February 20, 2014 Updated: February 20, 2014 at 11:15 am
KRASNAYA GOLYANA, Russia — At the end of his sixth Olympics, this was no longer about fighting for a medal for Todd Lodwick.
It was most likely his last chance to ski past the five Olympic rings, and the 37-year-old Lodwick was going to enjoy every second of it, even if the hope for a final triumph was already gone.
"I'm pretty sure I had the most fun out there," Lodwick said after the U.S. finished sixth in the Nordic combined team event at the Sochi Olympics on Thursday.
"It's the Olympic rings, it's the Olympic Games," he said. "This being my sixth, I've really learned how to take it all in, what the five rings represent and what the American flag represents. Not only for myself, but for people back home, and the pride that they see every four years."
These Olympics also represent an end of an era for the American Nordic combined team, which went from relative obscurity to become a serious challenger to the traditional European powers over the last decade. Lodwick, a double world champion, and teammate Billy Demong were at the heart of that rise along with Johnny Spillane, but the generational shift has now arrived.
Lodwick, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., is retiring after these games, while the 33-year-old Demong, of Vermontville, N.Y., insists this was his last Olympics as well. Spillane retired after the Vancouver Olympics, where Demong won an individual gold medal, Spillane took two silvers and the U.S. finished second in the team event.
"Certainly now we're really going to see a turnover, and I'm excited for that," Demong said. "I think other guys deserve a chance."
This wasn't quite the way Demong and Lodwick hoped to go out. None of the four Americans on the team seriously challenged for a medal in the individual events, and they were only eighth after the ski jump portion of the team event — putting them too far behind the leaders to have a realistic chance of catching up in the 4x5-kilometer cross-country relay.
They worked their way up to sixth, helped by a quick anchor leg by Demong, who was more than 20 seconds faster than the three leading skiers on the final 5K. Norway won the race.
"It was tough. We had some realistic individual expectations," Demong said. "But to be able to come back today and personally have a better day, and have the guys have a good morale throughout the whole thing, is a positive note to end on."
For Lodwick, just being here was a success.
He crashed during a ski jump just six weeks ago, dislocating and fracturing his left shoulder. In the ambulance to the hospital, he thought he wouldn't make it to Sochi. But after a successful rehab program, he not only made it but was selected to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony.
Because of his shoulder injury, though, he wasn't able to compete in the cross-country races in the individual events, saving himself for the team relay. He clearly wasn't at his best, losing nearly a minute to the leaders on the second leg. The Americans were already out of medal contention by then, though.
Lodwick retired after the 2006 Turin Olympics, but returned to win two world championship titles in 2009, before being part of the silver-medal team in Vancouver.
"Emotions go everywhere," Lodwick said. "They're high, they're low, they're joyful, they're tearful. It's the Olympic games. It's probably my last Olympic Games as an athlete, but I'm the only one that really holds the key to that door. As of right now, I'm satisfied with locking it."