PARK CITY, Utah (AP) – Billy Demong thought his career as an Olympic athlete might be over when he fractured his skull three years ago.

The accident happened while goofing off in a swimming pool after a competition in Germany, and it came eight months after he was airlifted off a jump in Slovakia following a face-first crash into the hill during training before an event.

Demong dived into the shallow pool, hit the bottom and spent more than a minute unconscious. Fellow U.S. Nordic combined skier Carl Van Loan pulled him out, blood gushing from Demong’s nose and mouth. When Demong came to, he was terrified he’d broken his neck, ending his days as an elite athlete.

He took a year off and used that time not only to recover, but also to gain a new perspective on life and a new appreciation for his sport.

Demong finally is healthy and headed to his third Olympics, hoping to help the Americans capture a medal this February in Turin, Italy, after a handful of near-podium finishes in the team event in recent years.

“I was really lucky,” the 25-year-old Demong says. “That really freaked me out. Boys will be boys. Athletes will be crazy. When you’re an active person, especially an Olympic-caliber athlete, and you think you broke your neck, you think your life is over.”

Demong broke the orbital bone around his right eye and had two black eyes for a couple of months. The crack in his head reached 7 inches, from his eye to the crown of his skull. He was fortunate never to get headaches afterward or suffer any short-term memory loss.

“It’s still a very vivid memory,” Van Loan says. “It was probably the worst day of my life. I never want to experience anything like that again. It was a quick-reaction thing. A neck injury or head injury, you don’t really know whether to move them.

“He’s bouncing back better than ever. He had a tough year right after that. He’s matured as a person, and as an athlete he’s more consistent now. I think it actually helped him in the long run stepping away from everything and getting a taste of something else for a while, then coming back that much more fired up.”

Demong was at the peak of his career at the time, fresh off the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City – the Americans were fourth in the team competition – and his first World Cup victory. He competed in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano at age 17.

After the accident, Demong’s teammates had to leave him in a hospital in Winterberg, Germany, as they departed on an eight-hour bus ride across the country for another meet.

Demong spent time in two hospitals and a week in a neuropsychology clinic.

From Vermontville, N.Y., his parents had no idea how badly their son was injured – especially because he told them how he’d sneak out of his hospital room to go to the grocery store for bananas or ice cream.

“Certainly it was very frightening,” says his father, Leo Demong, who had his son on skis when the boy was 3 and racing by age 6. “The fact he was in Germany, I don’t think he knew the seriousness of his injury. We were insulated from it. He downplayed it, as did others.”

It wasn’t until about three weeks later that Demong saw a doctor in the United States. Every medical expert who examined Demong told him he would have to take it easy in order to fully heal.

He didn’t know what to do with himself. He couldn’t jump and his training was limited. Demong learned some carpentry skills, went to school full time at Colorado Mountain College, and worked to improve his endurance in cross country – his weaker part in the two-event sport of Nordic combined. He did some domestic races on his own.

“I had nothing really on the line but pride,” Demong says. “I came back a healthier person as a result. Having come from basically right in the middle of my high school straight through to my early 20s doing nothing but skiing and taking it so seriously, a year off was actually a really good thing.”

It wasn’t until the following summer, in 2003, that he got back on the ski hill to jump. Demong considered it a fresh start, a time to tweak his technique until he found something that worked. He ended up skiing on the second-tier World Cup B circuit, then returned to the top level last year.

Now, Demong is treated just like every other athlete on the U.S. team again.

“Complete the move!” jumping coach Lasse Ottesen hollers at an airborne Demong during a practice at Utah Olympic Park, where the 2002 Olympics jump didn’t yet have snow.

“This summer, I definitely made some big strides,” Demong says. “I think I’ve pushed my cross country and my jumping to levels I’ve never been at before. I think there’s a lot of potential to have my best season ever. I’m pretty pumped.”

And focused. Demong can’t afford to get further behind, because he’s still making up for lost time.

U.S. Nordic director Luke Bodensteiner understands it’s taken time for Demong to regain his mental edge on the jump, where wind and weather can affect an athlete’s every move.

“When you break your skull like that, you don’t want to do that again,” Bodensteiner says. “He’s still even now a little tentative and isn’t back to the level he was when he was winning World Cups and really pushing himself to the top. But he is starting to gain some good confidence.”

Bard Elden has been coaching Demong and several others on the U.S. team since they were teenagers, so he was thrilled Demong decided to return.

“I saw a change in him when he came back,” Elden says. “He’s a lot more mature. He’s a lot more solid now after the injury. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything holding him back.”

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