For the last week, they had been waiting to jump. Really, about 60 nordic-combined athletes from around the world waited all summer for the season to kick off in Kuusamo, Finland.
Once there, it seemed the only things holding the athletes back were the weather and the ominous large hill itself.
Billy Demong remembered telling someone in an email: “Sometimes survival is success in Kuusamo.”
The U.S. nordic combined veteran meant that literally. He was 20th in the World Cup opener on Friday, the second-best American after Bryan Fletcher (18th). His brother, Taylor Fletcher was 33rd. Only 50 were allowed to compete, and that didn’t include longtime U.S. Ski Team member, Johnny Spillane.
After traveling to Kuusamo nearly a week ago, the four Americans attempted to practice on what Demong called a “super-punishing” hill. Officials allowed an open-training session a few days ago, but after a few runs, dangerous conditions forced them to close it again.
“It was kind of windy,” Demong said. “(A) guy flipped over, rolled downhill, (then it was) like, ‘All right, guess this session’s done.’ … I’ve seen people end seasons here multiple times. It’s really a rugged place to start.”
The Americans had not taken their turns and were left with one practice jump on Friday. The trial round was quickly followed by a provisional jump and the competition was also moved up earlier to avoid worsening weather. Within about three hours, it was all over before noon.
Norway’s Magnus Krog won his first World Cup gold after logging the fourth best jump of the day. He started 0:59 seconds behind the top jumper, Tino Edelmann (GER), who went 127.8 meters on the 142-meter hill and ended up third overall.
Edelmann was 7.1 seconds behind Krog (27:41), and Japan’s Akito Watabe was second (+2.5 after ranking fifth in both the jump and the 10-k ski).
Spillane never started. Because of a new rule enacted earlier this year, the provisional round (which followed the trials) counted as a qualifier for the weekend’s races. Jarrett said he hadn’t agreed with the nordic-combined committee’s decision then, and he didn’t like it any more when it eliminated Spillane on Friday.
In the trials, Spillane led the Americans with a jump that ranked 18th of 61 competitors. In the provisional round — which would count as Saturday’s competition if weather canceled the jumping portion — Spillane was dead last. Not only did he have to sit out Friday’s competition, but he was forced to sit out Saturday’s Kuusamo event.
“I’m bummed that I’m missing this weekend, but I have been skiing well, and I hope that will show by next weekend,” Spillane wrote in an email. “You have to jump far to be competitive and I didn’t.”
Demong said he was satisfied with his 20th place (29th in jump; 15th-fastest ski) considering the especially challenging hill.
“This hill will buck you so bad,” Demong said. “I’ve been everywhere from dead last to the podium here.”
U.S. head coach Dave Jarrett said the hill was a bit intimidating because of its immense size and relatively windy location. He described the recent weather as “rainy, snowy, windy, warm, cold.”
“So we had one training jump today in pretty difficult and mentally challenging conditions,” he said.
That turned out OK for the Fletcher brothers, with Bryan ranking 11th in the jump (103.5 m) then falling slightly to 18th after the ski race (+2:08.7). He was the 34th fastest skier and fell behind on the last lap of the 10 k.
With the 13th– to 16th-place jumpers pressuring him from behind in the race, Bryan tried to stay with them. Magnus Moan (NOR), 16th in the jump and the fastest in the 10 k, was sixth overall. Another Norwegian, Mikko Kokslein clocked the second-fastest ski time and was 15th in the jump, putting him eighth overall. The third-fastest skier, Bjoern Kircheisen (GER) was seventh.
“You don’t always know what shape everyone else is in and how you will compare,” Bryan wrote in an email. “It’s definitely a game of give and take.”
He said there was room for improvement, especially in pacing himself as needed, and hoped the conditions wouldn’t keep prevent jumping on Saturday. In Friday’s provisional jump, Bryan was 25th, Demong was 30th and Taylor was 42nd.
“Getting to jump again would give me a chance to improve upon that,” Bryan wrote.
“And for the race my hopes would be to ski a little smarter race and … see if I can ski a top-20 rank time.”
Demong noted how early it was in the season, and the key was to stay relaxed.
“It’s a solid start for Bryan. Taylor had a really strong race and I was medium,” Demong said. “If we take it in stride, then we’ll build from here, if we stress it, then we probably won’t. I think everybody’s ready to take today as decent and keep moving forward.”
Spillane had helped his teammates and wax techs with the skis and was “using some positive energy to kind of get past the fact that he’s got to sit out for the rest of the weekend,” Demong said.
“I think everyone’s psyched to get going, psyched to get the first comp finished,” Jarrett said. “I hope that if we get the provisional (Saturday), we can have a good race and move on to Lillehammer, (Norway), where we know we’ve been successful.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.