By David Ljunggren
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Fired up by an ailing 33-year-old and a 37-year-old "freak of nature" who is recovering from a dislocated shoulder, the U.S. Nordic Combined team are gearing up for another real shot at Olympic medals.
The United States have gradually become a major player in Nordic Combined, where athletes first take a single leap from a ski jump and then race on a cross country track.
The team made their Olympic breakthrough at the 2010 Games, winning a gold and three silvers in the three events. The two veterans who made it possible are back for one last time, hoping their experience can compensate for sickness.
Todd Lodwick, 37, dislocated his left shoulder and fractured his arm and a rib in a fall last month. He won a silver in the team event in 2010.
"After the crash it was devastating, and a mental challenge, but ... if you put your mind to something anything's possible. The athlete who I am knew that I was going to get here, one way or another," he told reporters on Monday.
Lodwick - who admits the shoulder still hurts - has the slightly sardonic air of a man who has seen it all, noting that most of the other competitors had not even been born when he started racing.
Asked how he would cope with the warm conditions, he replied: "I'd like to compensate with a margarita and chips and salsa but I'll wait until after the season is done to do that."
Lodwick will be competing in his sixth Olympics, a record for a U.S. skier. He puts his longevity down to mental strength and a desire to keep competing.
Team mate Bill Demong, 33, was more blunt.
"He's a total freak of nature ... he has showed time and time again he is not like any other human being," he told reporters, noting that Lodwick had survived almost unscathed after being knocked off his bicycle in France in 2009.
This will be the last Olympics together for the duo, since Demong - who won the individual large hill gold in 2010 - plans to quit the sport soon.
"I've had probably one of my more enjoyable seasons because I see the light at the end of the tunnel," he told reporters, saying his many years in the sport would help him deal with a persistent three-week cough.
"I felt pretty bad when I did my intensity (training)yesterday and yet I'm still able to go hard. So there's again the years of experience: it feels bad but I can still do the job and that's what's important," he said.
The two other members of the team are brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, aged 27 and 23 respectively.
Taylor Fletcher said having the two veterans around had been enormously helpful.
"I was knees deep in water I'd never been in before and that benefited me really well because they are such experienced guys in the sport that they know what's good and what to do and where to go ... I got to learn from the best," he said.
The U.S. team are particularly strong in the cross country section, which they won at last year's world championships before taking the bronze.
"I think we're going into this hoping to come away with some hardware. It's definitely not going to be easy and I think cross country wise we're in a good place," said Bryan Fletcher.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren)