John F. Russell: Journey to Olympics never easy

Earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team is a difficult task.

Bill Demong knows first-hand the challenges that confront athletes as they work, mostly outside the spotlight, for a chance to compete at the Olympic Games.

The Nordic combined skier has represented his country twice during the Winter Olympic Games, including in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

He probably never envisioned, however, just how difficult it would be for him to make it back for a third time.

You see, four years ago, Demong was one of the best skiers on the U.S. Nordic combined team and a serious threat to win every time he hit the snow. He posted two top 20 finishes in Salt Lake City and was part of the American relay team that placed fourth.

But Demong is not the same wide-eyed skier who competed in Salt Lake City. In the past three years, he has learned hard lessons.

He found out that it only takes the blink of an eye, a brief moment in time, for years of hard work to be lost.

For Demong, the moment came when he fractured his skull while jumping into a shallow swimming pool between Summer Grand Prix events.

In an instant, his focus changed from his quest to be the best in the world to simply surviving.

The freak accident cost Demong the 2003 season, but his desire to ski again wouldn't let it erase his desire to return to Nordic combined skiing.

He spent the year after the accident recovering in Steamboat Springs. He worked, went to school and spent hours training on the cross-country course before doctors finally cleared him to start skiing again.

Demong came back to the Nordic combined team at the end of last summer hoping to pick up where he had left off, but his results were not as good as he had hoped. Although his desire to pick up where he had left off was strong, it was not enough to overcome a year away from the jump hill and the team.

"I came back feeling stronger than ever," Demong said. "But looking back, I think I may have expected a little too much, a little too fast."

Instead of waiting patiently, he tried new techniques with his jumping -- and they didn't work for him. It was a frustrating year for a skier who already has proven he belongs with the world's best.

This year, Demong will open the season on the World Cup "B." It's not where he wants to be, but at least he will get to compete in front of a town he would like to consider home when the tour opens in Steamboat in December.

This winter will be important for Demong if he hopes to be wearing red, white and blue when the Olympics open in Italy. Tickets to the events went on sale last week, and it's hard to believe that the games open in just 459 days.

No, it will not be easy for Demong, but then earning a spot on an Olympic team was never easy.

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