Twenty-eighth in the jump was good enough for Taylor Fletcher on Saturday, as the 24-year-old U.S. Nordic Combined skier rocketed to an individual podium for the second time in his World Cup career.
The day before in Sapporo, Japan, Fletcher had ranked 34rd on the 134-meter large hill and raced up to 22nd with the fourth-fastest 10-kilometer time. Saturday on the same hill was going to be different, though — he could feel it.
“Heading into the [cross-country] portion, I was feeling good as I knew that I had put myself in a position for a great result,” Fletcher recalled in an email. “Typically in a race, you see the leaders of the jumping fall back and it starts to swell into a big group. With that in mind I wanted to attack and get myself into that group with it still mostly intact.”
He and his brother Bryan Fletcher, who jumped to 27th on Saturday to start the 10 k in that position, 2 seconds ahead of Taylor, decided to work together “and try to move up in a controlled and but quick pace,” Taylor explained.
The two started 2:06 and 2:08 behind the jump leader, Fabian Steindl of Austria.
Bryan wrote in an email that he thought a top 10 was possible.
“Truth be told I have had some sinus/head cold stuff going on while here in Japan so I was unsure if that would play a factor or not in the race,” he wrote on Saturday, after placing ninth in Friday’s large hill/10 k competition. “I just wanted to go out and ski my race and I thought if I ski tactically smart Tay and I can move up quite a lot.”
But it wasn’t easy. According to Bryan, he and Taylor put in some hard efforts shortly after the start, with Bryan leading the first of four laps to set the pace and Taylor beginning to pull away on the second lap as they caught several men in the top 20.
“I thought I would just get into the group and sit in however Taylor went right to the front, as soon as he did that the group shattered and guys were coming off the back, others were fighting to get back up to the pack,” Bryan wrote.
Taylor estimated that the top 15 were all skiing together until that point. While Taylor led the pack, Bryan tried to maintain contact at the back. “Then Taylor attacked hard and it split into two groups of 3 and 5 thats when it was everyone giving all they had left in the tank,” Bryan explained. “In the end it was an all-out sprint for the last 1.5 k.”
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“It was a matter of putting yourself in a position at the end,” Taylor wrote. “I decided it was better to ‘Go Ugly, Early’ and not wait for the field sprint. So just into the first hill I made almost a cycling attack and tried to get away from the rest of the skiers.”
His race would have been perfect if not for two men — Germany’s Eric Frenzel and Japan’s Akito Watabe — who passed him in the stadium on the final push to the finish. Taylor placed third, 3.5 seconds behind Frenzel, who won the sixth-consecutive World Cup competition he started (and last five on the circuit) in 27:14.0.
Watabe was second, 1.8 seconds behind Frenzel and 1.7 seconds ahead of Taylor, who clocked the fastest-course time in 25:09.5. Bryan had the second-fastest ski time by 20 seconds, and finished 21.9 seconds behind Frenzel in eighth for his third-consecutive top 10 (after placing ninth on Friday).
“I think my coach and I have laid down a pretty solid plan, this season I am taking part in every single competition and that is a challenge in itself to still ski well the entire season,” Bryan wrote. “So I am excited to see how well I can continue through [World Championships] and then of course the world cups after, too.”
He added that it was great to have his brother on the podium.
“I am very happy for him and even more excited to have [U.S. Nordic Combined] back on the podium,” Bryan wrote. “We have been chipping away at the podium for quite some time now so it nice to finally land one. Hopefully we can continue to fight for the podium in the next events in [Val di Fiemme, Italy].”
“To get another podium feels incredible as I knew it was possible,” Taylor commented. “My last podium [two seasons ago in Seefeld, Austria] was not a fluke. I have been struggling with my jumping for a year and half now but in the last couple weeks it has been getting better.”
He knew he didn’t need to win the jumping portion; he just wanted to put himself in position to succeed on his cross-country skis.
“This is also very big for our team as I was the last podium in 2013 and it was a big motivator for the future heading into world championships,” Taylor added. “This shows that we have great potential for the future with Adam Loomis quickly getting better scoring points this year.”
The third American in Saturday’s competition, Loomis, 22, placed 36th of 41 finishers, 2:59.6 behind Frenzel.
“I had a good opportunity with conditions on the hill and didn’t really maximize that,” Loomis said in a video interview with Fast Big Dog.
On Friday, Loomis placed 28th for his second-best World Cup result. He jumped to 42nd on Saturday, but posted the ninth-fastest ski time to improve to 36th.
“It left me shooting for racing for all I’ve got and going for a fast race, and that’s kind of what I did,” Loomis said. “And we had awesome skis.”
The Nordic Combined World Cup next visits Val di Fiemme for three days of competitions (including a team sprint) from Jan. 30-Feb. 1.
— Lander Karath contributed reporting