PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Wednesday at the Alpensia nordic sport complex, the first of the scheduled three nordic-combined events of the 2018 Olympics got underway. Despite the women’s 15-kilometer individual biathlon event being postponed to Thursday due to high winds, the nordic-combined jumping portion went off earlier in the day as planned.
The men’s individual normal hill/10-kilometer Gundersen competition saw Austria’s Franz-Josef Rehrl scored the highest number of points off the jump with a jump of 112 meters and 130.6 points. Norway’s Jarl Magnus Riiber jumped to second, flying 111 meters and scoring 126.9 points, and Japan’s Akito Watabe posted the third-best jump of 105.5 meters, which scored 123.7 points.
Four U.S. nordic combined skiers entered the competition. After the jump, Bryan Fletcher was the top American in 18th place. Ben Loomis was the next best placed American in 37th, while Taylor Fletcher ranked 39th and Jasper Good 47th.
The pursuit-race format saw Rehrl leave first on the demanding four-lap, 10 k course. Riiber followed in second, starting 15 seconds back, Watabe began with a 28-second deficit.
Several skiers ready to chase down the leaders began with reasonable time penalties to overcome. Germany’s Eric Frenzel started 36 second back in fifth, Austria’s Lukas Klapfer was Frenzel’s initial rabbit, starting four seconds before the German in fourth place.
Both Fletcher brothers are renowned for their cross-country skiing. Often ranked in the top three for overall time on the 10 k course, a deficit of over a minute is not an insurmountable gap for the brothers from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Yet on Wednesday, Bryan began 2:06 minutes back while Taylor looked ahead at a massive 3:37-minute vacuum to Rehrl in first. Loomis began the ski four seconds ahead of Taylor, while Good started in the wave, 4 minutes back.
For the first 2.5 k lap of the race, the 24-year-old Rehrl skied alone until a climb about 5 minutes in, where Riiber caught him. The chase group, with Watabe, Klapfer, and Frenzel, wasn’t much farther behind. At the 2.5 k mark, that group was just 12 seconds behind the two leaders as they lapped through the stadium.
Meanwhile, Bryan pushed out of the start in immediate pursuit of Finland’s Ilkka Herola and Germany’s Fabian Rießle 2 and 3 seconds ahead of him, respectively. At 2.5 k, Bryan was up to 16th, skiing in a pack with Herola, Fabian Rießle, Germany’s Vinzenz Geiger, and Japan’s Hideaki Nagai and Go Yamamoto, about 1:33 minutes back from the leaders.
Halfway through the race at 5 k, Frenzel, Riiber, Watabe, Klapfer, and Rehrl pushed on as a unit, forming the nucleus from which gold, silver and bronze would eventually come. There, Bryan continued to ski in 16th with a slightly more strung-out chase pack, 1:18 behind Frenzel in first.
Frenzel, Watabe and Klapfer swapped leads over the next 2.5 k, while Rehrl dropped to seventh, 25 seconds behind Germany’s Johannes Rydzek and Finland’s Eero Hirvonen, who had 21 seconds between them and the leaders at 7.5 k.
Bryan spent most of that next lap skiing alone in 17th, about 10 seconds out of 16th. By the end of the third lap, he was almost a minute clear of France’s Jason Lamy-Chappuis in 18th.
While Bryan held his ground in 17th for the final 2.5 k, the four-man lead group battled for three medals. Frenzel moved into first with 1 k to go and on the last climb, a long grinder before a descent into the stadium, Frenzel launched his attack. Only Watabe in second could immediately respond, but about halfway up the climb, even he lost sight of Frenzel over the top.
Frenzel steamrolled into the stadium to cross the finish line first in 24:15.4 minutes, defending his title from the normal hill/10 k four years ago at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. While Frenzel, 29, is a perennial threat, it was only his second victory of the season, after he won a normal hill/10 k World Cup event in December in Ramsau, Austria. Meanwhile, Watabe came into the Games having won four of the last five individual World Cup competitions. But an Olympic gold still eludes the Japanese skier.
“It was a moment that was hard to stomach for me,” Frenzel recalled of the last few hundred meters of the race in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF. “In that moment I couldn’t yet quite believe that I could come back on the finish stretch in first place, and just tried to enjoy the moment. It was a lot of work up to this place for it to work out today. I waited for this for a long time again. And so I am overjoyed it worked out again.”
Watabe crossed the line 4.8 seconds later for silver, his second medal in as many Olympics after he placed second in the normall hill/10 k behind Frenzel in Sochi. Klapfer held off Riiber for third, 18.1 seconds behind Frenzel, for Klapfer’s second Olympic bronze after taking third with his Austrian teammates in the 4 x 5 k team event in Sochi.
Riiber placed fourth (+22.5), Rydzek was just behind in fifth (+27.9), Hirvonen finished sixth (+51.6), and Rießle and Herkola moved all the way up to seventh (+1:05.3) and eighth (+1:05.5), respectively, finishing with Geiger in ninth (+1:05.5).
With four Germans in the top 10, Frenzel predicted more success for his team at these Olympics.
“I hope there will be more golden moments like this here,” he told ZDF. “I think all of us are in good shape at the moment, especially Fabian [Rießle] who definitively was out of luck on the jump today. He surely can perform at a similar level as I did. So because of that we will keep attacking here over the next few days, especially on the large hill, and then we will see what is in it for us.”
Bryan nearly caught Estonia’s Kristjan Ilves in 16th at the line, finishing 0.3 seconds behind him in 17th (+2:12.2) for his best individual result in his second Olympics. The 31 year old’s previous Olympic best was 22nd in the large hill/10 k in Sochi.
