SARANAC LAKE - In the Olympics, medals mean money.
The impressive and historic medals haul that United States nordic combined athletes, including Vermontville native Billy Demong, collected at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics apparently wasn't enough in the eyes of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.
On Monday, April 21, the USSA announced that it was eliminating most of the funding it has annually provided for nordic combined in the United States after July 31, 2014. It was made official when USSA president Tiger Shaw and Executive Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner met with nordic combined coaches Dave Jarrett and Greg Poirier and members of the national team.
The cuts will leave the American nordic combined national program in the same situation as men's and women's ski jumping, which are mainly on their own in terms of finding funding in an attempt to compete on an elite level worldwide.
Although the U.S. Nordic Combined team captured four medals in Vancouver, Demong, a five-time Olympian, said he realized that the money provided by the USSA to nordic combined, which has been more than $500,000 annually, could end. Not winning any nordic combined medals two months ago at the Sochi Olympics finalized the decision, even though Americans have also added six World Championship medals since 2007 to their success in Vancouver.
"Losing funding is definitely one of those situations that's always a possibility for any sport or any athlete," Demong said. "But a full funding cut is hard to take, looking at what we've done in this sport in recent seasons. They're (the USSA) basically looking at winning medals as being what's best for their bottom line."
"This isn't a decision we made hastily," Bodensteiner said. "There's no question that the funding we've put into nordic combined has moved the sport forward in this country.
"After the Olympics in Vancouver, we started to look at allocating funds differently," Bodensteiner continued. "The events in the Olympics continue to expand. Essentially, there are 12 sports we manage, and criteria on which we base funding includes a sport's relativity to the American public, results potential and commercial viability."
Demong, whose gold medal from Vancouver was the first ever for an American athlete in any nordic sport at the Olympics, said one reason he continued competing after 2010 was to reduce the likelihood that the USSA would drop its support earlier than it announced. In addition to claiming an individual gold in Vancouver, Demong won a team silver there with Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Taylor Fletcher.
"If we didn't come back after Vancouver, we could have seen nordic combined's funding cut right then," Demong said. "After we won those Olympic medals, It was like 'congratulations, but ...'"
Demong, as well as brothers Taylor and Bryan Fletcher of Steamboat Springs, Colo., are the three top-level athletes remaining on the team who are planning to compete on the World Cup tour next season. Lodwick, a six-time Olympian, retired after the Sochi Olympics. After Aug. 1, the USSA will still provide limited funding for Demong and the Fletchers to continue competing without a support team.
"That's just about enough to get Bryan, Taylor and me to the competitions, but with no coaching and no wax technicians," said Demong, who isn't expected to continue his career through the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. "I'm more disappointed for the Fletcher brothers than anything else. They've consistently been podium contenders and proven they are among the best in the world."
Although Bryan Fletcher didn't medal in Sochi as a first-time Olympian, he said by making it as far as he has in the sport has already been a dream come true. In the past season, the 23-year-old placed in the top 10 seven times in World Cup events. A year ago, he was part of the U.S. bronze-medal relay team at the World Championships.
"It wasn't a total surprise, but it was still shocking," Bryan Fletcher said. "Certainly, with no funding, it makes things hard for all of us as well as the future generations of nordic combined skiers. This could take a bigger toll on our development program more than anything. There's a strong group of up-and-coming guys out there who may never realize the dreams that we've been able to pursue.
"In terms of results, we didn't have a great year, but we still had a pretty good year," he continued. "I certainly don't think our program deserves a total funding cut."
Bodensteiner said that during the period after the Vancouver Olympics up through the Sochi Winter Games, the USSA provided the nordic combined program with approximately $3 million in funding, which helped pay for travel, lodging, equipment, food, coaching and wax technicians.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by this decision," said Poirier, whose coaching salary paid by the USSA will disappear after July 31 along with that of Jarrett, the U.S. team's head coach. "Obviously, our families depend on our income, but we do it for all the guys who are there now and the ones who are coming up in the pipeline. One thing is for sure - we well keep nordic combined alive somehow. We're going to make it happen.
"Nordic combined and ski jumping, they are not mainstream sports in our country," Poirier added. "We don't have thousands of athletes, but we do have hundreds. We're really just looking for some baseline funding. In nordic combined, we are small but we're pretty mighty. We were pretty mighty in Vancouver. To just cut a team loose that won 57 percent of the medals available in Vancouver just four short years ago, that's just not right. It's pretty hurtful."
Although it's a big blow to U.S. nordic combined, the loss of USSA funding could, in the long run, benefit the program. In the past, when donations were made to the USSA, it decided how to disperse the money among the snow sports it oversees. Under a new scenario, possible donors will be able to earmark funds through the USSA specifically for nordic combined, or any other program they wish.
"The same thing happened to ski jumping about seven years ago," said 1968 Olympian Jay Rand, who is the director of the Lake Placid-based New York Ski Education Foundation, which includes nordic combined as a sport among its development programs for young athletes "It wasn't a total surprise. I think most people in the nordic community expected it to come a little quicker than I did."
Bryan Fletcher said the funding cut could allow nordic combined access to sponsorships that were previously restricted under USSA guidelines, including companies or donors that might be "more in tune with the sport of nordic combined."
"They can go after any sponsors that they want now," Rand said. "USA Ski Jumping went on their own, and they are surviving."
Groups such as the National Nordic Foundation, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based organization that helps support U.S. cross country and nordic combined programs from the development level up, also might play a larger role in funding the sport.
"We're seeing what roads to take, and I hope I have a better story for you in a month," said Demong, a member of the board of directors at the NNF.
"Regardless of how things work out, I'm 100 percent certain that me, Taylor and Bill will still push for the younger guys," Bryan Fletcher said. "The main thing is we don't want to the see the sport go away in this country."
"It's a shame for both ski jumping and nordic combined to lose the support of USSA, but things go on," Rand said. "I don't think the people around the country who care about nordic combined will let it disappear."