In a career that spanned nearly two decades, Billy Demong won six Olympic and World Championship medals, including a stunning Olympic in 2010. Today, he’s at the helm of a rapidly growing national sports organization, USA Nordic, and a voice nationally for youth sport.
How did it all begin for the kid from Vermontville, N.Y.? What inspired him to success? And how does his past manifest itself in his vision for USA Nordic?
Peter Graves walked Demong through an insightful interview for Ticket to Fly, the USA Nordic podcast. The episode takes listeners from his early days in Lake Placid with future biathlon stars Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke, through his World Championship and Olympic success and to his role today as a pied piper for ski jumping and nordic combined.
Demong shares the blueprint for success that led a group of young boys from small communities around America to become one of the very best nordic combined teams in the world in the late ‘00s – winning World Championship and Olympic medals in a tiny sport traditionally dominated by Europeans.
Right from the opening question, this is an inspiring podcast that provides remarkable insight into the joy and exhilaration of sport. Here’s a teaser. But you’ll want to listen to this episode of Ticket to Fly, the USA Nordic podcast, from start to finish as Peter Graves talks with Olympic champion and USA Nordic Executive Director Bill Demong about everything from growing up in nordic combined to the future of youth sport.
CHATTING WITH OLYMPIC CHAMPION BILLY DEMONG
Bill, how DID a young boy from a small town in New York find nordic combined?
It’s a great question and one that I like to reflect on a lot. In fact, I just had a conversation about it with some good friends of mine, Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey, who are both on the U.S. Biathlon Team and respectively had some of the best results in American history and their sport. We all grew up together in the Tri Lakes area of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake in upstate New York. The catalyst to getting us all involved was more or less a parent-built community program in Saranac Lake that was centered around Dewey Mountain. And it really started with five and six and seven year olds under the lights, the few lights that there were a Dewey Mountain, and learning how to love cross country skiing at the earliest age. And it was a it was a club that I think makes most people nostalgic, thinking about parents, a lot of little kids hanging out under the lights, drinking hot cocoa after traveling around Mid-Atlantic in the east and and doing the Bill Koch Youth Ski League.
Was there a catalyst to take it from hot cocoa to the next level?
I started nordic skiing at five, but by the age of eight, the very famous nordic coach Larry Stone came to our practice and he showed us a video of ski jumping. It had everything from ski flying to little kids jumping. It was set to Van Halen and got us all super fired up. And we got sucked into trying ski jumping. I knew right away that that’s what I loved to do. So that was really my sport entry point into nordic combined.
As you progressed, was there a secret to the success you all enjoyed?
How does all that talent, quote unquote, talent, come out of one little place? The more that we’ve been around it and the closer that we’ve gotten to it being the best in the world, the more we realize it’s not in the water. There’s nothing really that special. But there is something about the power of the group. And to kind of switch gears and talk about nordic combined, we had the same sort of situation where a visionary coach, Tom Steitz, brought the nordic combined team together because he saw that, ‘hey, this is a small sport in a big country,’ and if everybody trains on their own, then they’re not going to be is as strong as the power of the group. And so he basically mandated back in ‘94 that everybody that wanted to be on the team had to move to Steamboat Springs and show up every day when the coaches said, to be on the national team. And that really started to yield this same sort of group aspect in the nordic combined team.
As your team grew together, was there a turning point?
The most important thing that led to success across the board from our junior group to our nordic combined national team group was having that sort of day-to-day interaction with your group and then having somebody get out in front. It was most important that we felt like we were peers on a level playing field. And then once somebody reached the next level, we all felt that we could get there, too. And we inspired each other. We challenged each other. It took a number of different kinds of ways over time. When Johnny Spillane really started to hit some of our breakout performances, like his World Championship victory in 2003 – the first ever for an American nordic skier – it just opened the door for the rest of us to say, ‘well, hey, you know, I love Johnny and he’s a super talented guy, but I definitely beat him in training as many times as he beat me. And therefore, he might have the gold medal, but I know I could do it, too.’
Was your gold in Vancouver and the team’s four medals a culmination?
It wasn’t like I had to win in Vancouver. It was more realistically looking at the time frame and then taking stepping stone goals that I felt were achievable to put myself in a position to be able to win, whether or not I would. Vancouver was more like a deep sense of satisfaction and justification for all the things that we did to invest in our training and our careers to have that success. I never look back and say, ‘oh, my, oh, my gosh, that changed my life.’ Because, honestly, I think I owe a lot of my success to the attitude that if I had gotten fourth place, I would have gone on with my life without missing a beat. And that was kind of a healthy, mature way to approach it. And therefore, it put me in a position to be able to be successful.
