July 31 was the day. On Thursday morning when U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett walked into his office at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, he knew he’d leave there with his job still in tact.
That was one takeaway from meetings with USSA in the last few months since the association, which serves as nordic-combined’s national-governing body (NGB), revealed in April that it would no longer fund the team after July 31.
According to Jarrett, USSA reasoned that if nordic combined wanted to raise money to sustain itself, it needed someone in charge. With help from USSA’s trustees, his position remained “pretty stable,” he said on the phone Thursday afternoon.
“The whole thing from the beginning was that they were trying to shake the trees and see if they could find more money,” he said.
Most recently, it was the status of his team’s other coach, Greg Poirier, he was uncertain of.
“He was ready to turn in his stuff at the office [on Thursday],” Jarrett said. “They came back to Greg and said we have some money for you to take care of you.”
While Poirier’s position as jumping coach wasn’t finalized, Jarrett said USSA had indicated it could cover Poirier as well for another season. That brought Jarrett to the next item on his wish list: securing a Continental Cup coach.
“Things are moving forward for sure, and it’s a little bit more hopeful than in April,” he said.
As of Aug. 1, USSA will fund individuals rather than the team. According to Bryan Fletcher, for next season, that means him and his younger brother Taylor. Based on Bryan’s understanding, those two demonstrated the most “podium potential,” and with that came a set dollar amount from USSA to be used toward expenses next season. That amount is payable upon receipt, not a cash advance or stipend.
“Instead of funding an entire team and giving them a set budget, [USSA is] giving individuals who meet a set criteria for the ski team or based on the executive’s judgement … a set amount of money to pay for their season,” he explained. “Essentially Taylor and I are in that situation, given a little bit of money to fund our individual movements…”
The Fletchers have already spent their USSA funds on re-hiring the team’s two wax technicians, Andrej Jezeršek and Matjaz Dobrovoljc.
“There’s no point in showing up for World Cups if you have no support,” Bryan said. “Ideally that would be used for plane travel and [other travel expenses] … We decided that the most important thing was our wax techs’ salaries. It’s much easier to make ends meet while you’re over there.”
Jarrett agreed: “It’s the most cost-effective place [to compete], because you get paid to be there,” he said of the World Cup and the monetary perks (including comped food and lodging) that come with top international results.
“We decided that the most important thing was our wax techs’ salaries. It’s much easier to make ends meet while you’re over there.” — Bryan Fletcher, on using his personal USSA funds to pay for his team’s wax techs
At the same time, he’s optimistic that future arrangements and partnerships, both within and outside of USSA, could be used to pay for those two techs — adding it was essential to lock them down for another season first.
The team can also count on Switzerland to pay for about 30 percent of their servicemen’s salaries. Jarrett said they teamed up with Swiss nordic combined last season, waxing and testing some of their nordic skis in exchange for reimbursement.
As for the total cost of the season, with camps and competitions U.S. NoCo has yet to finalize its budget for, Jarrett estimated it amounts to roughly $250,000 dollars. That’s for the entire program, including travel expenses like airfare, room and board, fuel, and rental cars for all team and staff members. It does not include employee salaries or benefits, and equipment costs, such as jumping suits, bindings, wax and supplies — all of which Jarrett described as another huge cost.
Bryan estimated that waxing and travel expenses in Europe could amount to $2,000 a week per athlete — a figure that could be lower depending on how much other teams, like Switzerland, or race organizers help with defraying costs.
Regardless, they need cash to train — ideally at international venues — and get to the highest-level competitions.
That’s where Billy Demong, the team’s veteran and most-decorated athlete, has stepped up. As U.S. NoCo’s point person for marketing and fundraising, he plans to keep training and compete next season, but has already devoted a large part of his offseason to securing finances for his program.
“He’s pretty well-connected,” Jarrett said. “He really selflessly took that on … It’s a lot, that’s no question, but we know Bill…”
While Demong has been working out on his own schedule, the Fletchers have been training with the rest of the team in Park City. Aside from Todd Lodwick retiring from the A-team, the program has retained and slightly grown its training group, and Jarrett said all of its members are excited and motivated to make the jump from the development ranks.
A New Team Structure
New this season, U.S. NoCo is looking to fill a C-team, which Jarrett described as mainly a junior squad.
“Our goal now is to take care of the sport from top to bottom: A, B, C, and a development team,” he said. “The clubs really aren’t equipped to handle post-grad in nordic combined … [Athletes] need to be either on the Continental Cup or training.”
With its budget in flux, the program hasn’t decided how to divvy up funds for athletes among those teams. Jarrett said C-team will likely be unfunded, while providing a sense of national-team belonging and training opportunities for young skiers. At this point, B-team members that don’t make it to the World Cup will likely have to self-fund as well next season.
The big questions that remain for the U.S. team include its competition schedule and how many world and continental cups it can afford to attend, as well as whether it can swing an international training camp this fall.
