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 – You could have been looking at pretty much any one of the US Ski Team guys scattered throughout the 10-kilometer Gundersen start on Friday, the afternoon segment of the nordic-combined opener at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships. They all had that same look in their eyes, in their disposition.
All four of the Americans – Bryan Fletcher, Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Taylor Fletcher – had the same task ahead of them: catch as many people as possible and finish with some satisfaction.
Bryan Fletcher led the group after the jumping portion on the 106-meter normal hill, about 10 kilometers away in Predazzo. Fletcher had posted a 92.5-meter jump, 11 meters short of Haarvard Klemetsen’s winning distance, which put Fletcher in 19th, 1:41 minutes back from the Norwegian.
Lodwick had the next-best jump for the U.S. in 32nd, one of his top results on the hill this season. The younger of the Fletcher brothers, Taylor was 45th in the jump and Demong ranked 47th out of 55.
Not ideal, most thought, as they formulated a plan to work their way back into contention. However, for Bryan Fletcher, 19th was enough to aim for a top 10 and by far his best individual result at World Championships.
With three World Championships behind him, Bryan entered his fourth with some confidence, testing his competitors and leading one of several chase groups out of the start. With the pace fluctuating from fast to slow, he decided to take the reins and keep it steady, but mostly, high.
“For me the strongest point of today’s race was being able to lead and still recover and keep going,” Bryan said after placing 14th, 1:01.2 behind winner Jason Lamy Chappuis of France. Beside his two fourth-place finishes in relay events at worlds, it eclipsed his previous individual best of 22nd.
Now one of the top U.S. skiers on his five-man A-team, Bryan said he expected more of himself, especially with three more competitions to go. But this was a good start.
“Obviously, I wasn’t in the optimum jumping position,” he said. “I was just really going out there to see how I felt and kind of open up World Champs with a good solid opening race and that’s exactly what it was. I felt strong and I think that if I continue to race this strong throughout the rest of the races, with a little better jumping, I’m in the fight.”
Fletcher ran out of some steam at the end of the four-lap race, missing out on 13th by 0.2 seconds to Austria’s Bernhard Gruber, but clocked the 13th-fastest ski time. According to Jarrett, that one place didn’t make much difference.
“When you come here to win medals, it doesn’t matter that much,” he said. Regardless, he was impressed by Bryan’s performance, which led his teammates’ by a significant margin.
Demong got down to business from start to finish, making up nearly a minute and a half on the leaders to end up 23rd. While it wasn’t the second world title he was hoping for, or another medal to add to his collection, Demong was relatively pleased with the way he skied in a race that turned out to be a sort of personal test.
“It’s tough when you know you don’t really have a chance after the jumping,” Demong said. “You try to make something happen just on the off-chance that you don’t blow up or you can make it. I guess today I tried to trial a good race and just pace myself well. It’s a tough course and I think it’s important to have the mentality that I’m going to jump better in one of these next races”
Demong said he started “pretty controlled” and strove for negative splits on each ensuing lap. The strategy gave him more energy for the last couple rounds, where he made up the most time on the 46 men in front of him.
“Unfortunately, it was a good training day,” the 32-year-old said of second-worst result at World Championships since placing 27th in 1999 in Ramsau, Austria. “But it gives me confidence for the next couple races.”
For Demong, a 2009 World Champion and 2010 Olympic gold medalist, confidence has been what he’s been seeking all season after some equipment changes last summer. When Atomic stopped making jumping skis, he had to change companies and try new bindings and boots as well.
“At one point, I switched some binding pieces around and had some pretty scary jumps,” he explained. “I don’t know if it’s my age or what, but it took me a while to get some confidence back to just go after it and feel safe. So the first month of the season was really just getting comfortable enough to try again.”
Now, he’s going for it and feeling safe again, Demong said. Training jumps have been going well recently – within the top 30 – but Friday he felt he tried too hard.
“It’s not cross-country skiing where the harder you try, the faster you go,” Demong said. “It’s like a golf swing. You have to have finesse and trust. Today, I can honestly say when I tried too hard in the competition to make something special happen. Instead of going further … I ended up going shorter. It’s kind of rough honestly. Right now I have to be very patient on the jump hill, which is hard because you want to go for it in the competition.”
While Demong chose restraint in Friday’s race, Taylor Fletcher decided to go hard from the start and rose from 45th to 25th with the ninth-fastest time. In his second World Championships, it topped his 26th from two years ago in Olso, Norway. But after tasting the podium with a career-best World Cup result of third earlier this year, it wasn’t what the 22-year-old was shooting for.
“It’s encouraging for Bryan, Bill and Taylor to have pretty much a sub-par jumping performance and be kind of in there,” Jarrett said. “But we still need to improve on the jumping side to be fighting for the podium.
“Taylor took a risk and opened really fast,” he added. “You can see Bill did the opposite, they basically came together at the end, and Bill beat him.”
While Jarrett hadn’t spoken with Lodwick after the race, in which the two-time 2009 World Champion dropped three spots to 35th for his first non-top 30 at worlds, he speculated Lodwick might not have felt well. After the jump, Lodwick said he’d been fighting illness for the last “two or three months.”
“I feel like I’ve kind of battled it and am as good as I can be,” Lodwick said. But in his ninth World Championships, he couldn’t get over the crowd at the ski-jumping stadium.
“The hill’s in perfect shape, there’s a headwind, blue skies, I mean we are competing in such an awesome venue in the valley,” Lodwick said. “I’m just excited to be here. It’s been a blast.”
Jarrett said conditions weren’t perfect in the jump after several wind delays affected his starters. With the normal hill, 4 x 5 k team event up next on Sunday, Jarrett said they had some tough decisions to make by Friday.
“It’s basically between Todd and Johnny,” he said of Spillane, who did not make the team’s four-man quota on Friday. “I know Johnny’s really looking forward to the big hill more so than the small [normal] hill.”
Ten years ago, Spillane won an individual world title on the large hill in Predazzo.
“While he wants to be on the team he’s kind of focusing on [next] Thursday’s race as much as possible,” Jarrett said. “He’s got to still earn a spot on the team jumping-wise anyway.”
Earlier in the year, the U.S. Nordic Combined Team stated they were seeking three medals. Jumping coach Chris Gilbertson restated that goal on Wednesday, but added that they’ll be happy with one. When it comes to the event they could have the best chance in, Jarrett said the relay is the focus.
In the past two World Championships – in Oslo in 2011 and Liberec in 2009 – the Americans were fourth with Demong, Bryan Fletch, Spillane and Lodwick. They also placed sixth in a second relay at the 2011 worlds, but the schedule has since changed to include a two-man team sprint on March 2.
“This season in Schonach, [Germany] that was the first time we’ve been on a podium in a World Cup in a four-man team event,” Jarrett said. “So it’s clearly possible. That wasn’t really anything out of this world on the jumping side. That’s gonna be the key, we need to be in there after jumping to do it.”
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.