At the season-ending Nordic Combined World Cup weekend in Schonach, Germany, American Bryan Fletcher tallied his second-best result of the season: 11th in the individual large hill/10-kilometer Gundersen start on Saturday, March 18. He did so by posting one of his best jumps of the year, which interestingly tied his jumping result at his season-best World Cup in December in Lillehammer, Norway.
In Lillehammer, Fletcher jumped to 22nd with a 129-meter leap, also on the large hill, and went on to place ninth in the 10 k. On Saturday in Schonach, the 30-year-old U.S. Nordic Combined veteran jumped to 22nd with a distance of 98 meters, and skied the eighth-fastest 10 k to move up to 11th.
“Jumping was starting to come around at the end of the season a bit more,” Fletcher wrote in an email on Tuesday. “It was still inconsistent but I have learned a lot about myself as a competitor this season especially in regards to my technical skills and abilities. Towards the end of the year I was able to start applying some of the things I have learned about myself to my jumping and the results were slowly starting to improve.
“Obviously the level is very high in the sport right now and so even small mistakes mean you are out of contention,” he added. “So it’s very hard to confidently make changes during the season with so much at stake. But given my rather up and down season I decided this was the season I had to start to shake up my routine to either find a new, better, or more consistent level or to simply confirm that the way I am doing things is still the be path to be on. Schonach on Saturday was only a small change but obviously had a big impact on my results.”
Fletcher started the 10 k race 53 seconds behind Japan’s Yoshito Watabe, who led after jumping. Fletcher explained the race was seven laps on a difficult 1.5 k course, which would typically play to his strengths, but he’s been struggling with his shape since World Championships three weeks ago.
“The legs and body were not responding the way I would have liked. So I was pretty unsure going into the race of how I would hold up,” he wrote. “I went out slow and tried to work into the race a bit saving energy for the last laps which almost paid off big. I was able to make contact with the lead group and be there for the winning move, but I was unable to go with the sprint. I felt like I skied a smart race and my overall performance but I would have been much happier if I could have hung on for a top 10 result.”
Germany’s Eric Frenzel, who started seventh based on his jump and started 15 seconds behind Watabe, raced to first with the 10th-fastest time. He finished in 28:14 minutes, 3.4 seconds ahead of Austria’s Wilhelm Denifl in second and 7.1 seconds ahead of his German teammate Johannes Rydzek in third. Denifl had started second, 9 seconds back, and held his position, while Rydzek improved from ninth in the jump. Watabe slipped to 17th (+1:02.5).
Fletcher, who finished 32.8 seconds out of first and 4.5 seconds out of 10th, led two Americans on Saturday, with 17-year-old Stephen Schumann placing 42nd.
On Sunday in Schonach, none of the Americans completed the Day 2 large hill/10 k competition. Ben Berend jumped to 36th, but did not start the race.
Meanwhile, Frenzel completed his weekend sweep and claimed his fifth-straight Overall World Cup title with a 7.7-second win over France’s Francois Braud. Japan’s Akito Watabe rounded out the podium in third, 11.2 seconds behind Frenzel.
Overall, Frenzel ended the season with 1,734 points, Rydzek placed second in the overall standings with 1,609, and Akito Watabe completed the podium in third with 1,086.
The leader after Sunday’s jump, Germany’s Tobias Simon, did not finish the 10 k. Frenzel started the race in eighth, 57 seconds out of first, and posted the 11th-fastest ski time for his third-straight win after topping the large hill/10 k last Wednesday, March 15, at the World Cup in Trondheim, Norway. There, Fletcher led three Americans in 35th. His brother Taylor Fletcher placed 39th and Berend finished 48th.
At the previous World Cup on March 11 in Oslo, Norway, Frenzel placed second, just 0.4 seconds behind Akito Watabe in another large hill/10 k. Bryan Fletcher finished 43rd and Schumann 49th.
“This season was one of the hardest I have had,” Fletcher wrote. “I came into the season ready to go and in really good shape for both XC and jumping. I think my mistake was I was too eager to get the season underway. I had trouble maintaining that fitness and body composition and ultimately had to reset over the holidays and rebuild in order to prepare for World Championships.”
At World Championships, Fletcher led his team in 14th in the opening individual competition: the large hill/10 k. He had been in podium contention until crashing on the last corner, about 200 hundred meters before the finish. That day, he jumped to 16th. Looking back on his season, Fletcher considered that event a season highlight.
“I wanted to be a contender in that event and I was,” he wrote. “I have replayed that race a few times in my head and I think a few different moves in the final lap and I could have been fully in the fight for the medal. Also Lillehammer was a strong race, also I was happy with my performance in Schonach on Saturday after two disappointing comps the week before.”
After being sick for a couple weeks in January and feeling like he peaked a week too early for World Championships, Fletcher, who has been competing at the World Cup level since 2009, is already thinking about next season.
“No rest for the wicked haha,” he wrote. “I have already started my training plan for next season with specific areas in both XC and Jumping that I want to improve upon. Specifically I need to improve my finish sprints and in jumping I need to improve my in run balance and position.”
“I am really motivated for next year and my body is feeling good,” he continued. “The past two seasons I planned to tone things down a bit in my training, so that I could build up a bit stronger for Pyeongchang. In the past I have always had a performance build for the 3 years prior to the olympics but have come into the Olympic season a bit flat. My goal was to disrupt that cycle to increase performance next season.”
While Fletcher was his team’s most consistent member this season, he explained that jumping overall has been a bit of a struggle amongst his teammates.
“Our team found a really high level at the end of the summer, however, a 5 week break without jumping due to weather before the season disrupted our progress,” he wrote. “Also our guys changed a lot this summer technically. It takes time to build a high level of jumping and I expect us to continue our progress on what we learned this season to improve those adaptations. I have no doubt we will be on a higher level next year.”
For now, Fletcher, a new dad, is enjoying some downtime with his wife and 7-month-old daughter Ellery.
“It does feel amazing to be home with the family!” he wrote. “… [Ellery] had been sleeping on my chest for about the last 30 minutes and to be honest it was awesome to forget about everything else and just enjoy the moment.”
March 15: Trondheim World Cup
March 11: Oslo World Cup