What did you learn about life from your experience as an athlete?
I’ve tried to use my own experience, especially on the athletic side of USANS, but also some of those bigger picture lessons that I learned on my way to being Olympic champion, which was always to have fun. If it’s not fun, it’s time to re-evaluate. One of the biggest lessons I learned is that you really have to compete like you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So I try to take that to my workplace as well as instill that in our athletes. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of losing. Your mother will love you. The sun will rise. We’re all going to keep you as a teammate. But take that burden away and let’s focus on winning because winning is fun.
This winter we’ll see more steps for women’s nordic combined!
It’s the last Olympic discipline without gender equity. I have watched Tara Geraghty Moats and our up-and-coming athletes work really hard, and especially Tara dedicated to this a decade ago. And to see her pursue this without really a strong knowledge of where it was going to go is absolutely a hats off to her. I’ve never seen an elite sport where the nations and the athletes, both men and women, have come together to really focus on building that future to be viable and equitable for the women’s nordic combined athletes in the world. And so we’re going into the first season of women’s World Cup nordic combined, and we’ll have the inaugural women’s World Championship. I’m proud of the camaraderie that we’ve felt inside of the sport of nordic combined, listening to the athlete reps support each other, listening to the nations and also the organizers here in the US have had women’s nordic combined Continental Cup for three years in a row. That’s a huge investment on our part. And we’re tracking for introducing the women to the 2026 Olympic program.
At the same time, you’re seeing evolution in women’s ski jumping.
Women’s ski jumping, holistically globally, it’s gotten to be a very, very competitive discipline since its inception in the 2014 Games. It already was a 50-person, 14-nation strong field and one that has only gotten deeper and deeper over the years. The US was one of the leaders of the inaugural women’s ski jumping teams. There was a huge turnover that happened, really since the first games inclusion in 2014. And now that saw some of our original champions like Lindsey Van and her teammates Jessica Jerome, Alyssa Johnson, Abby Rehnquist, they have subsequently moved on and we’ve really started to build the new generation and huge credit to some of our alumni athletes and Blake Hughes and now Anders Johnson in helping build that program. It’s one of the areas that with USA Nordic’s focus on sport development, we’ve seen the number of youth participating in ski jumping and nordic combined double over the past decade. And it’s an area that’s mostly driven by an increase in young women.
Your engagement with Congress has given you new influence. How do you see the future of sport?
Two years ago, I would have been a lot more negative. I think that there’s a tremendous amount of attention now being pointed at everything from the youth sport to the Olympic level in this country. We’re we’re overdue a reset now that’s going to allow us to move forward as one of the top nations in the world. So I’m much more optimistic now. And I hope that, to the extent that I can, I can help contribute.
USA Nordic has really evolved into quite a different structure for sport, hasn’t it?
You don’t make gold medalists overnight. They need to be supported and nourished. And that’s why I think that having an organization like USA Nordic Sport, with the focus that it has for its disciplines and its athletes, is so critical. It really does do a great job of uniting the community and the clubs and making sure people are working in the same direction and owning this building and owning those goals together. I was on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team for nearly two decades and I took a lot of pride in it, and I still do. But I have to ask myself every day, ‘what is the best situation for our sports and our athletes to ensure long term sustainable viability financially and athletically.’ Our relationship with U.S. Ski & Snowboard is very amicable. However, on a day-to-day operational basis, we’re almost exclusively separate at this point and this really is going to come down to a resource discussion at some point. I tend to lean toward thinking that we need to be our own international governing body because that focus is critical to make sure that this momentum that we’ve accumulated isn’t going to fall away.
We’re on the eve of the season and COVID is still impacting us. What’s the latest?
We have taken an approach that because we are a little bit smaller, we consider ourselves to be really agile. And so throughout this summer, which was challenging, and really going into the season we’re of the mindset that we’re planning for the best and preparing for the worst. So essentially we are committed to trying to plan safely every every activity, every program, every competition opportunity that we can. If we can’t plan it effectively or safely, then we’re totally open to canceling it. But we’re not going to stop trying.
There’s much more to hear from Billy Demong. Listen in to the entire Ticket to Fly podcast with Demong for more details and a look into the future for USA Nordic.
You can find Ticket to Fly on your favorite podcast channel including Apple, Google, Spotify and more.