He may have blown the doors off the Euros when he became the first American medalist ever in Nordic Combined, but, back home, this Steamboat native plays just like any other mountain-town dude.
Every sportscaster and talking head on national media was talking about Steamboat native Johnny Spillane last winter when he took home three silver medals, the first ever for the U.S., in the quirky sport of Nordic combined, which combines Nordic racing with ski jumping. That was a big change for Spillane who was just doing what you do growing up in Steamboat—ski, hit the ski jump on Howlensen, oh, and fish. Spillane guides fly fishing adventures in the summer to make some cash as he and his wife of two years prepare for their first child. And when it comes down to it, the beauty of Spillane’s success is that he is just like so many of us, A Colorado boy who likes to have fun and be outside. We caught up with him on his way down to take a group of clients bonefishing in the Bahamas.
The Olympics made you a household name as a skier, but you make your living as a fly fishing guide. How long have you been fly fishing?
I started so young I don’t even remember. It’s been a passion for a long time and my brother has been a guide for years. I just started guiding about two years ago with Steamboat Flyfisher. For me, it’s a fun way to make a bit of money and get away from skiing. I get to do something completely different that gets my mind away from the ski industry. I guide mostly here in Steamboat on the Elk and Yampa on both public and private water—there’s just some incredible trout fishing here all year long. We actually catch some of the biggest fish in February and March.
Does fly fishing work into your ski training in any way?
It complements it in the sense that it gives me a break. It gives me a chance to get away from skiing. Training can be stressful. It’s hard work. You can get burnt out mentally and physically. In a place like Steamboat, a lot of the same ski bums are fishing bums. Industry-wise, there really isn’t as much crossover as there should be. But you know, in Steamboat there’s great fishing and skiing. You can do both the same day. Maybe it’s my calling to bring the two sports closer together. I have been looking into creating a new foundation, one that would pass on the passion I have for getting out and taking part in outdoor activities and to help preserve habitat.
Do people on the street recognize you these days? Are you a celebrity?
It’s funny. In a community like Steamboat where they pay a lot of attention to Nordic sports, where its a big part of the history of the town, someone will say hi or congrats or tell me about their experience watching the event. The most fun is when people will tell me where they were and how much fun they had when they watched the Olympics. The town has played such a big role in supporting all its skiers, really. The winter sports club is pretty inclusive. I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the country. It’s just amazing how Steamboat nurtures competitive skiers.
You and the Nordic combined Olympic team (and your medals) toured U.S. military bases in the Middle East in the spring. What was that experience like?
We went to Bahrain, Qatar, Baghdad… We kept moving the whole time, never staying in one place for more than 24 hours. We met almost 10,000 servicemen and women. We didn’t just shake hands, sign autographs and walk away either. We spent 18 to 20 hours a day having conversations. We got to share our experience with those guys but the coolest part was that they got to share their experiences with us. I mean they just can’t compare. They have been away from home from six months to two years. We spend 200 days a year on the road. We can commiserate some but you just can’t compare their sacrifice to what we do whether you agree with why they are there or not.
The Vancouver Winter Olympics seemed to create a special buzz here in the States, especially with you guys taking home the first U.S. medals ever in Nordic combined. Have you noticed new interest in the sport? Do you think you can build on that success to grow the sport?
We hope so. Our goal is to promote our sport. We want more average Americans to learn what it is all about. In Europe, you have crowds of 20,000-50,000 people at events. I get tons of fan mail—but its mostly from Germans, Norwegians, Finns. For every 20 letters I get form Europe, I might get one from America. But now people in the U.S. seem to have an idea what this sport is about. For us, this is not once every four years. It’s every day. But if we can get people to pay just a little bit more attention, that’s fine with us. We don’t expect to get rich.
You are due to have a baby girl in September. How do you see that changing your life? Are you glad to be raising a child where you were raised, in Steamboat?
It’s going to be a whole new adventure. The cool thing about Steamboat is that it really is a community and not just another ski resort. There are a lot of cool, innovative people here and companies like Big Agnes, Honey Stinger, Smartwool. There are a lot of people excited about the outdoors and trying to make their living being outdoors. There’s just that type of attitude in town instead of a focus on nothing but big hotels. And there’s a great ski racing scene. There’s so much support in town. It’s so good to see Nordic sports grow here, so many kids picking up the sport. Really, I was pretty fortunate to grow up here and be given everything this town has to offer. I’m hoping my daughter will have even more opportunity. •