Broken skull knocked sense into Demong

By David Ljunggren

WHISTLER (Reuters) - Diving into the shallow end of a pool and badly fracturing your skull hardly sounds the ideal route toward Olympic success.

But U.S. Nordic Combined athlete Billy Demong, tipped to win at least one medal in this year's Winter Games, says that accident in August 2002 made him rethink his priorities and turned him into a much better athlete.

"In the long run it's definitely been a life-defining event. I was really able to get a lot more things done in my life," he told reporters.

Nordic Combined involves both ski jumping and cross country racing. Demong, 29, won the individual large hill event at the World Championships last year and now stands an excellent chance of making the podium.

Yet were it not for the accident, he says, he might have given up on the sport after a very promising U.S. team came fourth in the team event in the 2002 Winter Games.

The result, still the best performance by any U.S. team or individual athlete in a Nordic Combined Olympic event, was a huge disappointment which Demong says he tried to overcome for the following six months.

"Mentally, I probably would never have made it another four years because I was still so focused on the sport that at the age of 21 ... it was all I had in my life," he said.

FOURTH OLYMPICS

"I learned a lot about myself as an athlete and I also had enough time off mentally to be able to come back ... and say 'I do want to do this again and these are the reasons why," said Demong, about to compete in his fourth Winter Olympics.

He added: "One of those things was (to say) 'I'm going to enjoy this, I'm not going to lose sleep over this for six months again'.

"So it was a very refreshed perspective and it took me a long time to get back to being a world contender but it was that much sweeter when it happened."

Demong's easy sense of humour now extends to the right side of his chest, which sports a tattoo of a "No Diving" sign.

His light-heartedness helps him deal with the pressure of public expectations that came so close to driving him out of the sport in 2002.

"When those expectations meet your own it's a little bit more comfortable ... I'm in a much more positive place where I know that we can do it," he said.

Demong is encouraged by the increasing popularity of Nordic Combined, which used to be one of the most obscure winter sports. Last year, at Los Angeles airport, he had an unusual encounter with a security official.

"He looks at my passport and he goes 'You're not the famous Billy Demong, cross-country skier, are you?' And I'm like 'Wow'. That I never expected," he said.

For all the talk of possible Olympic success Demong -- who also encourages junior athletes to take up the sport -- refuses to let himself focus only on competitions.

"Even though I work really hard at this, I still have all that other stuff waiting for me and that's a good way to keep everything on a nice, even keel," he said.

(Editing by Jon Bramley)