Somehow that word just doesn’t evoke visions of soaring ski jumpers or cross country skiers battling for position coming down to the final lanes of a race. But, nonetheless, the FIS (International Ski Federation) had awarded the annual World Jr. Championships for all the Nordic events to Erzurum, Turkey for 2012.
Earlier in the winter the National Training Group of the US Nordic Combined team had traveled nine time zones to this sprawling, university city located in eastern Turkey. They have lived and trained in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for well over two years together, pushing and exhorting each other to excel, both in cross country and in ski jumping. However each jump hill has its own character, its own “feel”. So, for these athletes who would return a month later for their most important competition of the winter, their January competition at a Continental Cup (the World Cup “B” tour) was a critical component to that success. Under the tutelage of Czech-born Martin Bayer and US Olympian, Kerry Lynch, the small group had set its sights for a strong performance.
In January, Adam Loomis from Eau Claire Wisconsin had scored very well in both events. He scored his personal best COC with a 5th place, then followed it up with an 11th place the following day. Michael Ward, from Aspen, Colorado was well back in the field the first day, but skiing with Adam much of the second race, he then scored his personal best with a 13th place. Erik Lynch, from Steamboat Springs, had strong practice jumps, but didn’t perform to his best, with finishes of 31st and 41st. Cliff Field, also from Steamboat, jumped well, but also struggled in the cross country portion, finishing 29th the second day. Tyler Smith from Park City raced the first event, but finished a disappointing 42nd. For the team, the early trip to Erzurum was both a success, competitively, but also from an acclimation and familiarization aspect.
To know the food and the customs, the language and the venue sites…these are intangible elements that can make or break an athlete when the big event in “on”. Competing at a Continental Cup has its pressures, but for three out of four of the young men, the World Junior Championships would be their last at the international Junior level. Loomis, Ward and Field were all born in 1992, so next year they will move on to the senior ranks. Only Lynch, at 17, will have two more years at the junior level.
The Big Event
Temperatures had plummeted all over central Europe, and it had also in eastern Turkey, headwaters for the Euphrates river. In January the team had seen little snow, both on the jump hills towering over Erzurum, and on the ski trails 45 kilometers west of the city in a small hamlet named Kandilli. In mid February, when over 18 nations sent their best Nordic skiers to Turkey, the snow blanketed the mostly tree-barren landscapes. Luckily the jump hill inrun was of the latest design: a frost-rail system that was, in effect, two channels of ice, covered each night to prevent any snow from changing the consistent speed and superior condition of the track. The cross country trails, however, skied like Styrofoam, frighteningly slow but fairly easy for which to wax. The trick was in choosing the right flex of skis, and the optimal base preparation.
The first competition for the combined athletes was the Normal hill (K90) and the 10 kilometer ski race. With temperatures hovering at 5 degrees Fahrenheit the jump competition went off in Swiss-like clockwork. First for the Americans was Cliff Field, who soared 97 meters, and 116 points, which placed him at the intermediate position of 7th. Next up was Loomis, and he was not happy with his jump of 89.5 meters, or 98.5points. Ward, too, fared poorly with a jump of 85 meters, and 89 points. Lynch was seeded in the final grouping, and he jumped to 90.5 meters, which put him at 100.5 points. Coverting the points to “time back”, using the Gunderson method, the boys would start behind the top German, Christian Arlt, :32, 1:34, 1:42, 2:20 seconds respectively for Field, Lynch, Loomis and Ward.
Arriving at Kandilli about an hour later, the athletes found that Kerry Lynch was confident with the wax, and hopeful of a strong skate race. The 10 kilometer course consisted of 4 laps of a brutal 2.5 kilometer course that looked more like Tour de France hill climb and had a long, frostbite-decent back to the stadium. Only Loomis on this day would finish in the top 15, battling his way through the traffic jams of colorful skiers, finishing at 12th place, with the 3rd fastest time of the day. Ward had the 11th fastest time, which only brought him up to 26th place. Field, even though he had the advantage of a strong jump, was not able to hold on to the many skiers that skated by, finishing at 35th. Lynch, battling a flu bug, came in at 41st place. For the Americans it was a lesson of not jumping well enough to be “in the hunt” on the cross country course. The other countries like Italy, Germany, Norway, Austria were just too strong in both disciplines, placing 2,4,2 and 2 men respectively in the top fifteen.
The Relay Race, Feb 24
On the 24th of February almost identical weather conditions prevailed: Cold, clear and barely a breeze. On this day the Americans showed that they could jump, as the team scores were tallied with each competitor. Loomis jumped 93 meters, Ward flew 94.5, Lynch soared 100, and Field laid down a jump of 96 meters. Their team score was 454.5 points, just 56 seconds from the first place team of Germany. Norway was close behind at second, Finland third and Austria fourth. It was the best intermediate team jumping score in many years for the United States.
Out at the Kandilli center, Noah Hoffman, the top U23 skier for the U.S. was having his best finish ever at 15 Kilometers. He finished a whopping 2nd place….and he set the stage for his hometown teammate, Michael Ward, who lead off the Nordic combined team in the afternoon. Skiing with a passion much like Loomis in the 10K, Ward skated a blistering pace in the first leg, skiing the fastest leg, bringing the US boys from 7th place to 4th, which turned out to be the second fastest leg of all skiers for the day. However, with some fatigue and slight illness overcoming Lynch, Field and Loomis the Americans ended the day in 8th place, over 2:50 back from the first place Austrians.
The Final Day, Feb 25th
The last event, the K95 and 5 kilometer event, found the Americans with two strong performances and two disappointments plagued by illness. It was a day where the official jumping round was re-started due to a huge jump 106 meter jump by Go Yamamoto, Japan’s third athlete. For Cliff Field and Michael Ward their final jumps were 96.5 and 97 meters, giving them starts of 1:12 and 1:04 seconds back from top jumper, Ilkka Herola of Finland. Lynch flew 95.5 meters, but his poor health dictated that he not race later in the afternoon. Loomis, jumped 90 meters, so he would start the cross country segment in 42nd place, 2:10 back from the leaders.
At the Kandilli race center, Ward started the race with three others that had the same score, one being World Cup skier Manuel Faisst of Germany. Faisst had skied to a second place finish in the 10 K event, so Ward cautiously slipped in behind the veteran for the first lap. The duo, joined by a strong Italian, Austrian and Russian worked their way up through the field. In the end it was Ward nipping Faisst at the finish line in 9th place, only 28 seconds back from the winner Oystein Lien of Norway. Ward had skied the 3rd fastest time of the day, and it would prove to be the best finish for an American in over 10 years in an individual event. Faisst was 10th, just .7 seconds behind Ward, and Maierhofer of Italy was .6 seconds behind Faisst. Back in the pack, Field was having a much better race as well. From his 1:12 starting position he lost only 10 seconds to the leaders, finishing at 28th place. Loomis, without the advantage of strong skiers around him and fighting illness, skied up to finish at 34th place, 2:03 back from the winner, Lein.
All in all it was a good week for the American nordic combined team. Loomis had scored early with his 12th place in the first event. Lynch had jumped well, especially in the team event. Field had jumped consistently well and skied to 28th in the last event. Ward had jumped and skied well most of the week, and his 9th place was a personal best. The Americans will finish out their 2012 European tour this next weekend with two Continental Cup events in Predazzo, Italy.