KUUSAMO, Finland - From the top of the towering jump scaffold at the Ruka ski area north of Kuusamo, you can see all the way to Russia. Well, it's just 30 miles away. The frigid land of midday sunset was the scene Friday of the International Ski Federation's nordic combined opener as Olympian Billy Demong of Vermontville leads a four-man U.S. contingent to the gateway of Lapland.
"I feel good about it this year," Demong said. "We've been strategic in our preparation and this is the one of the best group of four guys we've ever brought to Kuusamo."
It wasn't easy getting there, but the team finally made it to Kuusamo after a successful tune-up camp in the Olympic village of Lillehammer, Norway. After flying Oslo to Stockholm to Helsinki to Kuusamo - or, actually, rerouting to Oulu over 200 kilometers away - it was like a homecoming. The opener has been held in Kuusamo every November since 2002, although the Americans strategically skipped the event a year ago.
Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong of Vermontville gets in some early season training after a huge snowfall at the home of the U.S. Ski Team in Park City, Utah.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Ski Team)
"We made it!," Demong tweeted. "Home sweet Ruka Hovi! Seems nice, not too cold, snowing lightly. Could it be a new Ruka?"
The Ruka ski resort, also home of the freestyle moguls opener in a few weeks, is north of the Finnish city of Kuusamo - the gateway to Lapland. Kuusamo is situated just south of the Arctic Circle and only about 30 miles as a reindeer would run through the frozen lakes to Russia.
"The weather is fantastic here - maybe a bit cold - but it's clear and I'm seeing mountains I never knew were there before," Demong said.
The ski hill at Ruka pops up like a bump on the frozen tundra. The jump hill is on top with the cross country trails running around the base, up and down the hill. It's one of the toughest jumping hills on the circuit and most challenging cross country courses.
"Ruka has always been a big wake-up call for us," Demong said. Kuusamo hasn't been all that kind to the USA over the years. Demong and Johnny Spillane split podiums in 2007 and Lodwick scored a pair in 2004.
Four Americans were expected to be on the starting line Friday for the first of two weekend nordic combined events. Also on tap will be the second FIS Cross Country World Cup of the season, featuring the Ruka Triple, a three-day mini-tour, plus the opener for ski jumping. In addition to Demong, the U.S. will start with Olympic team silver medalist Brett Camerota and Bryan and Taylor Fletcher.
Olympic medalist Todd Lodwick decided to stay home for a few weeks before joining the World Cup in December. Demong is also planning to take a break in December to ski the Continental Cup event in Utah Dec. 11-12. Spillane, meanwhile, is making great progress from a summer knee injury. He's been training cross country and awaiting the go-ahead to start jumping.
Season openers are always time for speculation and intrigue and the combined circuit has its fair share. With just 14 competitions on the calendar between now and March, it's a shorter run than usual. But the season is punctuated with the World Championships at Holmenkollen in Oslo in late February, which promises to be one of the sport's most spectacular events in history.
Frenchman Jason Lamy-Chappuis comes in as the defending World Cup champion, but will likely have a strong challenge from Norwegian Magnus Moan and possibly Italian newcomer Alessandro Pittin. But like any opener, questions abound. Will German superstar Ronny Ackermann, with a record five wins in Kuusamo, be on the starting line? Will Finnish veteran Hannu Manninen be in the hunt for a fifth win in Kuusamo. Time will tell.
German Tino Edelman and Lamy-Chappuis both took wins in pre-season races in Lillehammer. The U.S. did not take part.
Action kicked off Friday with the combined jump and 10-kilometer cross country finale. Action wraps up today with the jump and cross country under the lights later in the afternoon.