Steamboat, Colo. Feb. 1, 2002 (AP by Mark Long)--Todd Lodwick didn't know exactly what was wrong with his ski jumping last summer. His takeoffs were slow, his hang times were scant, and his jumps were coming up short.
Nothing felt right.
With probably his biggest season--the one that would prepare him for the Nordic combined at the Salt Lake City Olympics--just months away, Lodwick realized he had to find a solution to his problems.
So he took some time off. No jumping. No skiing, either. He trained, as much mentally as physically, for two months before returning to the snow.
"It was a gamble, but I think it paid off,'' Lodwick says. "It gave me some motivation. I realized that I really did miss the sport of ski jumping and jumping well. I really felt like a completely different person.''
He looked like one, too. He won two World Cup events in December, making himself a serious threat to medal in an Olympic sport where no American has finished higher than eighth.
Widely considered the best athlete in U.S. Nordic combined history for much of the past decade, the 25-year-old Steamboat Springs, Colo., native has made himself even better for these Olympics.
"My confidence is as high as it can get,'' Lodwick says.
Nordic combined, which debuted at the 1924 Olympics, incorporates ski jumping with cross-country skiing.
Each jump is scored 50 percent for distance and 50 percent for form. Five judges evaluate the jump for takeoff timing, in-flight stability, style, balance and landing. The scores are added to the distance points to determine the final jumping score.
That sets up the cross-country portion, which is a pursuit start. The skier with the highest ski jumping score starts first and others follow at intervals based on the number of points they are behind the leader.
The first one to cross the finish-line wins the event.
Although Austria, Finland, Germany and Norway have dominated the sport, no American has been better than Lodwick.
"He knows how close he is to being dominant,'' says U.S. coach Tom Steitz, "and tightening his focus is what he needed to make that step up.''
Lodwick finished 13th at the Lillehammer Games in 1994 and a disappointing 20th at Nagano four years later. At both venues, jumping was Lodwick's strength and skiing his weakness.
Making his Olympic debut at 17 in Lillehammer, Lodwick jumped into fifth place. Not too bad for a teen-ager who spent much of his time fishing, stalking elk or just running through the woods with camouflage paint on his face.
But he skied poorly, finishing 43rd of 52 finishers, and dropped out of the top 10.
His expectations were much higher at Nagano, but his results went in the opposite direction. Lodwick had the 13th-best jump among the 48 starters at Nagano but again struggled on the cross-country course. He placed 28th in skiing and fell almost as far back in the final standings.
Following his disheartening finish in 1998, Lodwick committed himself to improving his skiing _ and he did. But then, inexplicably, he started to struggle on the slopes, becoming more and more erratic with his ski jumping.
Two things helped him overcome the lapse: ski jumping coach Jan-Erik Aalbu and some downtime.
Aalbu, a former ski jumper who was a Norwegian coach in the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, joined the team in 2000 and was the catalyst for Lodwick's turnaround.
The time off last summer helped, too.
"Being away from the sport, I thought about it a lot more, daydreamed what to do,'' Lodwick says.
He returned just days before the start of the World Cup and won the season's second event, at Lillehammer, in December. Two weeks later in his hometown of Steamboat Springs, he won again.
His takeoffs were smooth, his hang times were solid, and his jumps were much stronger than before.
Everything felt right.
With his form back and his head filled with confidencee, Lodwick appears ready to win a Nordic combined medal _ a feat once thought impossible for any American.
"We all had goals as young kids to have a medal around our neck,'' he says. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime. It's never out of the back of our heads. We're always thinking about it every day.''
For more information about Todd Lodwick or the Nordic Combined check out the following sites.
Todd Lodwick: http://www.toddlodwick.com/
U.S. Ski Team Nordic Combined: http://www.usskiteam.com/jumpnc/jumpnc.htm
Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press