Over the span of a decade, Johnny Spillane led the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team to its greatest heights with a World Championship title and three Olympic medals. Today, he reflects on his career from his boyhood home in Steamboat Springs with host Peter Graves in this episode of Ticket to Fly, the USA Nordic Podcast.
In the 1990s, the tiny mountain town of Steamboat Springs became a melting pot of talent. Homegrown kids blended with others from around the country who came to live there. Coaches like Gary Crawford and Tom Steitz incubated a program that was to become one of the most powerful teams in the world in the tiny sport of nordic combined.
Johnny Spillane’s story is just one slice of the pie in what became one of the greatest displays of how to succeed as a team in an individual sport. It could have been anyone from that team who broke through, but Spillane’s 2003 World Championship gold in Val di Fiemme, Italy cracked the ice. Teammate and fellow Steamboat native Todd Lodwick hosted Spillane on his shoulders in the finish.
Over the coming years, the team excelled in the World Cup and at World Championships. In 2009 at the World Championships in Liberec, Americans won all three individual events! And the next year at the Olympics in Vancouver, Spillane won three silver medals, Bill Demong took a gold and the team won silver. It was the pinnacle of success.
Spillane retired in 2013. Today, he’s raising his family in Steamboat watching his kids find the same joy on skis. He has a thriving fly fishing business. And he’s become a standout announcer for NBC Sports.
In this episode of Ticket to Fly, host Peter Graves explores the story behind Spillane’s success with dramatic insights into the teamwork involved in reaching such lofty goals. It features a deep exploration into his own success and his viewpoints on the sport today as an NBC commentator.
Listen in today to Johnny Spillane: Reflections of a Champion on Ticket to Fly with Peter Graves.
What’s the atmosphere like in Steamboat Springs?
Ski jumping and nordic combined are kind of a fixture here in Steamboat. The jumps are right downtown on historic Howelsen Hill. It’s something that every kid tries at some point. I grew up admiring the other ski jumpers and nordic combined athletes and had the opportunity to be around them at Howelsen and see what they were doing – other Olympians. For me, it was quite easy to get into.
Was there a breakthrough moment for you as a kid?
I was probably 14 or 15, I won junior nationals for both jumping and nordic combined. And it’s kind of at that point I thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s something, you know, maybe this could go somewhere.’
Was it a surprise for you to win gold at the 2013 World Championships?
It was a little bit surprising. I had more realistic aspirations for a podium finish. I had been skiing really well the whole season and certainly knew there was a shot. Once we actually got into the race itself, I started thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to go for the win here because I was in a good position.’ It was a culmination of years of work. We had a really solid group of guys and we kept pushing each other and building off each other’s success so well that it gave us that opportunity. I was just fortunate to be the one to do it first.
What was the vibe for the team going into the 2010 Olympics where you won three silver medals?
We were all set, energized, very excited about it. I went into it knowing that this was as good a chance as I was ever going to have. I was skiing at a very high level all winter long. I was feeling really good, skiing really well leading up to it and just had a lot of confidence. The big difference was we went into it knowing that we didn’t have to have our best day to still have a chance. It’s one thing to go in and be like, ‘OK, if everything goes right today, maybe I’ve got a shot.’ It’s another thing to go in and say, ‘if I just do what I’ve been doing, I’ve got a shot.’ And for me and the rest of the team, being able to get the medal in the first event really made everyone relax that much more.
There’s plenty more so listen in today to Johnny Spillane: Reflections of a Champion on Ticket to Fly with Peter Graves.
Great interview Peter. Having judged Johnny many times as well as being involved with his XC races in his youth I always felt there was something special with him – there sure was! He provided many highlights to those working around the sport. Perhaps Val De Fiemme World Sprint Champion was a biggie as well Vancouver. It was a pleasure to watch him grow into the World Champion he is . It is even an immense pleasure to watch him grow into a world class commentator. And now, knowing that most of it is live, even more impressive.