MIDWAY, Utah -- For the U.S. Nordic skiing teams, close counts, fourth-place finishes are fantastic and best showings ever are cause for celebration. These Americans aren't quite ready to measure success with medals.
"That day will come," cross-country skier Justin Wadsworth said.
The U.S. Nordic skiing program, which includes biathlon, cross-country and Nordic combined, enjoyed its top Olympic performance in 26 years at the Salt Lake City Games. And it didn't even medal.
"I don't think any of us would tell you that we came here just to race and to compete in the Olympics," biathlete Rachel Steer said. "We really needed to raise the bar, and I think we did. But we're not satisfied. Hopefully that will drive us through the next four years of training."
And possibly put them on the podium in 2006.
The United States failed to medal in five Olympic sports at these games: curling, ski jumping and the three Nordic skiing disciplines. The Americans were shut out at Soldier Hollow.
But the Nordic skiing teams had several breakthrough performances on the men's side, and the athletes hope those results will help propel the programs into the world's elite group - and into medal contention.
"The men's teams had huge, huge results," Steer said. "That's what we need (kids) to see. If they see it, then we can raise interest and that will give us promise for the future."
The women fared much worse. Steer had the highest biathlon finish, 31st, and Nina Kemppel had the best cross country finish, 17th.
"(The men) definitely have a head start on us as far as development, but we're looking really strong for four years from now," cross-country skier Barbara Jones said. "Eight years from now, I think we can be in the medals. I really believe that."
The men expect to be there sooner, especially after their performances in these games:
- Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane and Matt Dayton finished fourth in the Nordic combined team event, falling to 0-for-24 all time in the event but coming closer than ever to a medal.
- Lodwick finished fifth in the Nordic combined sprint, topping his seventh-place showing a week earlier and giving the United States its best showing in an individual event.
- Jay Hakkinen finished 13th in the men's 20K biathlon, the best showing for an American in any individual biathlon event. The previous U.S. best had been 14th, accomplished four times.
- John Bauer, Kris Freeman, Carl Swenson and Wadsworth finished fifth in the men's cross-country relay, giving the United States its best showing in the team event.
- Bauer finished 12th in the men's 15-kilometer classical, the best American cross-country finish at the Winter Games since Bill Koch won the silver medal in a 30K race at the 1976 Innsbruck Games.
Koch also finished sixth in the 15K, sixth in the relay and 13th in the 50K, almost single-handily carrying the U.S. team to its top performance in an Olympics.
Many of the skiers racing now grew up idolizing Koch. But they probably won't be around in 2006, so it's time to find somebody knew to look up to.
These Olympics might have done that, especially with young American stars like Lodwick, Demong, Hakkinen and Freeman, a confident 21-year-old skier who finished 15th and 22nd in individual events.
"There's going to be a whole new outlook in North America," Wadsworth said. "Younger kids are going to say, 'We can do it now.' The young kids know we're not worse than the Europeans now. That's what we need, the confidence."
They could use more facilities like Soldier Hollow, too.
"The facilities and the programs need to be built to make this sport more desirable," Lodwick said. "Everywhere you turn, there's a baseball field, a football stadium or a basketball hoop. Kids don't have anything else to do, so that's what they end up doing and become good at it. They don't know any better.
"It's not the fault of the U.S. It's the lack of the facilities."
More facilities could result in increased participation in the Nordic sports. Just about every member of the Nordic combined team is from Steamboat Springs, Colo. Five cross-country skies and three biathletes are from Alaska.
"It's time to stop European-worshiping, as I call it," Freeman said. "We know how to race. You can be as good as you want to be - it doesn't matter what country you're from - and I think we're showing that now.
"The United States is coming."
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