As the ski season for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC) wound down, juniors coach and former World Cup nordic combined skier Kerry Lynch answered questions via phone and e-mail with FasterSkier correspondent Peter Minde.
A three-time nordic combined national champion, Lynch raced from 1979 until 1987, and his international success presaged the later successes of Ryan Heckman and the current crop of U.S. nordic combined skiers. A participant in the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympics, Lynch finishing 18th and 13th, respectively, in the 15 k event. Other highlights include a win at Holmenkollen in 1983.
In 1987, Lynch won a silver medal in the 15 k nordic combined event at the World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany. However, following a U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) internal investigation in December of that year, Lynch admitted to blood doping at the Championships, and returned his medal. The International Ski Federation (FIS) imposed a two-year competition ban on Lynch, and he did not compete after that.
After his career ended, Lynch worked at an insurance brokerage that focused on the ski industry. He moved to Steamboat Springs in 1998, securing a job as an assistant coach with USSA. Lynch left the program after the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, to build his own insurance business.
Currently, Lynch volunteers as a coach with SSWSC, assisting Head Coach Martin Bayer. When he injured his ACL during in fall 2010, Bayer said, “It was easy for [Lynch] to step right in. He knew what we were working on with every athlete. The kids respect him; they know where he’s coming from.”
Lynch was one of the coaches on a training trip to Europe last summer, accompanying juniors who got a taste of travel and jumping at different venues in Poland, Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia. He also traveled to Otepaa, Estonia, for the Junior World Championships in January.
In the interview, Lynch speaks about his career as an athlete, and his work with juniors in Steamboat. He would not, however, discuss his medal and the subsequent doping scandal in 1987—for more details on that, see our related interview with Walter Malmquist, one of Lynch’s contemporaries.
FS: In an interview, the current U.S. Head Coach Dave Jarrett characterized the American nordic combined team as “skiers who jump.” In 1984, Sports Illustrated wrote that you “stayed close to the top” in the jumping portion of an event, to give yourself a chance at a good result in the cross-country portion of the race.
KL: For me personally, it was the challenge to get enough [jumping] training with high-level athletes. I lived in Europe, and trained with the Germans for a year. They helped me with jumping. I helped them with cross-country.
For the training part of it, we try to be balanced. You can do a solid cross-country program with less contact [with other elite athletes] than you need for jumping. It’s always been the jumping that’s a challenge. We’ve historically been good cross-country racers, and if we can improve jumping, we’ll continue to be a force in the sport.
I hear “how come the U.S. doesn’t have good jumpers?” I hear that all the time. First, you have to be funded. It’s a very expensive sport to do properly. We’re trying to find the funds to create the program to overcome the inherent challenges of where we’re located. We can do our homework here [in the U.S.], but we need to hone our skills with contact with other athletes.
FS: You said, “First, you have to be funded. It’s a very expensive sport to do properly.” Can you provide details of some of the expenses involved with jumping?
KL: First, it is important to know that ski jumping and nordic combined are joined at the hip. Nordic combined athletes need a wide variety of quality jumps to [compete in] their sport. There are few ski jumps in North America compared to Europe. Competitions for nordic combined need jumps first.
Cross-country courses can be created just about anywhere. We in North America have few jumping facilities, yet in Europe, there are dozens of ski jumps in close proximity. So, Canada and the U.S. have the added expense of having to access Europe, and the all-important “contact” with the Europeans. It costs $25,000 to $30,000 annually, per nordic combined athlete at a minimum (at the Continental Cup and World Cup levels), to provide the funding need to excel.
FS: So, getting into your coaching—the juniors’ race season is over?
KL: We’re done with the season. It freezes at night and goes above freezing during the day—that’s not ideal conditions for jumping. It’s good to get the kids on a jump so they can work on a few things and get locked in.
FS: In one of our conversations, you’d mentioned that the jump at World Juniors in Estonia had unique characteristics—can you expand on that?
KL: The jump in Otepaa was difficult for a lot of athletes. The wind came mostly from the back at the takeoff, but swirled around, and there was actually some light headwind from the middle of the landing hill on down. So most of the guys would come off the takeoff and not feel the pressure right away and “hesitate”, which would stop the rotation, and they wouldn’t get on top of the air, lose the airfoil and land short. There were only a few athletes that seemed to master the jump. Kaarel Nurmsalu, from Otepaa, jumping on his home hill, won both nordic combined jumping events (as well as a bronze medal in the special jumping).
