Flying Farther: Developing Ski Jumping and NoCo, USA Nordic Style

Jason AlbertJuly 10, 2017
American Ben Berend after jumping to 22nd in the nordic-combined individual/normal hill competition at 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland. He went on to place 41st in the 10 k to end the day on Feb. 24.

Three years ago, U.S. Ski and Snowboard (formerly known as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, or USSA) officially dropped nordic combined from its funding rolls. It was a potentially big blow and flat-liner moment for a program coming off one the most successful runs in U.S. nordic sports history. As recently as 2013, the foursome of Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong, Bryan Fletcher, and Taylor Fletcher earned bronze in the team event at World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

Now, under the umbrella of USA Nordic, and two World Championships and nearly two Olympics removed from that seismic restructuring, American ski jumping and nordic combined are way beyond life-support mode.

Koby Vargas (Park City Nordic Ski Club) jumping at 2016 U.S. nationals in Park City, Utah. (Courtesy photo)

“What we see, and we see this across sport and the larger picture of health, is that we have less young athletes participating in sports these days,” said Jed Hinkley, sport development director for USA Nordic. “It’s not unique to any specific sport — it is across the board. There are some exceptions to that and I would say ski jumping and nordic combined are an exception to that.”

Hinkley has been on the job since last summer. He’s seen his mission morph from grasping member clubs’ capacity, infrastructure, and financials to determining how to attract athletes and retain them.

“I know our numbers are heading in a positive direction, but we still do see a fairly big drop off as athletes enter their teen years,” he said. “I would say that my role has shifted a little bit to be more athlete development around the U20 level —  to try to keep athletes in the sport longer.”

According to Hinkley, ski jumping is experiencing a resurgence in the U.S. In 2014, USA Nordic began organizing a regional jumping competition, the US Cup Junior Series. Three of the four regions tracked by USA Nordic — Central, West and Alaska — experienced significant growth in participation. The only outlier was the East, which canceled its end-of-season jump competition due to severe weather. Hinkley believes that cancellation skewed the data downward.

Data collected for the series tracks boys and girls ages U10 (under 10) to U16. Between 2016 and 2017, the Central region increased participation 49 percent, the West percent, and Alaska 192 percent.

From a global perspective, the U.S. appears to be on a path to fostering a legitimate nordic-sport pipeline. Hinkley admits his data collection methodology relied in part on the “brother of a friend of a brother’s mechanic model,” but his information appears promising.

“To the best of my knowledge, Norway and Germany are one and two for numbers in ski jumping and nordic combined,” Hinkley said. “From what we can figure out, it appears that the U.S. is the third-largest ski jumping and nordic combined nation in the world. There is one country that I don’t have numbers for that could outrank us, that being Poland, because they have such a huge love for ski jumping. It appears our numbers are higher than Slovenia, Austria and Japan, which are all part of the jumping and nordic-combined powerhouses.”

Jumping and nordic combined are resource-intensive sports — they both require what can be costly jumping infrastructure. Two regions have taken different approaches to ski jumping viability.

In Anchorage, Alaska, two women spearheaded a regional revival. As part of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (NSAA), Karen Compton and Vivienne Murray, along with a core group of volunteers, now respond to daily emails, shuttle athletes, and supply and maintain loaner equipment in an effort to expose young athletes to jumping.

“When we started there were only three other boys jumping and a burned-out coach who quit shortly thereafter,” Compton said on the phone from Anchorage. “There just wasn’t anyone involved in the program, and I ran around a got some friends have their kids come and try it out because it’s only fun if your friends are doing it along with you. Vivian was one of the friends I asked. Her kids liked it and at the end of the season, which was just a few months, we talked about it and we decided the two of us would take it on and resurrect the program.”

The Karl Eid Ski Jumping Complex in Anchorage, Alaska, which completed a retrofit in 2016. The three jumps pictured are now modernized with summertime jumping available to the athletes. (Photo: NSAA)

In 2012, Compton and Murray began co-chairing a grant-writing and fundraising campaign. By 2016 they had raised enough funds to rehabilitate the jumps at Anchorage’s Karl Eid Ski Jumping Complex. The complex now boasts a modernized 10-20 meter combined jump, and 40-meter and 65-meter jumps, respectively. Under NSAA, Team AK Ski Jumping/Nordic Combined has upwards of 70 kids jumping each winter.

Perhaps more importantly to developing higher-level jumpers, the modernization efforts allowed NSAA to plasticize the jumps’ in-runs to facilitate summertime jumping.

“[Anchorage] has been a good model to recruit, maintain, and make the sport fun,” Hinkley said. “They do a lot of social stuff outside of the jump hill, and organization-wise they are creating a welcoming environment and a professional organization. … I think what they are doing really well is they are a part of NSAA, which is all of cross-country skiing in Anchorage. They work collaboratively with the cross-country side and they are all in it together. I think in a lot of places, historically, there has been a divide between ski-jumping clubs and cross-country clubs, whereas in Anchorage there is an awesome collaboration.”

