. We didn’t have the right athletes, we didn’t have the right coaches,” said Steitz.
Just 11 days into his first trip with the team he flew home early, telling his bosses: “There is nothing I want to keep.”
The United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) gave him a free hand and Steitz worked for almost 15 years to turn the no-hope Americans into real competitors.
“Tom took the bull by the horns after the Olympics in Calgary and started building this and had a take-no-prisoners attitude ... a lot of credit needs to be given to Tom for setting the stage,” said John Farra, Nordic director at the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.
Steitz unearthed athletes such as promising youngster Todd Lodwick. He also set up a permanent training facility in Colorado and sought private funding to help cover the huge costs of training, equipping and preparing a top team.
“If you take an Indy car driver that works on his car by himself ... it doesn’t matter how good a driver he is. He’s still going to get his butt kicked compared to the guys who have a bunch of money,” said Lodwick, 33, who won two golds at last year’s world championships.
Lodwick’s performance, along with that of fellow gold medalist Billy Demong, have boosted expectations to such an extent that failure to win a medal is almost unthinkable.
“To watch this team go from just kind of showing at up the big events to being contenders ... it’s been a pretty incredible experience,” Lodwick told reporters on Tuesday.
Demong said that when he went to school “it was at that point where we were like ‘Americans aren’t good at this’ so if anybody ever popped the top 30 we were celebrating. Now ... kids say ‘Oh, you got fourth, what’s your problem?”
Steitz will be in Whistler to support the team but is no longer in charge. He quit in 2002 and now coaches business leaders, often citing his sporting experiences.
One moment he cherishes was a reception hosted by Norwegian King Harald in 1998 to mark a notable U.S. victory.
Steitz bluntly told the monarch: “Hey King, do you want to know what one of my motivations was? Let me tell you what you guys did to me in 1989.”
Editing by Jon Bramley
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.