At age 31, Bryan Fletcher estimates he’s dedicated 25 years to the sport of nordic combined. He has been a U.S. national team member for the past 11 years and maintains that first time he flew off a jump on skis occurred at the ripe age of 4. Before that, and before his first steps, Fletcher’s exposure to skiing came from the viewpoint of a child carrier on his father’s back.
For the first time since his initial national-team naming in 2006, Fletcher’s full-time work will no longer revolve around nordic combined. As of this spring, the U.S. Nordic Combined veteran has retired from World Cup competition, as have a few other internationally notable nordic-combined skiers.
For any athlete who has devoted as much time as Fletcher, retirement rarely means complete severance from the sport. From the onset of his career, nordic combined (NoCo) served as more than just an athletic pursuit for Fletcher. It was also in a way, a lifeline.
When he was 6 years old, Fletcher made a special request to his parents. At the time, he was a self-proscribed “adrenaline-junkie kid” living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado — a well-known ski town that is also home to the country’s historical ski jumping venue, Howelsen Hill. Fletcher had heard that his hometown was hosting a “learn-to-ski-jump day” for kids his age.
Naturally, he wanted to attend.
But even if Fletcher’s 6-year-old self self showed a fearless gall and a desire to jump, his parents had other reasons to feel nervous about signing him up. His health. Three years earlier, he had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)-
A type of cancer in which the body’s bone marrow overproduces lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell), ALL’s symptoms can range from pain in the bones and joints to fatigue and fever. To treat his condition, Fletcher completed regular chemotherapy sessions three hours away in Denver, Colorado. Some sessions left him without hair.
“I think it’s very easy for young kids, especially going through cancer, to be pretty down in the dumps and not really get to feel like they’re a normal kid,” Fletcher told FasterSkier on the phone earlier this month. “I don’t know how or why, but I guess I begged my parents enough to sign me up for that learn-to-ski-jump day.”
With some persuasion, he convinced his parents to let him partake in the event. Instantly, Fletcher was hooked, prompting him to join Steamboat’s youth ski-jumping program. Eventually, he found his way to the cross-country trails and began participating in the youth NoCo program at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
“I think they saw the smile on my face and were like, ‘Holy cow, how are we going to tell him that he can’t do this?’ ” Fletcher recalled of the first time he tried ski jumping.
NoCo became what Fletcher referred to as the “perfect distraction” from his chemotherapy sessions and childhood cancer. In Denver, he adhered to everything his doctors recommended, especially if it meant getting back to Steamboat, skiing and jumping sooner.
“I think it was, in hindsight, a great motivator for me,” Fletcher said of his early days in the sport.
From then on, Nordic Combined became inextricably intertwined with his life, both on the hill and at home. His younger brother, Taylor Fletcher, who was four years younger, also picked up NoCo, and the two shared practices and passion for the sport.
“Both he and I are fighters, but … he’s always had to work for it a little bit harder than I did,” Taylor said on the phone this month. “That’s what drove him to become as good as he was.”
When Bryan was a freshman at the Winter Sports School in Park City, Utah, he was selected to be a forejumper for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“This honor further solidified my goals and ambitions to become a world-class athlete,” Bryan wrote on his website.
Just two years after his high-school graduation, Bryan earned a spot on the U.S. Ski Team. He was 20 years old. One year later, he qualified for his first World Championships in Sapporo, Japan, racing to 40th in the sprint.
Six months after his 22nd birthday, Bryan claimed his first Continental Cup podium: third place in an individual large hill/10-kilometer Gundersen at Soldier Hollow near Park City. He competed at his second World Championships in 2009, walking away with two individual top-30 performances (30th in the large hill/10 k and 22nd in the normal hill/10 k).
By the third competition weekend of the 2010/2011 World Cup season, Bryan had achieved his first individual top 10, placing eighth in the normal hill/10 k in Ramsau, Austria.
But it was the following season, in 2011/2012, that Fletcher really found his form. At the 2012 Holmenkollen World Cup in Oslo, Norway, he became the fifth American to win a Nordic Combined World Cup with a victory in the large hill/10 k. In that season alone, he also finished in the top 10 seven other times.
“That was kind of a pivotal point,” Fletcher said of his Holmenkollen win. “It was a reinforcing result. … I was like, ‘OK, I do belong here at the top of a World Cup and I have a future in the sport … all the sacrifices and work you’ve put into it are worth it.”
