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Sochi Bound: An Interview with Olympic Gold Medalist, Billy Demong

Make no mistake about it, the Competitive Cyclist office has caught the Nordic bug. Perhaps it’s because we’re buried in snow for five months out of the year, or maybe it’s because skate skiing provides one of the best workouts on the planet. Regardless, whether we’re in the saddle or on the skis, we’ve grown accustomed to Bill Demong being part of the surrounding landscape — that is if he’s not competing on the other side of the globe.

Now, for some background, Billy Demong is a four-time Olympian, a Cat.1 road racer, and the first American to win Gold in the Nordic Combined in over 86 years. On top of all this, he’s also the first person that we’ve ever seen hitch a ride on Chris Horner’s bike at the Cascade Classic, or at any other race for that matter. And with Sochi looming in under one month, I was able to grab some time with one of America’s greatest hopes for Gold this winter.

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JS: Let’s start at the beginning. What first compelled you to get on a pair of skis?

BD: I don’t remember so it must have been my parents! My first clear memory of skiing was a race at Mt Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, and immediately embracing the pain and challenge of chasing down the kids in front of me.

JS: You started competing at the age of five, which leaves plenty of time for you to have been burned out before you even got out of your teens. However, 12 years later, you were competing in Nagano at your first Olympic Games. What is it about racing that keeps you motivated and coming back for more?

BD: Well, to be honest, I was never the most talented kid out there, and so I think I was driven to succeed. I also learned to enjoy the sport for what it was, because I was certainly not doing it for blue ribbons from the start! As I became more successful, I also found that enjoying the daily challenge of training and improving was motivating. As an adult, I love finding new trails and challenges to keep it fresh and exciting. I even have a pair of wide fish scale skis I use to go tour on single track mountain bike trails.

JS: What were you more excited about, competing in your first Olympics or your first World Championships?

BD: For me, the Olympics came first. I improved rapidly between 16 and 17, and just in time to catch the interest of the national team coaches to make the 1998 squad for Nagano. It was a surreal experience to skip a month of high school to go the Olympics and compete! I skied well, but I also did a lot of running around the village and grabbing all of the free stuff.

JS: Tell me about that first feeling of lining up at the start of your first Olympic race.

BD: An interesting story… My first Olympic start was the individual 15km at the Nagano Games. My coaches had brought me for the team event, and told me to go out and ski my heart out for 5km and then pull it over for a good training session and warm up for the Team. I started out hard and followed the 1994 Olympic Champion Fred Boerre Lundberg for 5km, and the whole time I was thinking you can’t quit your first race at the Olympics, you’ve never quit a race, and this might be your only Olympic race ever. So after 5km I was fried from following Fred, and I saw the coach looking at me as I went through the stadium. So I stopped underneath the bridge where I was told. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, but it was probably 30 seconds, I started again and raced my heart out for another 10km. I ended up 34th in the 70 skier field, and even though I am sure I pissed of the coaches, they also saw the pure fire, and I had achieved anyone’s life goal of finishing an Olympic race.

JS: So, you won the Gold for Nordic Combined in Vancouver, and afterwards, you became the focus of American media agencies. However, this came after you’d already won Worlds in Liberec, only you didn’t have to roller ski with Matt Lauer afterwards. Given the lack of coverage for the latter, yet equally impressive win, it makes me wonder what your thoughts are on the future of American Nordic racing: Is it growing? Or does America just love an Olympic winner?

BD: Totally growing! I think that Nordic skiing is really coming to the front as a new favorite Olympic sport for Americans. And after our success in Vancouver, and the potential of the Cross Country and Ski Jumping teams in Sochi, there are more eyes than ever on the Nordic events. Aside from just the allure on TV, I believe that Nordic skiing bridges a huge gap between outdoor winter recreation and the growing demand for fitness and competition. I see snow bound regions across the US embracing Nordic on a much larger scale and demanding more trails for winter use. Lets face it, it’s like therapy and a gym membership rolled into one!

JS: As you know, Russia’s recent bill that bans “propaganda of nontraditional
sexual relations” has been heavily contested by Olympic athletes and national sporting commissions, alike. As someone who has spent a career travelling and competing in countless countries, have you ever found it difficult to balance a host government’s obtuse legislative ideologies with the pure act of competing?

