Confidence breeds success, or so the saying goes, and with American Taylor Fletcher’s third place finish in the Gundersen normal hill competition in Seefeld, Austria, on Sunday it’s easy to see the truth behind it. One day after setting a new career mark, the Steamboat Springs native surpassed it again to finish just 2.9 seconds off Eric Frenzel’s (GER) winning time for his first career World Cup podium.
“It’s kind of sunk in, but it hasn’t really yet,” Fletcher said after returning from the hill. “I’m just trying to grasp what happened.”
As with his fifth-place performance on Saturday, a new best in jumping set Fletcher up to be in contention on the cross-country course. His skiing has repeatedly been the fastest in the field this season; his coaches know now that he’ll pop a good result if he ranks decently well after the jump.
“We knew he was capable of doing this and now he’s showing he’s able to do it, too,” said U.S. Nordic Combined head coach Dave Jarrett.
On Sunday Fletcher stood in 21st after the jumping competition, slightly higher than the day before. He started 1:28 behind the leader as the competition moved to the course, a minute behind Frenzel and just 13 seconds behind the eventual runner-up, Mikko Kokslien (NOR).
Fletcher attacked the start of the 10 k the same way he did on Saturday, the difference this time being that he and the top group of three were able to create a safer distance on fourth and fifth.
To try and ensure the race wouldn’t come down to a sprint finish Fletcher attempted a breakaway towards the end, but wasn’t quite able to drop the others. He entered the finish lanes alongside Kokslien and lunged for second; the Norwegian eked just ahead of him in the photo finish.
“They were just a little strong at the end and I was unable to fully capture them,” Fletcher said. Still, “I had a better sprint today, so I was happy.”
Fletcher’s time was once again the fastest of the day, this time by 13 seconds. According to Jarrett, Fletcher’s first podium has been on its way since his first World Cup season in 2010.
“He’s getting older but he hasn’t done a lot of different things,” Jarrett said. “He just really paid attention to the small details and we did what we said we were going do, when we said we were going to do it.”
One thing Fletcher did credit with part of his recent success was racing bikes. Cycling has become a regular off-season sport for many members of the U.S. nordic combined team; last fall Fletcher became a Cat 2.
“It’s a big passion of mine and it’s so easy in Utah; there’s races every weekend,” he said. “You can get long hours of training and not put the suffer on your body. We’ve all picked it up and we’ve all seen that it’s worth it.”
A first-time podium appearance is something athletes remember for the rest of their lives. For Fletcher, it brought affirmation that he could put together the kind of day that he’d previously only been capable of.
“I made it onto the big stage with some of the better skiers and now I know I can do it on any given weekend,” Fletcher said. “I know my jumping can be better and the cross-country is just getting better and better, so I’m very excited.”
When you climb your first World Cup podium a few weeks out from World Championsips, do you recalibrate your expectations for the main event? According to Fletcher, not quite yet.
“I want to say yes, but at the same time it’s like, I’ve only done it once. So I can’t consider myself a favorite, but as of right now I’m skiing faster, so I feel like if my jumping continues to improve then I definitely have a good chance. Val di Fiemme is one of my favorite places, so we’ll see. I just want to take it in stride.”
Both Fletcher brothers have now stood on the World Cup podium; Bryan’s came in Oslo, Norway, last March. Both siblings say their lifelong training partnership has been integral to their individual success.
“We have each other to learn from and it’s been huge in getting us to where we are,” the younger Fletcher said. “It’s one of the biggest things that can contribute to my success, is being able to learn from him and him being able to learn from me.”
Bryan made his own progress in Seefeld this weekend, placing 15th in the jump and posting the 17th-fastest course time. It’s not where he wants to be yet, but it’s getting there.
“It felt great to have a decent jump to leave the weekend with,” Bryan said. “I will be heading into Klingenthal with a bit more confidence than I came into this weekend with.”
While most American athletes don’t get to see family for months at a time while they’re competing in Europe, the elder Fletcher was there to see his brother have a career breakthrough. “It was a very cool moment for me to see as an older brother and one day I hope we can share a podium together,” Bryan said.
“I am very proud of him. He has worked very hard to get a result like today.”
Johnny Spillane was 37th for the Americans on Sunday, 2:35 behind Frenzel’s mark.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.