“We didn’t do a camp in July. We’re not doing a camp in August,” Jarrett explained. “We’re hoping to have a big camp together with the Swiss guys, go to Lake Placid [for U.S. Nordic Combined nationals] in October, then go to Europe after that to have a camp [in Germany and Switzerland].”
Bryan pointed out that the team needs to jump at lower elevations than Park City and would benefit from the ice track in Oberstdorf, Germany.
“You’ve got to see the level of how everyone’s jumping,” Jarrett said.
In the past, the team held three summer training camps, most of which were in Europe. This year, its athletes skipped their usual Tour-de-France camp, replacing it with a five-day endurance camp/fundraiser in Aspen, Colo.
“We had donors come to pay and ride with us for a week,” Bryan explained. “We had an awesome time. … That was mostly Bill’s idea, just to continue that bike idea in Aspen.”
Craig Ward is heading up another nordic-combined fundraiser in line with the USA Pro Cycling Challenge from Aug. 14-19 in Aspen, Bryan added. Because of funding uncertainty this spring, the team had to rule out competing at the International Ski Federation (FIS) Summer Grand Prix in Germany and Austria in late August.
As for the team’s winter World Cup schedule, Jarrett said it will be similar to in the past, with specifics being worked out in the next few months.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” he said.
USASJ and NoCo Unite
By partnering with USA Ski Jumping (USASJ) to form a singular “USA Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined,” Jarrett hopes his sport continues to grow, both in participation and financial stability, for seasons to come.
The agreement was sort of a natural byproduct of the two sports’ commonalities, he explained. Not only is jumping essential to the success of both, but they also share the few jumping venues scattered across the U.S. Plus, most nordic-combined skiers start out as jumpers — and if they don’t, they have to move to a place with jump hills to learn how.
“There’s much more in common with ski jumping than there is with cross-country for nordic combined,” Jarrett said. “It’s just a better fit, a better understanding of how this sport works.”
Since 2006, USASJ has operated independently of USSA (which also remains its NGB), coming up with its own marketing and fundraising strategies. While Demong will continue to work on landing sponsors for nordic combined, the two sports won’t likely combine marketing efforts in the near future — unless a major sponsor wants them as a unit and each slice of the pie is large enough to make it worth pursuing, Jarrett said.
“There’s much more in common with ski jumping than there is with cross-country for nordic combined. It’s just a better fit, a better understanding of how this sport works.” — Dave Jarrett, U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach
“Right now there’s no downside for [USASJ]; they’re not giving up anything,” he said. “They’re just sharing a place for us to raise money. That was the goal that we started with. They’ve already been down this path … they’ve already suffered through all the growing pains that’s involved with getting cut like that. It’s been definitely a good partnership … [and] we’re coming into it with pulling our own weight.”
In the future, Jarrett said they could revisit collaborating with Women’s Ski Jumping USA, too. However, that program has opted to remain separate for the time being.
“That could be a really good dream: to have both men’s and women’s ski jumping and both men’s and women’s nordic combined under the same roof,” Jarrett said. “But Women’s Ski Jumping USA is also protective with what they’ve done as an organization and rightly so.”
The next couple years could be telling for all the aforementioned organizations.
“We need to keep together to keep our sports alive,” Jarrett said. “I think [Women’s Ski Jumping USA needs] to figure out how they’re going to proceed now that they’re into the Olympics and the suffrage story is over. Hopefully we can talk and figure out what’s the best for our sport. … FIS and the IOC, they really want women’s nordic combined … to flourish.”
Coaches education, development outreach, jumping equipment and technique are among many elements ski jumping and nordic combined could share, Bryan said. But they’re also different sports and not everything overlaps.
“We need our own staff and they need their own staff,” Jarrett said of USASJ.
NoCo and NNF
A longtime supporter of U.S. NoCo, the National Nordic Foundation (NNF), a nonprofit designed to help fund developing nordic athletes in the U.S., will continue to back nordic combined.
NNF Director Dave Knoop explained the foundation is currently working on its upcoming “Drive for 25” fundraiser, typically launched in late fall, and intends to include Nordic Combined in that movement.
“We understand how and why NC has merged with Jumping and what they are doing makes a lot of sense,” Knoop wrote in an email. “The NNF has not abandoned funding NC Pillar Projects and we look forward to funding NC designated projects in the future.”
Meanwhile, nordic combined will receive support from both NNF and USASJ. NoCo representatives Demong and Kerry Lynch remain on the NNF board.
“In the past few months we have stepped back a bit to let Billy and others define how Nordic Combined would fit within the USA Ski Jumping [organization],” Knoop explained. “Now that this is clear we will begin defining and communicating NC’s role within the NNF. Specifically the transparency aspect of what we will fund and why so donors know where their donations are going.
“If anything can be said of this episode regarding USSA’s actions regarding Nordic Combined funding is that I am hopeful that it just made NC rebuild [itself] in a way that eventually will make it a stronger organization,” he continued, “that the sport will grow in numbers and develop great athletes in the future.”