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U.S. Nordic Combined Team Enters Another World Championships with Big Expectations

Taylor Fletcher jumping earlier this year in Seefeld, Austria, where he was fifth and third for career bests on the World Cup. (Photo: Michael Ward)

Taylor Fletcher jumping earlier this year in Seefeld, Austria, where he was fifth and third for World Cup career bests. (Photo: Michael Ward)

FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.

VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – As more than a half dozen members of the U.S. Nordic Combined team and staff zipped around the stadium at Lago di Tesero on Thursday, several made jokes in the transitions between testing skis, but it didn’t seem to effect their efficiency.

That’s no surprise; three out of five of the team’s World Championships athletes have been to this level – the biggest thing outside of the Olympics – at least seven times. Todd Lodwick, 36, leads the group entering his ninth World Championships just a few years after winning two individual golds in Liberec, Czech Republic. Billy Demong, 32, also notched a world title that year in 2009, as well as a bronze, and just last year, he reached a season high of third in the Val di Fiemme World Cup. That success could mean good things for the seasoned U.S. team with multiple world titles, including Johnny Spillane, 32, who won the individual sprint here 10 years ago.

But this year, the team’s goal of three World Championships medals could largely ride on the performance of its youngest athletes: Taylor Fletcher, 22, and his older brother Bryan, 26. Both have notched breakout results in the past year, with Taylor most recently notching a career-best bronze at the World Cup in Seefeld, Austria, and Bryan winning the 134-meter large hill/Gundersen individual at the 2012 World Cup finals in Oslo, Norway.

The team also combined for a relay podium in early Januray in Schonach, Germany, with the two Fletchers, Lodwick and Demong combining for third behind Norway and Germany. It’s those kind of results that make the their coaches know big things are possible in the four competitions at World Championships over the next week and a half, but they know it’s going to take all they can muster to get there.

U.S. jumping coach Chris Gilbertson chatted with FasterSkier alongside the track on Thursday, one day before the team started the first competition: the individual HS 106 and Gundersen 10 k. The team event, with a 4 x 5 k relay, will take place Sunday, followed by the individual HS 134/Gundersen 10 k on Feb. 28 and the team sprint (2 x 7.5 k) on March 2.

FasterSkier: How’s everyone doing?

Chris Gilbertson: Pretty much everyone’s healthy. Todd’s been doing OK with the cough and stuff that he’s got. Since basically the middle of January, everything’s been moving better and better and better, going in the right direction. Bryan’s skiing is finally starting to catch up to the jumping side and of course Taylor has always been crossing fast and that confidence is starting to carry over into the jumping, which is nice. It sort of takes a little bit pressure off Taylor one way and then it also takes pressure off Bryan just to be the only guy that’s doing well. Also having Bill jumping better now, that was always his plan. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be ready by World Championships,’ and Dave and I were pretty much ready to strangle ourselves. All summer he was just horrible and we’re like, ‘I’ll get better,’ and we’re like, ‘Come on, when are you going to start?’ Finally, the last two weeks.

FS: What’s it like coaching a World Championships team with three seasoned veterans?

CG: It’s harder in some ways and easier in others. Easier in the sense that, you kind of don’t have to tell anyone what to do, they already know for the most part what’s going on. But on the other hand it’s really hard to tell the older guys what they need to do, because they already feel like they know, what they need to do. I kind of joke my coaching’s more reminding than anything, but it needs to be a little more forceful sometimes and you just can’t do that with the older guys because it just won’t work. The younger guys you can be a little more strict and stronger, with these guys, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on.’ If they’re on track, it’s fine, and when they’re not, it’s really hard to kind of pull them back into where you think they should be.

We just kind of have to let it run and let the results speak for themselves. [Head coach] Dave [Jarrett] is probably one of the best guys about this it’s like, ‘Look, it’s they’re performance and their results, and until they realize what’s going on, you can’t make them do anything.’ And it’s hard. It’s really hard to know that they’re making mistakes, that they’re a little bit off, or that they don’t want to listen. They’re still being stubborn in what they think is right. It’s not that we’re that far off, but sometimes it’s just enough.

Luckily they’ve all done it [won world titles]. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in that sense, but just finding that, and we’re always saying the consistency.

FS: What do you think they’re capable of at these championships?

CG: It’s a little bit rough because we put high expectations on when we do the spring meetings, but I would say that the season so far hasn’t gone as planned. It’s been pretty good for Bryan and better and better for Taylor, but not for Johnny, Todd or Bill so I think that kind of tempers everything a bit. It’s not out of the realm of possibility but I would kind of say we’re gonna need to jump better than we’ve been to get close. We need to be within a minute and 15 or a minute to really get medal contention for sure. Definitely one of the better things was getting that third in Schonach [in a World Cup relay in Germany.] That showed Taylor went above and beyond and I think can pull it in. When we get close, we’re all right, but we can’t be that far out.

FS: What about the team’s past success in Val di Fiemme?

CG: I think on the big hill is better for Johnny, and I know these guys, they like the cross-country course. This is where it all began so it’s good. We trained here twice this summer. This is another place that we’re very comfortable, being at the hotel that we’re at, knowing everyone else here.

FS: What about the cross-country course?

CG: I thought it was really hard, which I think plays in our favor. I think it’s good for Taylor, good for Bill.

FS: How long has the team been training here?

CG: We just got here Saturday night/Monday morning. Bill loves to just show up as late as he possibly can. Bryan and Johnny like to come a couple days earlier than that. These guys aren’t affected by jet lag anymore. They won’t use that as an excuse ever. It’s only for Johnny, sometimes he’s got to stretch more and Bryan needs to get the cobwebs out a little, but then we’re good to go.

FS: What’s the goal at this point?

CG: A goal is three medals here, and however it happens, whether it’s one individual, one team, we’ll take any combination we can get. I’d be happy with one right now, the way things have been going.

FS: How key is having the younger guys step up?

CG: It’s good that that’s happening. We’ve been like, ‘Come on guys, we can’t depend on the older guys that are getting older,’ so it was good to finally see Taylor moving in and that breakthrough with Bryan last year was good.

2013 World Championships schedule

About Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon (formerly Matthews) is the managing editor at FasterSkier and to most people's surprise, not a guy. When she's not writing, you can find her outdoors in upstate New York or doing the gym thing as a certified personal trainer. Follow her on Twitter @active_alex.

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