KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It’s been almost a week since the nordic-combined Olympians did their thing in the first of three competitions at the 2014 Winter Games. Last Wednesday’s event was on the 106-meter normal hill, not exactly U.S. Nordic Combined’s favorite.
Billy Demong led the U.S. in 24th, nearly a minute and 50 seconds behind German’s Eric Frenzel, who won the 10-kilometer Gundersen start. He had posted the 31st-best jump (tied with Finland’s Janne Ryynänen) out of 46 in the competition round, going 92.5 meters for 108.2 points. In the preceding trial round, Demong, 33, had his best jump of the season — just shy of 100 meters.
“It’s hard to be too upset because I’ve been struggling a little bit this week on this hill,” said Demong, the defending large hill Olympic champion, after last week’s competition. “I think it’s a little flatter than anything I’ve skied before.”
Flatter? His teammate Bryan Fletcher, who improved from 41st to 26th, for the second-best U.S. result on Feb. 12, tried to explain.
“This is probably one of the hardest hills I’ve ever jumped in my life,” the 27-year-old Fletcher said. “The rhythm of the hill does not match how your subconscious feelings are, so it was really difficult to find a rhythm. I found it in the trial round today, but I went for it in the comp jump, tried to lay it all out on the line, all or nothing. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, but I’ll try again next week.”
His younger brother Taylor Fletcher, who improved from 46th to 33rd, was the third American in the results. Todd Lodwick jumped to 34th — in his sixth jump after a scary crash in France in early January — but did not race in order to further heal his shoulder before the team event.
“This hill … is … it’s hard. I don’t understand it,” Taylor, 23, said. “I think a lot of people have the same feelings. I don’t know what it is that makes it so difficult. It’s a big hill, and we’ve jumped big hills. I jumped really well last year on it. It was my best jump, my best result all year, so I know I can race that. I’m a little bit better on a big hill. I don’t know if it’s my size that allows me to do that, but I get in a rhythm on it, and I can be a little more aggressive, which you really can’t on a smaller hill.”
Demong said there were positive takeaways from Day 1 of the Olympics: he had his two best jumps of the season between the trial and competition rounds.
“I almost pulled off the miracle jump today — what I didn’t think was possible before today, but it was by far my best jump of the weekend,” he said. “It kind of gave me a little hope. I’ve already almost been looking forward to the big hill because I think things were pretty good there last year, and my shape’s much better.”
The competition also gave the NoCo guys a chance to scope out the 2.5 k course they’ll race around two more times at the Olympics — with another 10 k Gundersen start after today’s large hill competition (starting at 4 p.m. Moscow time) and the 4 x 5 k team event on Thursday.
“I think the cross-country course is a lot of work,” Bryan said. “There’s no rest on it whatsoever, and any rest is followed by a technical corner or stuff like that. You really zap the legs going in with all the hills, and if you ski the hills hard like you want to, you pay for it on the corners again, so it’s just a very cumulative course as far as energy goes.”
Looking ahead to Tuesday’s large-hill competition, U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett said Lodwick wasn’t a definite for the 10 k, and he was hoping the rest of his athletes would rise to the occasion on the 140-meter hill.
“We were better than our average, but our average wasn’t good enough,” Jarrett said last week. “We need to get off to good start on the big hill. The first training jump needs to be good. There are some good things that happened: Todd jumped pretty well and tested his shoulder and I think he’ll be able to ski. [The others] jumped OK, at least they had a good jump and they’re not walking away from the small hill without any good jumps. We’re looking forward to the big hill and keeping a positive attitude.”
With a drawn-out schedule that spaces out three competitions over nine days, Jarrett said it can be tough to stay focused — especially in a place like Krasnaya Polyana, at least an hour away from the coastal cities of Adler and Sochi. In 2010, they flew down to Park City, Utah, between Olympic competitions in Vancouver.
“There’s nowhere to go, really,” Jarrett said of their current Olympic home base, adding that they’ve trained at the Laura Cross-Country & Biathlon Center as well.
“Yeah, we’ve done that,” he said.
Could the extra time help Lodwick’s shoulder?
“Yeah, it’s good for him,” Jarrett said. “The difference between this week and next week as far as a fracture being healed is not really that much. … Rehab is going well, he’s not out of the woods yet, but if everything stays the same, he’ll be able to compete.”
Update: After Tuesday’s jump, Bryan Fletcher led the team in 27th, Todd Lodwick was 30th, Taylor Fletcher 35th, and Billy Demong 38th.
— Rosalie Lipfert & Seth Adams contributed reporting
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.