KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - Billy Demong closed out his Olympic career by doing what he does best: jumping far and skiing hard.
The 33-year-old Vermontville native had the longest jump of the day for the U.S. nordic combined squad and skied its fastest 5-kilometer race, helping his team to a sixth-place finish in Thursday's large hill 4-by-5-kilometer relay. They finished 2:21.6 behind the gold medal performance of Norway, which posted a time of 47:13.5. The silver medal went to Germany in 47:13.9 while Austria won the bronze at 47:16.9.
"Today wasn't perfect, but I think we all enjoyed ourselves," Demong said after the race. "Even at the end, when it became obvious it wasn't a podium fight, it just became about nordic combined and fighting it out with the fastest guy here. I'm just kind of happy to end on a little bit of a high note."
Billy Demong of Vermontville holds his son Liam following Thursday's nordic combined team event at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (Enterprise photo - Chris Knight)
It was the final nordic combined event at the Sochi Winter Olympics and the final Olympic race for Demong, who's been to five Winter Games and has said these are his last, although he may continue competing on the World Cup level for another year.
"I want to definitely take a deep breath," Demong said. "Three months ago I was like, 'Today's the day. You can ship my skis back to Park City or wherever, Lake Placid, when this is over.' I think my wife and my coach Dave (Jarrett) have both showed me that, 'You've planned four years ahead your entire career. Maybe have a little grey area.' I would seriously doubt I'd be here in four years in a capacity on skis. I'm sure I'll stay involved in the sport, and I may do some racing next year."
The U.S. nordic combined team came into this Olympics riding big expectations after its success four years ago in Vancouver, when the team won its first-ever Olympic medals in the sport that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing. Demong brought home gold in the large hill individual competition and took silver in the team event with Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Brett Camerota.
These Olympics, however, the Americans haven't come close to the podium in nordic combined. Demong finished 24th in last week's normal hill 10-kilometer individual event and 31st in Tuesday's large hill 10k. The best finish by an American in an individual event was Taylor Fletcher's 20th in the large hill 10k.
In the jumping portion of Thursday's team competition, the U.S. placed eighth out of nine teams, with 397.6 points. Germany was first with 481.7 points, followed by Austria and Norway.
Demong jumped third and had the biggest jump for the U.S., 121.5 meters. He received 108 points. Lodwick went 116.5 meters and received 99.9 points. Taylor Fletcher put down a 112.5-meter jump, good enough for 92.5 points, while his brother Bryan Fletcher jumped 115 meters, receiving 97.2 points.
"We were crushed," said Taylor Fletcher. "Bill had a good jump. I felt like I had a good jump. Bryan doesn't know what happened. Todd, he's happy. ... We knew that we were going to have to do something special today to be on the podium. We knew we had a lot of work to do."
The results of the jumping meant the U.S. started the cross-country portion of the event 1:52 back. Bryan Fletcher skied first, but by the time he tagged Lodwick, the amount of time the team had to make up had stretched to 1:57.6.
Lodwick, who's been nursing a shoulder injury and didn't ski in either of the individual events, lost more time, handing Taylor Fletcher a 2:48.1 deficit. Fletcher skied the fastest time of any competitor in the third leg of the race, 11:38.9. When he passed off to Demong, the U.S. was 2:10.2 back.
Demong did his best to make up some time, skiing his leg in 11:34.4. He flip-flopped several times with Italian skier Allessandro Pittin, pulling ahead of him for good in the last kilometer. Demong crossed the finish line, collapsed onto the snow and laid there on his back until Taylor Fletcher helped him up.
Watching him from above in the stands, among a group of U.S. fans, were Demong's mother Helen Demong, his sister Katie Demong, his wife Katie Koczynski-Demong and their 3-year-old son Liam. Before the race, Helen Demong said Billy has taken her on an incredible journey.
"I have seen the world following my son's sport, and I'm proud of the way he's conducted himself as a man, as an athlete, as a mentor to younger skiers, as a father to his son Liam," she said. "It will be emotional (to see him cross the finish line), but we'll celebrate no matter what happens."
It wasn't just the last Olympic race for Demong. It was also the last for Lodwick, who's been to six Winter Games and was the flag bearer for the U.S. during the opening ceremonies of these Olympics. He fought back tears as he talked to reporters after Thursday's event.
"I took these Olympic Games in probably more than any other Olympic Games," Lodwick said. "I was very fortunate to be here. To be able to carry the flag, it's humbling. To represent not only myself and the athletes, but everyone back home and what that flag really represents - I wouldn't have changed anything."
Taylor Fletcher said the departure of Lodwick and eventually Demong from the sport is a big blow to nordic combined.
"They put it on the map," he said. "People know what nordic combined is now, and that's because of them. And now it's my job, Bryan's job and the rest of the team to kind of keep it there."
Demong said he wants to continue to help usher in the next group of U.S. nordic combined skiers.
"I'm kind of looking beyond the sport now, and just in what capacity am I going to be involved," he said. "I'm invested in a lot of levels on what's going to be the future. There's going to be some hands-on and some behind-the-curtain stuff that I'm involved in, and I'm looking forward to that."