Bryan once again made the team for 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, where he and his teammates Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick and his brother Taylor raced to bronze in the 4 x 5 k team event.
“That was just solid teamwork and great performances by all,” Bryan said. “A happy moment in the career.”
Twelve years after his cameo forerunning appearance at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, Bryan found himself at the top of another Olympic jumping hill — this time wearing the Team USA race suit. He had qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where he went on to finish 22nd in the large hill/10 k and 26th in the normal hill/10 k.
Over the next four years, he would qualify for two more World Championship teams as well as the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. On top of those achievements, he’d accumulate 10 more individual top-10 World Cup finishes, including two seventh-place results this past winter.
In PyeongChang, Bryan placed 17th in both individual races: the large hill and normal hill/10 k Gundersen starts.
“I went into PyeongChang wanting to have a lot of fun, obviously wanting to fight for a medal, and to put my best foot forward,” Bryan explained. “I put together probably some of my best performances on the jump hill I’ve had in several years. Unfortunately my cross-country wasn’t quite as strong as I’d hoped for, but I still felt like I put everything I had in the training going into it.”
When it comes to his work, Bryan is all about giving his all, which is one reason he chose to retire from World Cup competitions. It is also one of the reasons why he is not immediately transitioning into coaching, despite his close connection to the sport for so many years.
“I am the type of guy who likes to do things 100 percent,” Bryan explained. “The sport is always growing and the level is always rising, and I just felt like I wasn’t going to be able to give the sport all the effort that I needed to give it to be successful [as an athlete]. So I decided that 2018 was the year that I would retire and I would move into finishing my academic career and start a new journey.”
His new journey will involve finishing school and spending more time with his wife and 20-month-old daughter, Ellery. Through online courses, he has been working toward a degree in health education and promotion (with an emphasis on health science), which he aims to complete by next year. Graduate school has popped into his mind, as well as the idea of becoming a physician assistant.
Though coaching may have seemed like the ideal professional avenue for an athlete like Fletcher, the U.S. team veteran sees value in spacing himself from the team before getting too deeply involved.
“I think that going into coaching is really easy, especially to go straight from your athletic career, but you don’t have that time to expand your knowledge,” he said. “For a number of years, coaching was how I wanted to stay involved in the sport. I’ve since changed that idea.”
Instead, he hopes to enhance his knowledge of athletics and health science before working with athletes. The idea is to not only allow himself to develop more, but give the current U.S. NoCo team time to develop as well.
“When you come back to a sport so fresh out of retirement, it’s easy to focus on the same problems that you had as an athlete,” Fletcher explained. “But those issues may not be necessarily what the other athletes are struggling with or what they need to work on.
“On our team, we have some athletes that are great jumpers and we also have some athletes that are great cross-country skiers, but we don’t have particularly many of both right now,” he continued. “I think we just need to take some time to let those athletes develop in a new environment. That way you’re not just coaching the strong skiers to be strong skiers and the best jumpers to be the best jumpers, but instead allowing them to find strength in the opposite areas.”
Though he himself was 20 years old when he joined the team, by the end of his career, most of Fletcher’s teammates were almost a decade younger than him. While the team energy in recent years was one that left him admittedly needing “more naps”, he also sees the younger pool of athletes as an opportunity to foster a new team dynamic for American nordic combined.
“As the younger athletes come up, we have to let them create their own culture and be accommodating of it,” Fletcher said. “I think the way I can have the biggest impact on the team is not by jumping immediately into coaching, but instead taking some time away from the team to broaden my knowledge base and skill sets in different areas. Then several years from now, I can return to the team with a new attitude and new approach and add something different.”
For the time being, his involvement with NoCo will remain at the administrative level. He was recently elected to Team USA’s Athletes’ Advisory Council and will serve a four-year term on the board of directors.
Even so, his presence at practice sessions will be missed.
“It’s going to be weird,” Taylor said of his brother’s departure from the team. “He was always the very level-headed leader.”
As Taylor, a three-time Olympian, steps into the primary NoCo team-veteran role, Bryan was sage in his advice to those who will continue to hit the trails and the hill.
“Just have a plan in place, especially when you start to think that you’re heading down that road of retirement,” Bryan said. “I think it’s really easy to kind of get stuck and not know what you want to do, so just make sure that you kind of have some sort of idea, some kind of stepping stone to go forward.”
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.