End of an era?
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Billy Demong’s decision not to compete in another Olympics may begin the end of a remarkable era for a generation of athletes who grew up skiing together in the Tri-Lakes.
The 33-year-old Vermontville native, who now calls Park City, Utah, home, just wrapped up his fifth Winter Olympics competing in nordic combined, which is ski jumping and cross-country skiing. He’s shared the last three games – in Torino, Vancouver and Sochi – with two good friends: biathletes Tim Burke of Paul Smiths and Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, who are both 32 years old.
“I’ve got pictures of us all on the same J-3 podium,” Demong said after his last Olympic competition Thursday. “It’s been really special to have childhood friendships that you take to the world stage like this.”
Over the past 10 to 15 years, these three athletes have produced a steady stream of top World Cup results in their respective sports. Demong has 22 podiums in his career, including nine wins. He’s a four-time medalist at the nordic combined world championships and has won eight U.S. national championships. At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Demong won gold and silver medals.
Burke has five World Cup podiums to his credit and numerous top-10 finishes. In December 2009, he became the first U.S. biathlete ever to lead the overall World Cup standings.
Bailey has eight career top-10 finishes and, during the Sochi games, recorded the best Olympic finish ever for the U.S. in biathlon, eighth place in the 20-kilometer individual race.
Joining this trio at this year’s games was another member of that same generation of great local nordic skiers, Saranac Lake biathlete Annelies Cook. Although this was Cook’s first Olympics, the 28-year-old has been on the World Cup level for three years and has been a member of the U.S. biathlon team since 2009.
How did this group of athletes go from skiing Tuesday night races at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center to competing with the best in world? Chalk it up to hard work, determination, good coaching and plenty of support and encouragement.
“Although we all compete in individual sports, it takes a great team behind you to reach the Olympic level,” said Burke. “I feel like our team consists not only of coaches and staff but of the community behind us.”
Al Barrett, who along with Kris Seymour coached Demong, Burke, Bailey and Cook, said they always tried to emphasize that skiing can be part of a fun, balanced life.
“That, combined with fundamental skills and putting really smart, talented athletes with super-supportive families in front of doors of opportunity, is what produced success for so many (New York Ski Educational Foundation) skiers from that time period,” he said. “Looking back, I guess it is remarkable that so many kids from that program have had success, but to me it’s not surprising. They’re talented, high-performing people.”
While what they’ve done together seems extraordinary, Bailey said it’s just been the normal progression.
“It’s like if you’ve been with a co-worker for 20 years,” he said. “We’ve just moved on to the various different levels together. I remember meeting up in Torino at our first Olympics, and it was just like meeting up at the Bill Koch regional festival or junior nationals. We’ve always been skiing and competing with each other.”
Now, however, some members of this generation, like Demong, are looking ahead to the next chapter in their lives. Demong has said he’ll compete at least one more year, but he also wants to help “usher in the next group” of nordic combined athletes.
Katy Demong, Billy Demong’s sister, is a former biathlete who’s part of the same generation of Tri-Lakes ski racers. Now a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City, she said many of her friends in biathlon have already retired.
“I think it really is the turning over to the new generation, this Olympics especially,” she said. “There might be a few that continue, but I think overwhelmingly the group that I grew up skiing with is really done or nearing the end of their careers.
“It does feel a little sad, in a way,” Katy Demong added. “I feel like I’ve been inspired to keep watching these sports, and I think I always will feel a connection to them. At the same time, I have less of a concrete connection with these sports all of a sudden.”
What about Burke, Bailey and Cook? Will they still be around when the Pyeongchang, South Korea, Winter Olympics take place in 2018?
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” Burke said last week. “I know I’ll continue to compete next season, and I’ll take it more year by year from there. I’m not committed to another four years, but it’s a possibility.”
Bailey said he’ll have more to say about his future plans at the end of this season.
“I think Billy’s going to move on and do some other things,” he said. “Tim, I think, is committed for the foreseeable future. We had a 40-year-old (Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen) win a gold medal here, so by no means do we have to hang up the towel yet. I know we’re all going to stay close and be friends whatever we do, so this isn’t the end by any means.”
Cook has said she wants to compete for another year because she doesn’t want to call it quits after what’s been a very difficult season. She also said she can’t imagine being in the sport without Burke and Bailey.
“They are funny and awesome guys, and I just enjoy their company,” she said. “It won’t be the same to be at practice if they aren’t there. I’ve been on a team with them my entire life, and when we aren’t together and end up moving on in our life at some point (it might not happen this year) it won’t feel the same anymore. But I guess that opens up cool, fun opportunities that are different for all of us, too.”
Someday, this generation of great local ski racers will all have moved on to other things. Will there be another generation that can step up, rival or even eclipse their success?
“I’m excited to see there’s some younger athletes from the area,” Demong said. “What we’re probably going to see 10 or 15 years from now is the effect that this generation has had on the expectations of that community.”
“This might be the beginning of the end or our era, but I think the hope should be that others can step up and fill our shoes,” Burke said. “If our careers have done anything for the area, I hope it’s that we have inspired local kids to dream big.”