Getting U.S. NoCo Back to the Big Stage
#fisnoco around the world: FasterSkier.com
#fisnoco around the world continues with a contribution by U.S. ski magazine Faster Skier. World Cup and Domestic Racing Reporter Jason Albert portraits the special situation and development of Nordic Combined in the USA.
Building a sports legacy in the U.S. is a tough sell if it doesn’t include the pounding halftime music, the in-your-face big-stadium drama, and of course the larger-than-life personalities. It’s not exactly “move over Lebron James”, but Nordic Combined in the U.S. is rising. Across the U.S., smaller communities and cities have renewed the vitality of the sport — in the years to come, don’t be surprised to see an American flying farthest or outlunging the Nordic Combined power nations at the line.
Since 2014, Nordic Combined and men’s Ski Jumping in the U.S. has been organized under the umbrella of USA Nordic. It’s a young organization building on the storied medal success of athletes like Olympians Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane. In fact, Demong serves as the organization’s executive director.
Unlike the comparatively small European countries and Japan that compete against the U.S. on the Nordic Combined World Cup, USA Nordic is tasked with developing the sport and supporting its top-tier athletes in a massive country.
Taylor Fletcher, U.S. Nordic Combined team member since 2009, explained how different it remains in Europe.
“I can drive from Ramsau, and in thirty minutes I can be in Bischofshofen, in an hour and a half I can be in Villach, in two hours I can be in Planica in Slovenia,” Fletcher said. “It’s very easy to go from hill to hill there, so it means it’s very easy for those clubs to culturally mix, to train with other athletes, to see better ski jumpers on a regular basis. Whereas here, we have good ski jumpers, and a lot of times they are over in Europe. But we also don't know where we are compared to other jumpers because we are here in our little world for part of the summer until we get over to Europe.”
For perspective, Jed Hinkley, sport development director for USA Nordic, keeps tabs on athletes and clubs from Anchorage, Alaska, to New England — a 4,000-mile span.
Yet the challenge posed by geography is surmounted by the energy found in many local Nordic Combined and jumping clubs around the United States. According to Hinkley, Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined are experiencing a resurgence in the U.S.
“To the best of my knowledge, Norway and Germany are one and two for numbers in Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined,” Hinkley said. “It appears that the U.S. is the third-largest Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined nation in the world. There is one country that I don’t have numbers for that could outrank us, is Poland because they have such a huge love for Ski Jumping. It appears our numbers are higher than Slovenia, Austria and Japan, which are all part of the jumping and Nordic Combined powerhouses.”
Despite the obvious challenges, developing a connected Nordic Combined community remains an important goal for USA Nordic. A myriad of clubs from across the U.S. meet once a year for the Springer Tournee — a week-long Nordic Combined and Ski Jumping festival at the Olympic venue in Park City, Utah. The event is an opportunity for coaching clinics and athlete testing, and culminates with national-championship competitions. This year, the Springer Tournee attracted more than 200 athletes with ages spanning from U10 to seniors.
The Talent Pipeline and The Big Show
This season, U.S. Nordic Combined will be led by A-team returners and brothers Bryan Fletcher, 31, and Taylor Fletcher, 27. The duo teamed up with Demong and Lodwick to earn a World Championships bronze in the 2013 team event in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Despite this being an Olympic year, Taylor explained the team remains focused on World Cup podiums.
“We are not approaching it like it is an Olympic year,” he said. “We are approaching it like it’s a World Cup year. Because you need those top World Cup finishes in order to be successful at the Olympics. You cannot necessarily go stabbing in the dark for an Olympic medal. You need to be consistent and in order to be consistent, you need to be having the good results through the winter which involves all the World Cups.”
Those results are sure to improve with more consistent jump performances. Former Austrian jumper and Norwegian Nordic Combined coach Nik Huber is in his second year as the U.S. Nordic Combined jumping coach. Both Fletcher brothers are amongst the strongest skiers on the World Cup. The goal moving forward is to work with Huber and fine tune the team’s jumping.
“Our main goal obviously is to really improve the jumping,” Bryan said. “It’s a lot easier to make up two minutes on jumping than it is to make up two minutes on the cross-country side. That's the same focus that we have had the last couple years but we are really trying new approaches towards that this year.”
The fleet of skiers following the Fletchers have time on their side in terms of World Championship and Olympic cycles, yet their recent junior-level results maintain the team’s emerging optimism. At the most recent Junior World Championships at home in Park City, U.S. Nordic Combined tallied two top-10 performances. Stephen Schumann, now 17, placed 10th in the individual normal hill/10-kilometer Gundersen, and 19-year-old Ben Loomis finished ninth in the normal hill/5 k.
In the U.S., names like Schumann, Loomis and even Fletcher are relatively unknown to those who primarily follow mainstream sports. Bryan understands that in an Olympic year he’ll be explaining his passion to a new set of eyes.
“If you look at Nordic Combined in the U.S., oftentimes when I tell people who don't know the sport or aren't quite familiar with it that I do Nordic Combined, often the first question that they ask is, ‘Oh, is that the one where you ski and you shoot?’” he said with a laugh. “You have to take a minute to explain that biathlon is different than Nordic Combined and that we do the Ski Jumping and they say, ‘Oh, like Eddie the Eagle?’ And you are like, ‘Yeah, kind of, but then I ski a cross-country race.’ It definitely takes a minute for people to get their heads around it.”
But make note, despite Nordic Combined lacking NBA or NFL status, the U.S. has developed a strong core of skiers and cultivated a knowledgeable Nordic Combined community to bring it’s best flyers and skiers to the World Cup stage.
Since its inception 16 years ago, FasterSkier.com has been a leader in providing English-language news and resources related to all things nordic, including but not limited to cross-country skiing, nordic combined and biathlon.
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