On Dec. 30, the nordic-combined community will gather in Park City for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, a one-and-done event which will dole out an Olympic berth for the race winner. As they have for much of their professional-sport careers, brothers Bryan and Tyler Fletcher are eying the same prize.
Bryan Fletcher was ranked 34th on the World Cup last season. His best individual results during the 2016/2017 World Cup calendar were an 11th and 18th place.
This past weekend in Ramsau, Austria, Bryan, the older of the Fletcher brothers, came through with a seventh place on Saturday, Dec. 16, for his best individual result in nearly two years.
“The opportunity was there,” Bryan, 31, said on the phone from Utah this week. He explained that the jumping hill in Ramsau is smaller than the hill used for the opening weekend in Ruka, Finland.
“Ramsau is one of those hills where everybody tends to jump a little bit closer. That was the first thing that was really helpful there,” he said. “The second thing was definitely that I jumped on a little bit higher level than the previous weekends. … I was able to put together a little bit better jumps and on a more consistent basis. As a result I was able to put myself in the fight in the race.”
Bryan jumped to 28th, yet scored 110.5 points, while the best jumper, Taihei Kato of Japan, scored 125.9 points — not a massive gap when considering the Fletchers’ skiing speed. That 15.4-point differential put Bryan 1:02 minutes behind Kato at the start of the 10 k Gundersen. When in position after a solid jump, both of the Fletchers can close out a top 20 or a top 10 in the ski.
But moving through a field of World Cup skiers — Bryan moved up 21 spots in Saturday’s race — is part-art and part-sufferfest.
“More these days, the old-school laws of track don’t really apply for us,” Bryan said about passing skiers during the ski portion. “Especially in nordic combined where every place is so crucial and those points are so valuable people don’t want to move over. They know if they move over for you that opens a hole for potentially five to 10 skiers that are in that train to get by.”
Ramsau’s course remains a link to the past with skinny trails placing a premium on high-risk, high-reward aggressive skiing. Moving to the front when a gap opens or sitting in and sucking a draft can make or break a result.
“That opportunity pays itself off in the end, that is exactly what happened to me,” Bryan said of his high-octane skiing and thread-the-needle gap finding. “There were several times coming over the top of a hill where I really could have taken the opportunity to tuck into the group and get some rest, but I knew I was going to be log-jammed later down on the course. I would take the risk and get to the front of the group and that would get me a clean opportunity to get up the next hill or through the choke point unscathed. There were definitely times where I was going up the hill and it was two skiers wide and I was stuck and sitting behind everybody and you just have to wait for a hole to open up and just be patient and take that rest as it comes. Of course, when it opens you just have to go and don’t look back and move on up.”
Germany’s Eric Frenzel started the 10 k race in third and took the win in 24:17.8, while Bryan finished 32.6 seconds back in seventh after skiing the second-fastest time of the day.
On Sunday, another German, Fabian Rießle, stood on top of the podium after jumping to ninth and rising to first in the 10 k, finishing in 26:12.5. The weather conditions were unsettled for Sunday’s jump competition, yet both Fletcher brothers posted solid results on the hill before the competition round was halted and ultimately cancelled. As a result, competition results did not count, and jumps from Friday’s provisional round were used instead to determine time back for the ski.
Bryan began the ski 1:30 minute back with the 45th-ranked provisional jump, while Taylor bagan the ski 2:53 minutes back after jumping to 58th, just ahead of teammate Adam Loomis in 59th.
Fast skiing by the Fletchers was once again on display on Sunday. Bryan raced up to 14th (+43.7) with the third-fastest time of the day while Taylor improved a whopping 24 positions to finish 34th (+2:01.6) with the second-fastest time of the day. Loomis moved up seven places to place 52nd (+4:38.6) out of 55 finishers.
“Those major ski efforts begin in May, with the intensity over the summer — that all gets you to a place where you are able to sustain efforts like that,” Taylor Fletcher said on the phone. “I love pushing myself. Every year when we do a VO2max I am excited about it. Because I want to go until I absolutely cannot go. It is the same with racing. Our races should be slightly faster than our threshold-plus intervals that we do. We have done a good job with that. And this past weekend it was snowing and I love racing when it is dumping snow. You have to be a strong skier for sure.”
When the jumping round was cancelled on Sunday, Taylor had to refocus as the jump that wouldn’t count for his ski seeding would have positioned him for a top-20 strike. Instead, his preliminary jump from Friday put him at the back of the field.
“My position drastically changed over the course of the 30 minutes that they decided to cancel the competition round,” Taylor Fletcher explained. “I wanted to try to get points no matter what. I went as hard as I possibly could for the entire race. There was not a spot where I could really settle and say I could have made up 20 seconds there and finished in the points. It’s hard to go through the field like that. When you are racing from 58th to try to get into the top 30, you are passing 28 guys, and Ramsau is a very narrow course … maybe if I could get around them quicker, then maybe they would have blown up earlier and fallen back even more. It takes a little bit of strategy and a lot of nerve and a lot of commitment to be able to push through and catch those guys and pass them and drop them.”
Let’s put this out there as it’s no mystery to any fan of the sport or any World Cup nordic-combined athlete: having a Fletcher chasing from behind can be a gamble if you don’t gun it. As the Olympic trials approach both Bryan and Taylor know their ski shape is good.
However, when asked to summarize his World Cup Period 1, Taylor was straight to the point.
“Pretty bad to be honest,” Taylor said. “Looking back after the summer and all the work, I was confident I could get off to a decent start in points and fight for points. I wasn’t worried about qualifications or anything but I was definitely bummed when I found myself struggling pretty badly with the jumping. But that being said, it was only one aspect. I mean everything else was good. Cross-country is obviously solid. My strength and power and speed in terms of the jumping is there, it’s just more mental — the mental approach I was taking to the jumping. I was trying to be almost be too perfect and trying to really get these good jumps in and really focus so much on certain aspects of the jump, I was forgetting about the whole bigger picture in a sense.”
In the short term, Taylor is focused on winning the lone competition at Olympic trials on Dec. 30 and improving his results in the new year.
“My goal right now is to win on the 30th, win the Olympic trials here and that way I can completely forget about a qualification spot and I can go out there and focus on my training and focus on the individual competitions,” Taylor said. “And then move forward and focus on the next step as we get towards the Olympics. Honestly, I think I am all right. … And hopefully the team can also step up and we can guarantee that we have four spots on the Olympic team so we can have a team event, hope for sure that we have four so we can represent the U.S. at the Olympics.”
Bryan, along with the entire who’s who in U.S. NoCo, will be honing for the shoe-in Olympic spot on the 30th. According to USA Nordic’s selection document, after the lone spot is secured at the trials, any remaining spots can be nominated using discretion with the potential for Olympic success as the guiding principle. In total, the U.S. is allotted a maximum of four spots for the PyeongChang Games. If discretion does not fill the quota, then the first step on the selection hierarchy are top-10 results from the World Cup between Nov. 15, 2017 and Jan. 22, 2018.
Currently, only Bryan meets that standard thanks to his seventh place in Ramsau.
“I think I have made the objective criteria to go, but nothing is set in stone until the qualification ends or Olympic trials are won,” Bryan said. “That will be the first guaranteed spot on the team; Olympic trials. There are a lot of eyeballs on that. A lot of guys on the team are going to be vying for that spot.”