BD: To be truthful, I try to separate my job from my own beliefs, but certainly, the political landscape of US and Russian relations has made that more difficult, especially with media concerning Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, as well as environmental and human rights issues. For me, I am trying my best to do my job, but if there were a singular stance I’d take on such a matter, it would be that the IOC become more accountable for its choices of host cities and nations, with a huge goal to be creating the lasting legacy of sport. I think Lake Placid and Salt Lake City are both great examples of Host cities who have taken their legacy forward and created home training bases for athletes and competition opportunities.

JS: As we discussed, you’ve been working towards this state in your career for decades. Now that you’re on top, and no longer chasing, do you find it difficult to stay hungry?

BD: Absolutely not. Past success is in the past, and I got there because I set goals and worked toward them. I always take a little time to enjoy and reflect, but like any career or passion, your biggest goals are the ones in front of you. I have invested more time than ever in preparing for Sochi, and I am loving the feeling of anticipation, especially because I sense that I have done good work to be better than ever.

JS: Let’s move on to your training. Are there any special preparations that you’re making Sochi?

BD: I’ve invested much more time into my jumping this past season, as I knew it was my weak spot. New coach, new equipment, and a lot of time training on the fundamentals.

JS: Around Park City, your roller skiing has become a roadside fixture in the summertime. Can you explain its benefits and how it works into your training schedule?

BD: Roller skiing is the most specific workout we can do off snow, and it really replicates the feeling and technique required to be fast on snow. I view my training model as building an engine. I start by building it really big through lots of hours across multiple disciplines, from cycling to running to roller skiing. As I tune the engine, I become more specific, and through the fall, I roller ski more and more intensely. I also enjoy roller skiing, as you get comfortable with the speed and technique, it becomes much like road cycling as a mode to get out, exercise, and cover ground. I think last summer I did a few roller skis of around 50-80 kilometers.

JS: I should supplement the prior question by noting that you’re more commonly found roller skiing shirtless than fully-clothed. Anything that you’d like to say about this?

BD: False, I actually prefer to ski in a light tee to avoid over exposure to sun, as well as hold onto some sweat!

JS: In addition to roller skiing, I’ve heard that road cycling plays a major role in your off-season training. Can you explain where cycling fits into the equation? Is it to help eliminate burning out, or are there specific benefits to Nordic competition?

BD: All of the above. I think cycling is great cross training, and the muscle training is very similar to the requirements of cross country skate skiing. I also have gleaned a lot of experience from racing on the road, as it pertains to the minutia of tactical decisions I make while ski racing. The bike is a great proving ground for me. I find that I leave the cycling season with confidence about my decision making and my ability to endure pain.

JS: As a current Cat.1 racer, do you have any aspirations towards competing at the professional level of cycling after you retire from Nordic competition?

BD: Right now, I am focused on Sochi, and next year is a bit more open. Unlike the years leading up to Vancouver, I now have a family, so racing both summer and winter calendars has been off the table for a few years. I am looking forward to getting back on the bike and without so many other obligations!

JS: Rumor has it that you don’t shave your legs for the local crit races, any reason?

BD: I gotta’ represent the Nordies out there! Actually, in all honesty, it is because I race so infrequently that putting up with the pain and expense of shaving is not worth it. Trust me, if I am pinning up for Tour of Utah again, I’ll Bic ’em.

JS: There’s a pretty amazing photo of you hitching a ride on the back of Chris Horner’s bike. What’s the story there?

BD: Basically, Chris gave up the ghost on the Mt Bachelor Road stage after setting tempo for the whole day, and I was just a bit ahead of him at the top of the climb. I crashed with a few kilometers to go, and he actually stopped to offer a ride to the finish because I was running! He’s all that everyone thinks he is — a genuinely nice guy!

JS: What’s your favorite ride in the Park City area?

BD: I love to go over Parley’s Summit via Lookout, descend Emmigration Canyon, and then come back over Big Cottonwood. It’s, like, 100km exactly, and as close to Col du Madeleine as you can get!

JS: In closing, what are your plans post-Sochi?

BD: Ride more, travel less, ski more, stress less, have more kids, spread the Nordic word!

JS: Good luck, and thanks for your time.

Photos Courtesy of USSA

Follow Bill Demong on Twitter