In a post-race interview with FasterSkier and other reporters in PyeongChang, Bryan said that he was disappointed with the result and felt that, with faster skis, he could’ve been in the mix. He noticed his skis weren’t up to par with Germany and FInland immediately out of the start, where he said he was sprinting to catch Rießle and Herkola.
“A two-second gap, I should be able to just yo-yo right onto them, and I couldn’t even get there,” he said. “That to me was a surefire sign that something was up. Either my physical performance wasn’t there or the skis weren’t there. It very well could’ve been a combination of both.”
He explained that nordic-combined athletes don’t warm up on race skis. “They were good, but just not quite there,” Bryan said of his skis.
On the day, his course time ranked 22nd, about 20 places slower than usual.
“I dug deep, I’m happy with how I managed that today and limited losses,” he explained. “Positive takeaways from the jump hill I think were really good. I know that I can be in the fight there and also know that with some better skis I can be in fight in the cross-country, so refocus and looking forward to next week.”
After his jump, he had hoped for a top 10.
“In fact, I think it was completely doable,” Bryan said. “It was only about a minute to eighth so it was a little bit disappointing going in and not being able to close that gap. It’s a big event, it’s one day and certainly anything can happen. And unfortunately today the cards didn’t stack in our favor.”
As a father and the oldest member of the USA’s young Olympic team, Bryan said he had been giving his teammates some pointers.
“I think they’ve been calling me ‘Dad’ all week because they love the advice, so falling into a parent role again,” he said. “It’s been fun and certainly they give me as much energy as I give them.”
Behind him, his younger brother Taylor, 27, finished 35th (+3:27.8) with the 15th-fastest course time, Loomis placed 41st (+4:29.4), and Good 45th (+5:48.4).
Asked about his day, Taylor described it as “Not awesome. I mean it was realistic,” he explained. “Average day on the jump, average day on the cross-country. I know what I did and what I need to do, and I think that’s the harsh reality, for sure, but it was a mix between thinking the skis weren’t so great, me definitely going a little too hard at the beginning and maybe me [trying to figure] out whether it was me or whether it was skis, and honestly I think it was more me.”
Italy’s Alessandro Pittin started the race 4 seconds ahead of him in 38th. Pittin went on to ski the fastest 10 k time of 23:48.9 to end up 19th at the finish.
“Alessandro Pittin is the fastest skier, he’s taken that away from me for sure,” Taylor said. “I think I put a little too much energy on that first lap trying to stay with him and then I actually went passed him and led in the wind going up this hill coming back toward the stadium, and I think that just put me on edge a little bit too much and too early.”
Taylor described the conditions as variable, alternating from glazed and fast to “mush” and “dead” feeling.
“It’s hard to describe where I’ve skied that before, but it has no character, no feeling to it, and it’s really hard to glide on it,” he said of the snow in PyeongChang. “I was struggling on the gradual hill coming back into the stadium and I felt like I couldn’t get up onto my toe for that final kick of V2 so I was very static and heavy on the legs and that’s not where I want to be at all. It’s not fluid for me, and it’s just difficult.”
As for his jumping, he was pleased with his improvement since earlier this season.
“It’s a million times better than it was in December,” he said. “… It’s still got a ways to go, but I’ve shown in these last couple weeks that slightly better jumps are leaps and bounds better for me.”
As the 10th jumper to descend down PyeongChang’s 109-meter hill on Wednesday, Taylor explained that the first three American jumpers got “a little unlucky” with the crosswind on the jump. Good was the first jumper of the day in bib 1, Loomis started ninth, Taylor 10th, and Bryan 26th out of 48 starters.
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“I still had good conditions compared to Jasper, but compared to a lot of the other guys, I was still slightly behind them,” Taylor said. “But for me, I’ve just got to jump a little bit early and a little bit more forward with the speed and it’ll be there.”
Good told reporters that the top of the PyeongChang jump “literally feels like a hurricane. The wind is just howling and the first time we got up there training earlier this week, I was like, there is no chance we’re jumping right now,” he recalled. “But the wind barriers they have set up do an awesome job because when you actually get to the jump the wind is fine so it’s more of a mental battle.”
In his first Olympic competition, the 21-year-old Good’s jump of 76 meters put him last place going into the 10 k. But he started with four other skiers in a wave start, 4 minutes behind the leader.
“It’s a little bit easier to get motivation starting in the back in this event just because it’s so big, you’re on the world stage, and this is the kind of race where everyone has, like, inspired skis regardless of where they’re skiing,” Good said. “It just feels like there’s more to it and there’s more within you, but it’s just awesome to be out competing and achieve a personal dream of mine.”
Loomis said that while PyeongChang is probably the windiest place he’s ever jumped, it made for a challenging and exciting competition. He said his jump on Wednesday, at 86.5 meters, was better than most of his training jumps there.
“Most of the training rounds were even a lot windier than today, so we kind of got well-prepared for that, and luckily it was pretty good for the comp today,” Loomis explained. “The winds were about as even as they’ve been here so far.”
At 19 years old, Loomis is coming off a bronze-medal performance and fourth-place finish in two individual races at Junior World Championships in Kandersteg, Switzerland, just two weeks ago.
“It’s my first Olympics and I’m one of the younger guys so I’m looking to take it all in and learn from this and gain as much experience as I can for the next Olympics in four or even eight years out of today,” he said.
The next nordic-combined competition at the Games is set for Tuesday, Feb. 20 with the individual large hill/10 k.