Anchorage came to the table with jumps in place. The Midwest boasts two from-the-ground-up success stories.

Red Wing, Minn., is developing a new Olympic-size jump on land owned by the Prairie Island Indian Community. “It’ll be a state-of-the-art facility with potentially cross-country trails at the base. And they want to do things like World Cups, FIS Cups, Grand Prix,” Hinkley said.

On a smaller but no-less-significant scale, a dedicated group in Cameron, Wis., built a 7-meter snow jump. That group collaborated with the well-established Flying Eagles Ski Club, a nationally recognized ski jumping club in Eau Claire, Wis.

The Pipeline

How bright is the future when it comes to international potential? On the U.S. men’s ski jumping side, four athletes were recently named to the its national team. Sixteen-year-old Kevin Bickner, who began jumping in Illinois but now lives in Park City, Utah, is the only A-team member. Bickner jumped to a 15th place on the World Cup this past March in Vikersund, Norway. In doing so, he jumped 244.5 meters, which was an American distance record, according to a USA Nordic press release.

Rounding out the men’s jumping team are three B-team members: Casey Larson (18), Michael Glasder (28) and William Rhoads (22). At last year’s Junior World Ski Championships, Larson placed eighth in the individual normal-hill competition.

“With men’s jumping, we have seen quite a phenomenal turnaround,” said USA Nordic Executive Director Billy Demong. “In participation for both women’s and men U14 levels, but for the national team, we have some guys who are really good. In fact, Kevin Bickner has had the best results in over a decade. And cumulatively the team scored more points last year than over the previous twelve years combined. They also had the best team-event finish since 1985, so there’s a solid group of four athletes.”

Demong also noted that keeping U20 skiers involved with the sport remains a priority. For scoring criteria as it relates to national-team selection, USA Nordic begins scoring at the more competitive (larger field size) Continental Cup competitions. He explained that success at the Continental Cup indicates a positive trajectory. The C-team is organized as a U24 program, essentially allowing older athletes an incentive to invest and remain in the sport. The C-team is comprised of two skiers, Nicholas Mattoon (22) and AJ Brown (22).

“We give our athletes a little more time to develop,” Demong said. “I think that’s partially why we are seeing the change. We are providing resources and opportunities for a greater group of athletes and at a higher level than it has been.”

This season, the U.S. Nordic Combined team will be led by A-team returners and brothers Bryan Fletcher (31) and Taylor Fletcher (27).

Last winter, the nordic-combined team was bottom heavy on the age-and-experience spectrum, with the Fletcher brothers being obvious outliers. U.S. Nordic Combined lacked the World Cup quota spots to expose several young skiers to that level of competition beyond domestic races and Junior World Championships .

U.S. NoCo’s Stephen Schumann (28) passing on the outside, en route to 10th in the normal hill/10 k at 2017 Nordic Junior World Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. (Photo: U.S. Ski Team/Steven Earl)

“One of the hopes is that we are able to start increasing the quota on the World Cup as well as the Continental Cup,” Demong said. “Last year, we had five different individuals score a top 10 on the Continental Cup, I believe. That’s unusual to have that much depth at that level. And what we need now is for some of those guys to transition into the World Cup.”

Adam Loomis (25), Ben Berend (21), Ben Loomis (19), Jasper Good (21) and Stephen Schumann (17) comprise the Nordic Combined B-team. Grant Andrews (19) is the sole C-team member.

The fleet of skiers following the Fletchers have time on their side in terms of World Championship and Olympic cycles, yet their recent junior-level results maintain the team’s emerging optimism. At the most recent Junior World Championships at home in Park City and Midway, Utah, U.S. Nordic Combined tallied two top-10 performances. Schumann placed 10th in the 10-kilometer Gundersen, and Ben Loomis finished ninth in the 5 k.

“There is a big group behind Schumann and Ben Loomis,” Demong explained. “I think in one of the qualifying events in Park City, there were six or seven of them that all finished within a minute, so pretty good size crew for a little sport.”

This April, USA Nordic formalized its efforts to keep promising athletes in an organized pipeline. Demong said it expanded its junior-national teams for both ski jumping and nordic-combined to include top athletes in the U16 to U20 range. USA Nordic also has national-development camps planned for this summer.

“I think it is a very nice transition from the Junior National team to National Team the way we have built it out, because we set our own criteria for the teams we fund,” Demong said. “Ideologically we are trying to give the U20’s a reason to continue competing and skiing in the critical 18-, 19-, 20-year-old ages and that this is something really worth investing in.”

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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