Shaking out white, sand-filled training shorts is hardly a thing many skiers find themselves doing prior to an autumn morning interval session. Nor is swimming with sea turtles a typical regular-recovery run substitute.
However, this past October, U.S. Nordic Combined A-team member Taylor Fletcher did a little of both. The 26 year old’s ‘spring break’ came six or seven months early, or seven months late, depending how one looks at it, with his final days of fall prep for the 2016/2017 season spent beach bumming in Cancun, Mexico.
Fletcher, who has been competing for the U.S. Nordic Combined team since the age of 19, was not afraid of the non-traditional preseason training week. Viewing himself (along with his older brother Bryan Fletcher) as “more of a seasoned veteran on the team”, Taylor greeted the vacation as a way to mentally and physically unwind from his biggest training block before bringing in the new season.
“The hardest part was getting off the plane from the really warm weather in Mexico and realizing it wasn’t much colder [in the U.S.],” Fletcher, originally from Steamboat Springs, Colo., said on the phone in late October.
The seven days of surf and sun — which he spent with his girlfriend and U.S. freestyle skier Kiley McKinnon — were well-earned by the end of the fall for Fletcher.
With U.S.A. Nordic Sport’s recent hiring of nordic-combined head jumping coach Nik Huber, who is based in Austria, Fletcher amped up his jumping training.
“It was no joke that we were definitely on the struggle bus last year with our jumping,” Fletcher said. “We had the opportunity to get a new coach after the organization let go of Greg [Poirier] and we were very fortunate to be contacted by Nik Huber … he brings a new technical edge and gives us new ideas and passion about the jumping side.”
While the months of June and July were dedicated to jumping for Fletcher, the end of August included travel to Oberwiesenthal, Germany, and Villach, Austria, for the Summer Grand Prix, which included a team sprint and an individual 10-kilometer event in Oberwiesenthal and a 10 k competition in Villach.
Fletcher finished in seventh overall in the Oberwiesenthal 10 k and did not start the Villach 10 k. He and his teammate Ben Berend raced the team sprint together and finished 14th overall.
“We’ve just been working on the last part of the flight: making sure you’re poling to the bottom of the hill, making sure your tails touch,” Fletcher explained. “Just eking out every meter possible and when you add all those things up it can be ten to fifteen meters.”
Though 10 to 15 meters may not sound like a lot initially, in a nordic-combined competition, it could be the difference between a one-second versus a nearly two-minute start deficit. For an athlete like Fletcher, who is notorious on the World Cup circuit for his adeptness on the cross-country side of the sport, the prospect of him obtaining even stronger start positions via jumping may bring him closer to the podium.
“For a guy like me, to be that much closer to the front, it really scares a lot of people,” Fletcher said. “That was kind of the reaction we were getting from the test events this summer.”
Following the Summer Grand Prix, Fletcher flew back to Park City, Utah where he visited his older brother, Bryan and newborn niece, Ellery Fletcher. After playing uncle, Fletcher returned to Europe for a full month to train in Slovenia, Austria and Germany.
“That was something that I really haven’t done,” Fletcher explained of his decision to live in Europe for a full-month this fall. “It was good to step into the European style, cook my own food and…get in some really quality training there.”
Fletcher started his NoCo season with the opening World Cup races Kuusamo, Finland, where he finished a 40th in the individual large hill/10 k event.
The second weekend of World Cup racing in Lillehammer, Norway, saw Fletcher finish with the fastest course time (24:44.7) for 26th overall in the individual 10 k event after he jumped to 48th and started 2:50 back from the leader. He improved the following day, racing to 22nd overall in the individual normal hill/10 k in Ramsau, Austria, after jumping to 46th and starting at a 1:46 deficit.
While Fletcher indicated that he was “not expecting to go to Ruka and Lillehammer and win every event,” he is confident in his ability to be a regular contender for top-10 finishes and podiums as the season progresses.
“That’s something that I’m really pushing for, be consistently in the top 10 and fighting for as many podiums as possible this season,” Fletcher said.
We asked Fletcher to give our ’17 Questions for 2017′ a go. Here are his responses:
1. Biggest change in your life in the last five or so months since the ski season ended?
It a lot has happened since the end of the 2016 season. First of all, I am no longer a member of the U.S. Ski Team. Secondly we have been able to hire a new jump couch from the Norwegian team. This has been the biggest impact as now I have been able to make some big strides in my jumping performance as we head towards Lahti world championships. Most recently, It was the election for the new president. I am in disbelief that Donald Trump is now the leader of our country.
2. Biggest change in your training?
I have been focusing a lot on the jumping side again. With Nik Huber and Martin Bayer at the helm for jumping, I have been able to work on parts of my jumping that has struggled for the last couple years. I have been much more consistent on the hill than in years past and I think that is huge for me. We worked hard this summer in the gym, trying to build the strength and speed in the legs to become more explosive on the end of the jump.
3. Major areas of improvement you’ve seen so far?
My position on the In-run is much better as I am more compact but long and not so crunched. This is allowing me to generate more power on the takeoff which translates to speed and height at the bottle of the hill.
4. Whom you’ve been working closest with this offseason (coaches or training partners)?
I consider my offseason, March 15-April 1st. There I was working closest with the alpine skis and couch. But during the training season, I have been with the team every day essentially. This is one of the best parts about the Nordic Combined team as we all train together and continue to push each other in every session. I live with Ben Berend, so unless it is a team training day, Ben and I will go out and do something together.
5. Best trip in the last five months (and why)?
I just returned from Mexico with my girlfriend Kiley. I have never gone on a vacation this late, but It was really nice to unwind and relax before the season starts. We swam with turtles and laid on the beach. I was able to get a bunch of early morning runs in as well which was nice to explore the area.
6. Favorite cross-training?
In the spring it is certainly road biking and some races. As the summer processes I put the bike away and went on more hikes. These were a great way for me to get some training in with my GF as she could easily go with me and she really likes to hike.
7. Favorite non-athletic activity or pastime this summer?
Anytime I can get out on the golf course I love it.
8. Song that was your jam this summer?
She Knows — J Cole
9. All-time favorite race moment?
Winning a world championships medal with my brother and Bill Demong in 2013. To share the podium with Bryan is something I will never forget!
10. First thing you pack in your bag when you leave for Europe?
Probably socks because that is the first drawer on my dresser. First thing that I think of is my passport which lives in my travel backpack.
11. Venue/event you’re most excited to visit this season?
Holmenkollen. no other venue can beat it. But honestly I am most excited to get started and hopefully kick ass.
12. Who will win the men’s and women’s World Cup titles this year?
Men’s Nordic combined is being dominated by Eric Frenzel, I think someone else will win and I feel that it will be Johannes Ryzdek from Germany.
13. Biggest sacrifice you feel you’ve made choosing this career path?
Not having money from a normal job.
14. If you could change one thing about your sport, what would it be?
I would change it so world cups for all nordic events would be more possible in the United States. Anyone I talk to about Nordic seems to love it, but they never get to watch it.
15. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Cinnamon Swirl toast with butter and one poached egg.
16. In 5 years, I’ll be ____?
Still loving life.
17. In 50 years, I’ll be ____?
Hanging out with my grandkids hopefully.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.