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 — Johannes Rydzek hadn’t seen the podium in a World Championships competition since his first World Championships in 2011 in Oslo, Norway, where he won three silver medals between the large-hill individual and two team events.
Four years later, the 23-year-old German rose to gold in the normal hill/10-kilometer individual on Friday, the first day of nordic combined at 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.
“Every child that comes to sport has this dream to be a world champion, and now I am one,” Rydzek told the Associated Press.
Rydzek jumped to fifth on the 100-meter hill at Lugnet Arena in Falun, Sweden, then overcame a 31-second starting deficit to make a break for first on the last lap of the 10 k Gundersen start. Rydzek answered an attack from Italian leader Alessandro Pittin with about half a kilometer to go, trailing him down into the stadium. On the final rise before a sweeping downhill toward the finish, Rydzek passed Pittin and outlasted him by 1.3 seconds for the win.
“I tried everything to go alone,” Pittin told the AP. “But for sure, Johannes was faster than me when we entered the stadium.”
Pittin had raced up to second with the fastest ski time, latching onto the lead pack on the fourth-and-final lap. He jumped to 14th and started the 10 k race 1:16 minutes behind Germany’s Eric Frenzel, who led the jumping portion.
Rydzek posted the fourth-fastest ski time to win in 26:38.9, while France’s defending Olympic champion Jason Lamy Chappuis finished third (+5.0) after starting third, 25 seconds back. Frenzel placed fourth (+6.1) with the 20th-ranked time.
Håvard Klemetsen led Norway in fifth (+9.6) after starting sixth, and Japan’s Akito Watabe and Yoshito Watabe placed sixth (+12.2) and seventh (+14.4), respectively. The two were among the most competitive in the jump on a windy afternoon, which included delays, with Yoshito soaring to second and Akito ranking fourth heading into the 10 k.
Norway’s Jørgen Graabak improved from 11th to eighth, Germany’s Fabian Riessle rocketed from 23rd to ninth with the fifth-fastest time, and Austria’s Bernhard Gruber went from 17th to 10th overall.
Taylor Fletcher led the U.S. in 19th after starting 25th, 1:31 behind Frenzel, and finished 1:32.5 after Rydzek. His ski time ranked 18th.
“I felt like I had good speed, I just I never got into a rhythm,” Fletcher said afterward. “I felt like I was swimming and I was never comfortable. I had people stepping all over my poles and I was going in and out of the line of people trying to move up, and I didn’t race my style.”
Fletcher started four seconds behind his older brother Bryan, who jumped to 20th and ended up 21st (+1:40.9).
“We were really hoping that we’d be able to pull away or work together and pull up to the front, but with the way the conditions were and just how I was skiing, it was really hard to actually make up ground on anybody,” Bryan said.
While temperatures cooled slightly to around 35-degrees Fahrenheit by the start of the race at 4 p.m., the course had turned to a mashed-potato-like consistency with the sun beating down on a 40-degree afternoon.
The 50-man field saw the jumping portion delayed from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. because of winds, leaving competitors with about 50 minutes after the last jump to prepare for the pursuit-style race.
“We didn’t get much of a warmup and we were only able to ski the upper part of the course,” Bryan said. “They didn’t have the full course open or anything so that was tough. It was a quick turnaround.”
He noted that his teammate Ben Berend, in his first World Championships, had more adversity to deal with jumping as the ninth starter in the first group.
“Every time they were going to start the competition today, he’d have to get dressed, go all the way to the top of the jump and by the time he’d get there, they’d say, ‘OK we’re not going to do it,’ and he’d have to come right back down,” Bryan said. “For us in the later group, it wasn’t nearly as bad. It certainly is a lot of warming up and then, ‘OK, we’re not going yet.’ … It’s the same for everybody. It used to happen a lot more on World Cup then it does these days with TV and everything, but it’s just something you have to deal with.”
Berend jumped to 16th, the second best of the four Americans after Billy Demong leapt to 10th.
After having competed at one World Cup beforehand, the 19-year-old Berend was surprised to discover he led the jump through the first 18 men.
“I went and actually got equipment checked. I was in there forever and I came back out and they were like, ‘You’re still in the lead. You need to come back to the leader’s chair,’ ” he recalled. “I’ve never been there before so that was a pretty awesome experience being able to take that in.”
The 19th jumper, Demong bumped him out of it.
“Having Bill take me out of that leader’s chair, it couldn’t have been more perfect,” Berend said.
“They were like, ‘You’re still in the lead. You need to come back to the leader’s chair.’ ” — Ben Berend (U.S. Nordic Combined), who was 16th in Friday’s jump and 45th overall for his career best in his second World-Cup-level individual competition
Demong went on to finish 25th in the 10 k (+1:51.8), and Berend placed 45th (+4:54.6).
“I’m not fast enough to ski at the front of these races,” Berend said. “The conditions just made it tougher so the race was pretty brutal, but you learn. It was good experience for me out there. … Overall it was an awesome day. I’m looking forward to learning from this and moving on to better results in the future.”
Demong noted that this was Berend’s first World Championships and third-ever World Cup event (after two competing twice at last month’s World Cup in Schonach, Germany).
“To execute well and sit in the lead, that’s huge,” Demong said. “At 19 it’s a lot easier to train a few years and get faster at cross country than it is to make a ski jumper. Ski jumping is a really funny sport. When I was his age I was a great jumper, but I struggled in cross country. I’d rather start with someone who is a talented athlete, a great jumper, and try to teach them the cross-country side.”
In his eighth World Championships, the 34-year-old Demong explained that jumping has been his strong point this year.
“I haven’t competed a whole lot, and seemingly in my old age not training much for jumping has paid off,” he said. “The same can’t be said about cross country. I haven’t raced super well this year, but it’s been stable. Today, I started out harder, hoping to make something happen and paid for it the second half of the race. Ordinarily, these were my racing conditions. When I was my fittest this is where I would win, like Vancouver and Liberec. That being said, when you’re not the fittest, it is punishing.”
The second of four nordic-combined events is scheduled for Sunday with the 4 x 5 k team event.
“Sunday is going to be great if we can jump like we did today,” Demong said. “I think Taylor and Bryan skied a really good first half today. They’ve been two of the fastest, if not the fastest guys this year, so hopefully I can pull my stuff together and we’ll have a fight for a medal.”
— Lander Karath 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.