OSLO, Norway - Austria and Germany battled right down to a photo finish, before Austria took gold in the large-hill nordic combined team event at the 2011 Nordic World Ski Championships at Holmenkollen on Friday.
The U.S. team, which had set itself up for a medal battle after the jump, dropped to sixth. Norway took bronze.
The Americans were fifth after the jump, just 1 minute, 4 seconds behind France. Bryan Fletcher led off in sixth behind France in the first group, going 125 meters. In the second round, 2003 world champion Johnny Spillane soared 124 meters for third. Vermontville native Billy Demong went 124 meters in the third round and Todd Lodwick jumped 122.5 meters to wrap up the day.
"I think we jumped better today than we did the whole championships as a team," Demong said. "Unfortunately it put us at just about the same as it did in the first team event. We had to definitely have a great race, but also make up some time in the beginning to have a shot. I went out there and felt really good again."
In the opening relay leg, France's Sebastien Lacroix went out hard and lengthened the lead, before Norway's Mikko Kokslien gave a strong push to cut the margin to 18 seconds at the tag.
Demong trimmed over 20 seconds off the margin, but could not quite bridge to Austria or Germany.
FIS Nordic World Ski Championships
Friday in Oslo, Norway
Large Hill Team Event
Gold - Austria (Bernhard Gruber, David Kreiner, Felix Gottwald, Mario Stetcher), 47:12.3
Silver - Germany (Johannes Rydzek, Bjoern Kircheisen, Eric Frenzel, Tino Edelmann), +0.1
Bronze - Norway (Mikko Korslien, Haavard Klemetsen, Jan Schmid, Magnus Moan), +40.6
6. USA (Bryan Fletcher, Billy Demong, Johnny Spillane, Todd Lodwick), +1:44.0
"I think I've been in good shape these championships. But it wasn't enough today," Demong said. "Mikko (Kokslien) had a really strong first leg and kind of just opened the gap up at the end and took some of the other teams we were chasing with him. We were just behind the medals again, but a solid day. In the future, it's going to be about being in a little bit better jumping shape coming in and giving ourselves a little bit better starting position to fight."
While France faded on the second leg, Austria made its move handing off to its superstar Felix Gottwald with a narrow lead over Germany and Norway dropping back 7 seconds to third. Fletcher had cut as much as 10 seconds, before making the hand-off to Spillane 41 seconds behind Austria and 34 seconds from the medals.
Gottwald kept the lead against Germany's Eric Frenzel on the third leg, but somewhat surprisingly was not able to build a margin. While Austria and Germany battled for the lead, Norway and France juggled positions nearly 20 seconds back. Spillane, meanwhile, was unable to gain ground and handed off to Lodwick with a deficit of more than a minute.
Over the final 5 kilometers, Austria's Mario Stecher and Germany's Tino Edelmann played a cat and mouse game, swapping the lead back and forth to set the stage for a sprint to the finish. Edelmann led Stecher into the final short stadium hill, stalling the pace before bursting ahead.
Stecher, who initially struggled to maintain contact, picked up a few seconds of rest tucking in behind Edelmann coming over the short drop from a bridge into the final 100 meters. With a massive burst of energy, Stecher attached onto Edelmann's left. The two sprinted to the line, shoving boots across the beam, with Austria getting the nod after a two-minute review of the photo finish.
There was little chance for Lodwick on the anchor leg, with the leaders well in command and too much time to make up.
"We were pretty happy with the way we jumped, however we weren't as close as I thought we were going to be after the jumping," said head coach Dave Jarrett. "We were a little too far out. The margin between getting a medal and not getting a medal is not very much and we got shut out this time."
The team event wrapped up the championships for the combined squad which now heads to Lahti, Finland for the final event of the World Cup tour.