FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — Bryan Fletcher knew there was one thing that could elevate him to the podium on Thursday at FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, and it wasn’t going to be playing it safe.
The 28-year-old U.S. Nordic Combined skier decided to go with the “go-big” mindset on the 134-meter large hill, and in doing so, he jumped to 13th on Thursday morning — a huge improvement from his 20th-ranked jump in the normal-hill individual competition at Falun World Championships, where he ended up 21st last Friday.
“Today, I came into jumping in attack mode,” Fletcher recalled after Thursday’s 10-kilometer Gundersen start. “It was like, ‘Well since these are the Championships, and it’s not really worth being anything but on the podium, I’m just going to go for it as hard as possible and lay it all out there.’ ”
Starting the race 13th and 44 seconds behind the jump leader, Austria’s Bernhard Gruber, meant Fletcher could actually move up enough to matter.
“I jumped pretty well, put myself in contention, and then going into the race I was pretty nervous because being in contention is exciting but it’s also like, ‘Uh oh, now what do I do?’ ” Fletcher said.
Before Thursday, his previous individual best in four World Championships was 14th. He won a World Cup two years ago, but had not placed better than fifth in an individual competition since. He called upon his experience from a month ago in Sapporo, Japan, where he placed eighth and ninth in back-to-back World Cup competitions.
On a dark-and-damp Thursday afternoon, Gruber took off 5 seconds ahead of France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis in second and another Frenchman, Francois Braud, who started 7 seconds back in third. After that, the fifth- through eighth-best jumpers started within six seconds of one another, 23 to 29 seconds after Gruber, and Fletcher headed out six seconds after 11th and one second out of 12th.
“My goal was to ski a tactically smart race and not be in the front too much, but do enough work to put myself in contention,” Fletcher explained.
He ended up completing the first of four 2.5 k laps in 10th, toward the front of a 14-man pack. The group trailed the three frontrunners: Lamy Chappuis, Gruber and Braud, respectively. Japan’s Yoshito Watabe skied alone in fourth, 15 seconds behind them, while the chase pack reined him in from another 15 seconds back.
By 3.8 k, Norway’s Magnus Moan continued to lead the chase in fourth, with Fletcher in eighth and Watabe back in 11th. By the halfway point, the group was 30 seconds behind the three leaders, with Moan still in fourth, Germany’s Johannes Rydzek and Tino Edelman in fifth and sixth, and Fletcher up to seventh. Less than a kilometer and a half later, Fletcher was at the front of the pack in fourth, just 19.3 seconds behind the top three.
There, the American pushed to bridge the gap to the podium. Mostly focused on a medal, he gave his all while leading at least 11 others directly behind him.
“There were a lot of guys in our pack,” he said. “I think at one point it was all the way from third to 20th, and if you glance over your shoulder, you’re like, ‘Oh man, what am I doing at the front of this thing? I’m wasting so much energy.’ But at the same time, the guys that were at the front, myself included, were kind of really trying to get more people to share in the workload because we wanted to ultimately catch the front of the race and then be able to work past that.
“I think we were caught in a zone where we were working, and then also trying to rest at the same time,” he added. “It was tough to organize, but I feel like Magnus and I did a good job of sharing the workload as much as possible, and then also breaking away from the rest of the guys in that train to give ourselves a shot.”
With one lap to go, Fletcher was still in fourth, 20 seconds out of third. Moan clung to him in fifth, and Rydzek skied in sixth, followed by 10 others. Over the next 2.5 k, Moan attacked, Rydzek went with him and Fletcher worked to stay in the fight for fourth, while the rest of the pack dropped off the pace.
“I jumped on them and was actually really surprised when I looked back and we were clear of the group,” Fletcher said. “I was kind of relieved because I knew it was just us, and we were catching up to third place really fast so I was going all out trying to get there.”
While Moan and Rydzek charged to the finish, Fletcher lost contact on the last two uphills. Gruber cruised into the stadium and finish uncontested to win in 22:45.8, 11.9 seconds ahead of Braud in second. Rydzek and Moan overtook Lamy Chappuis in the last kilometer and sprinted to the line for third. Rydzek took it by 0.2 seconds, 14.9 seconds after Gruber, Moan settled for fourth, and 8.3 seconds later, Fletcher finished fifth (+23.4).
“I was hoping I could beat those guys on the hill, but they were strong, they skied a great race, and obviously I [felt] the legs at the end,” Fletcher said. “This is a personal-best result this season for me and in a World Championship event. To be on the podium would have been a dream come true, but to be in the fight was more what I was really looking for.
For me, I really just want to ski a good race, a good race to the best of my ability and the best of my performance,” he added. “I was happy that I was able to do that today and I was in the fight.”
“To be on the podium would have been a dream come true, but to be in the fight was more what I was really looking for.” — Bryan Fletcher, fifth for a career-best individual result at World Championships
His younger brother Taylor, who jumped to 34th and raced up to 29th, 1:51.7 after Gruber, patted him on the shoulder afterward.
“I think that’s the best [U.S. Nordic Combined has] done since 2009 for an individual result so hats off to him,” Taylor said of Bryan’s new World Championships marker. Teammate Billy Demong won the large hill/10 k at 2009 worlds in Liberec, Czech Republic, and in 2011, he placed sixth in the same event.
“[Bryan] really pulled it together today and skied a smart race by the looks of it, and was able to finish hard, which is the most important thing here,” Taylor said.
The second American on Thursday, Taylor wasn’t pleased with his performance after putting himself 2:01 back after the jump.
“It’s hard to say what could’ve been,” he said. “But knowing how I’ve been skiing, I could’ve been up there for that medal. I’ve had a lot of really good jumps and I’ve had huge improvements in my last competitions, and I gotta be satisfied with that but at the same time I’m really disappointed … when it came time to show that work and that effort, I fell short a little bit.”
While Bryan posted the eighth-fastest course time, Taylor, 24, ranked 10th fastest of 47 men in the 10 k.
“I’m probably the most competitive guy out here,” Taylor said. “I yelled at guys in the track earlier because I just wanted to go. I can’t settle for something. I want it more and more and I’m going to work my ass off to get it.”
Also for the U.S., Demong went from 30th in the jump to 33rd overall (+2:27.3), and Adam Loomis improved from 44th to 41st (+3:46.5) at the end of the day.
With one competition left at World Championships — the 2 x 7.5 k team sprint — Taylor, for one, was looking for redemption.
“I know what I did on the hill and what happened and I’ve got one more event [the two-man team sprint] on Saturday, where it’s probably going to be Bryan and I and that’s gonna be special,” he said. “Hell, if he’s skis like he did today, and I jump better on the hill like I know I can, there’s no reason in hell why we shouldn’t be first, second or third.”
— Colin Gaiser contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.