FS: Were athletes at Junior Worlds also on the European trip last summer, and were they able to apply lessons from that?
KL: The athletes that went to Europe in the summer were the athletes “targeted” to represent the U.S. in the 2011 World Juniors. In nordic combined, it is critical that the athletes get in some training on jumps at lower altitudes, because there is more air pressure, and lower in-run speeds are used. The guys were able to ski jump on five different hills in [our] training camp last summer, in Zakopane, Poland; Stebske Pleso, Czech Republic; Villach, Austria; and Kranj, Slovenia. Each jump has its own characteristics, and it is important for athletes to learn how to adapt to the different hills. Still, a single trip to Europe is not enough to properly prepare, but it is better than no trip.
FS: Do your athletes ever come east to train?
KL: Yes—typically, for a camp with the U.S. team in October, in Lake Placid. It’s a huge help for them to be with our own guys. With juniors, we’re always going to struggle to keep them in contact [with elite athletes] while they’re in high school.
FS: Is there more training variety in Europe?
KL: Sure. There’s a lot more facilities there. Here, we have Steamboat. Then five-and-a-half hours away is Park City. Then, there are facilities in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois…You can figure out how to jump your own hill really well. Then you have to take that ability and apply it to new venues.
It’s ironic that kids tend to do the sports that are in their back yard. We try to have kids be well-rounded. They try alpine, tele skiing, jumping, cross-country. The kids coming up through our ranks tend to be mostly nordic combined. It’s just fun to fly off the side of a mountain.
FS: In the U.S., nordic combined seems to have a smaller talent pool than cross-country. But the nordic combined program seems to have developed steadily over the past 20 years.
KL: Yes, the nordic combined talent pool in the U.S. is tiny, compared to the other powerhouse nations of Germany, Austria, Norway, France, and others. We have experienced coaches and have been able to craft plans that create the outcomes that have been achieved. It was not a fluke that Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick became the best and most revered nordic combined athletes on the planet, bar none, for two years running. Those three won more medals than all other teams in the past two world championships and Olympics. That success was achieved by having the appropriate financial backing and support that started before the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Unfortunately, the financial support has dwindled each year. If we are to continue this high level of success, we’ll have to fully support the next generation of athletes that are on the rise.
FS: The U.S. cross-country program has made big strides in the last ten years, but isn’t yet at the level of the U.S. nordic combined program. Do you have any insight about this?
KL: That is a difficult question that can be answered better by the brain trust of cross-country. From the nordic combined side, I think the recent successes have come from a combination of things. First, the current U.S. coaches—Dave Jarrett, Chris Gilbertson and Greg Poirier—have been together longer than any other U.S. nordic combined coaches. This continuity has allowed the nordic combined program to develop, and finally prosper. Also, the most successful nordic combined athletes have had [persistence]. Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong, and Johnny Spillane were exposed to the highest level early in their careers, learned that the bar was set high, and continued to strive to be the best.
Success can take time. Athletes need time to develop and make progress. There will be ups and downs, bumps in the road. Coaches and administrators need to be patient. Results will come when the talent, determination, and dog-hard
work all come together. Athletes need to be supported as they are coming along. Too often, athletes are written off too soon, and go different directions. We have seen that many of the top endurance athletes reach success at advanced athletic ages. Given more time and better financial support, our stellar stable of cross-country athletes can win medals. No questions about it.
FS: Do people ever hassle you about the past?
KL: It never comes up. It was a moment in time. You want to leave the sport better than you found it. It’s a shame when athletes retire and don’t share. There’s no point to just retire and keep information to yourself. Mostly…you have a passion for it. It’s a lifestyle. People that harbor animosity about things in the past, it takes them about a minute to get to know you. They realize you mean well for the athletes. They assume because this happened, you’re this kind of person. I’ve got one speed: that’s mach 1 with my hair on fire. I bring that fire and determination to help kids to well. Once people see that… I don’t spend one second on the past.