WHISTLER, British Columbia — It was, at the time, a devastating heartbreak.
But, as it turned out, Billy Demong's life is much fuller, much sweeter because his team didn't win an Olympic medal when they thought they should.
"If we had medaled like we planned, I would have been 21 years old, and I would have skipped town and gotten on with my life," said Demong, who won the first nordic combined gold medal Thursday in the individual large hill and 10K race at Whistler Olympic Park with a time of 24:46.9. "I think that would have been a major mistake. Having gone through all of these things has made this (success) that much sweeter."
The native of Vermontville, N.Y., who lives and trains with his nordic combined teammates in Park City, said the fourth-place finish in the team relay in the Salt Lake City Games might have haunted him, even contributed to him burning out, if he hadn't suffered a horrific injury a few months later.
"I dove into a swimming pool and hit my head on the bottom," he said. The fractured skull kept him out of nordic combined for more than a year.
"Like we said, 2002 was a tough year for us," he said. "We spent four years trying to build the belief that we could win a medal, trying to figure out how to do it, and we came up a bit short."
He said the injury actually helped him avoid burnout and dwelling on the 2002 heartbreak.
"I know I lost a lot of sleep after that," he said. "And I think part of my motivation was to get away and come back a lot more centered. I basically mentally quit. The doctors weren't going to let me do it anyway ... so basically I was working construction and going to school and trying to get a new perspective."
He never lost his love for the sport, however.
"When I came back, it took me three years before I ever even scored a World Cup top 10 again, but I had a really good time every day along the way. That was one of the changes we made. Going forward, we had the ability to get better but take ourselves less seriously."
He said he no longer feels so defined by his results.
"You take the good days with you and forget the bad," he said after winning the team silver medal, just two days before he earned a gold for himself. "Just enjoy it because this is an awesome life."
Demong's teammate Johnny Spillane, who was on that relay team in 2002 as well, won his third silver medal of these games. They, along with teammate Todd Lodwick, who came out of a two-year retirement to compete with them in these games, decided to live together, train together and pretty much grow up together in an effort to develop their skills and help the evolution of their sport.
"There are so many people who've been on this journey with us — teammates, parents and coaches — and even whole towns like Lake Placid, Park City and Steamboat Springs that just loved the team, take us in, support us in every way, and this is kind of for them, too," said Demong after the three of them, along with Park City native Brett Camerota, won the silver medal in the team relay that once broke their hearts but not their will.
"It's been a lot of really hard work," said Demong. "It's been a lot of fun. Back then, we were trying to believe that we could, and I think we were definitely capable, but I don't think I fully feel like I'd deserve it like I do now."
In nordic combined, athletes perform a ski jump, which determines when they start the 10K cross-country ski race. Spillane started second, 34 seconds behind the best jump of the day by Bernhard Gruber. Demong had the sixth-best jump and started 46 seconds behind Gruber. Lodwick was 13th, which meant starting a minute and 13 seconds behind Gruber.
Demong and Spillane credited Lodwick with taking control of the pack and slowing them down while Gruber, Demong and Spillane battled it out for the win.
"I'm really proud of what we did as a team," Demong said. "I felt like our work over the years allowed us to build on each other's successes. I think Johnny's first silver medal the other day was enough to be satisfied with in these games. Todd and I shared in that. And today, Todd did everything he could for us today. I know he's extremely happy and satisfied."
The first American to win a nordic medal, Demong was his usual humble and thoughtful self.
"It definitely has not sunk in yet," he said. "I don't really know what to say. Right now, as a team, we came here with high expectations ... and we delivered. My only hope is that we've done some long-term good for our sport."