This Nordic event is love and heartache ... combined

PRAGELATO, Italy -- Six minutes, 36 seconds -- and 40 placings -- after all the winning noise, Jason Myslicki crossed the finish line, heard a few cheers and slowly walked away.

That was his Olympic debut and Olympic finale all in the same day, in the cruel and curious discipline that he has chosen.

"This sport sucks," the kid from Thunder Bay, Calgary and parts of Utah said yesterday of Nordic combined, only partially kidding. "It sucks, but I love it.

"It has been such a long road to get here, so this meant something. Nobody knows what we do. Nobody knows who we are. We don't get a lot of support or anything. We just love it."

On one side of these Italian Alps yesterday, Jennifer Heil was skiing for gold, and on another piece of snow, not far away, no anthem was played for Myslicki and Max Thompson -- simply for getting on this stage.

Nordic combined is anything but another Olympic pretty face. It is one of winter's oldest and least recognized sports. It is two ski jumps and one 15 km cross country race, all in a day's work.

And it's about as popular as drug testing. The venue here is small. The crowd was smaller. "Even the field," Myslicki said, "was small."

Only their accomplishment wasn't. Not the 41st-place finish by the 28-year-old Myslicki. Not the 44th-place finish by 21-year-old Thompson of Calgary. If last place was worthy of some kind of podium, then the two Canadians finished just out of the medals here.

For the record, though, Canadians don't do Nordic combined. It isn't us. There hasn't a single Canadian competitor in the event since the Calgary Olympics of 1988 and as host country we got in that time on a free pass. There was no free ride here for Myslicki and Thompson: There was only the cold reality of also-ran status.

The previous Canadian to compete in this event at the Olympics was, not coincidentally, Jon Servold, who just happens to be the current national team coach. And that is meaningful. The Canadians to qualify before him were Irvin Servold, his father, in 1956, and Clarence Servold, his uncle, in 1960. Basically, Nordic combined in Canada is a one-household sport.

"This goes back to the deepest roots of competitive skiing," said Servold, explaining his own and his family's unique passion. "The sport may be obscure to some people, but this is what I grew up with.

"It means a lot for me to be here and to have Canada represented. It's extraordinary what they are doing in some ways when you think of how little we have. With limited resources and a lot of sacrifices, they are doing extraordinary things.

"Hopefully this is the start of something big."

Amateur coaches always talk that way. They view their sports through a prism so narrow they can't see beyond them. They are forever building for a better day but there may be no better day than this for Canadians in Nordic combined.

Forty-first place represents as good as it gets in a sport comprised of two disciplines we just don't factor in. There is only one active ski jump facility in all of Canada. There are few males able to compete at the world level in cross country skiing. Combine the two and this is all you get: Two great white hopes doing everything they can, and it's nowhere near enough to be competitive on the world stage.

"It's lonely out there," said Myslicki, who put his life on hold for 10 years in pursuit of this unlikely dream. A decade later, he is barely halfway to a university degree, all but finished as an Olympic competitor and not certain as to where to go next.

Max Thompson knows where he's going. He wants to compete in Vancouver four years from now, wants to see how far he can take this crazy dream. "When I first signed up to do this, I'd never heard of Nordic combined," Thompson said. "I didn't know what it was. I was a ski jumper, so I thought I'd expand on that. Never thought about getting to the Olympics."

"In a lot of ways," Myslicki said, "the sport stinks. But it's our sport. In Nordic, you're either a lifer or you're not. Me and Max, we're lifers.

"And you know what? It means we don't have much of a life."