By Mark Trevelyan
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - After a combined 11 Winter Games in one of the Olympics' toughest sports, U.S. athletes Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong called time on their careers on Thursday, waving goodbye to the grueling blend of ski jumping and cross-country skiing that goes by the name of Nordic combined.
The two Americans and team mates Bryan and Taylor Fletcher were competing mostly for pride in a relay event where Norway, Germany and Austria dominated from start to finish and crossed the line well over a minute before the rest of the field.
"Emotions go everywhere - they're high, they're low, they're joyful, they're tearful - it's the Olympic Games," said Lodwick, 37, his eyes welling up as he spoke to reporters after the race.
"You know it's probably my last Olympic Games as an athlete. I'm the only one that really holds the key to that door and as of right now I'm satisfied with locking it ... Yes, it's the end," he added.
Lodwick, who recovered from fracturing and dislocating his shoulder just six weeks ago and carried the U.S. flag at the opening ceremony in Sochi, said: "I'm pretty sure I had the most fun out there.
"It's the Olympic rings, it's the Olympic Games. This being my sixth, I've really learned, especially in these Olympic Games, to take it all in - what the five rings represent, what the American flag represents, not only for myself but people back home."
Placed eight after the ski jump phase of the competition, the Americans hauled themselves up to sixth in the cross-country race, with split times showing Demong recorded the second-fastest final leg.
"I grit my teeth and I kept going. It's the same game you play when you're trying to win the race. You can't help but kind of enjoy the sport for what it is sometimes," said the 33-year-old, competing at his fifth Olympics and with an individual gold and team silver medal from Vancouver 2010 to show for it.
"I cannot imagine that I would be here four years from now, and honestly I think I have other things I want to do in my life. I certainly want to make sure that this sport continues to be successful in the United States.
"There are some other challenges out there I think it's time for. Five's enough," he said.
Lodwick, who quit after the 2006 Olympics but came back to win two world championship golds and a team silver medal in Vancouver, described the Russian-hosted games as 'phenomenal'.
"You know all this talk about them not being ready? They were more than ready ... I cannot be more pleased with the way the Russians have embraced everything in regards to these Olympic Games," he said.
"In an ambulance six weeks ago, I didn't think this was ever going to be possible, and I told myself: 'If I really want this, anything is possible.' It's been a tremendous trip. I wouldn't change a thing."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)