Chasing an Olympic dream requires work ethic, sacrifice, talent and a leap of faith
December 8, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Matt Gantick believes in his son, Aleck, and his chances of making the Olympics some day.
"He's at the point where all the hard work is starting to pay off," Gantick said. "He did jump to second at Nationals."
He tells a quick version of the story â€”Â certainly not for the first time â€” of Aleck's performance in the U.S. Nordic Combined Championships event in Lake Placid, N.Y., in October.
Aleck was in second place after the jumping, ahead of Olympic gold medalist Bill Demong, ahead of U.S. Ski Team stalwarts Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher and ahead of the other athletes competing with Aleck on the National Training Group, a feeder program for the U.S. team.
Only living Nordic combined legend Todd Lodwick had jumped better and only barely, taking a four-second head start in the cross-country skiing portion of the event.
Glory would have to wait, however. A wheel wiggled loose from Aleck's roller ski early in the race, and he slipped all the way to 15th in a 20-man field.
Matt Gantick doesn't insist that you believe in his son, but he makes sure you have all the facts.
He doesn't believe just because of a good jump in New York. And while his belief obviously is rooted in heredity, he doesn't believe simply because that's what dads do.
He believes deep down, honestly, that his son Aleck could compete in the Olympics, if not in February in Sochi, Russia, then maybe in four more years in PyeongChang, South Korea, and maybe even for years after that.
And belief like that comes with sacrifices.
The desire to compete in the Olympics is almost a nationwide dream, but for all of us, statistically, those rings never are more than a figment of our imagination.
In Steamboat Springs, it's at least a little different. For some Steamboat children, skiing develops from a winter activity into a real livelihood. And for some parents, the dreams for their children shift from college to the Olympics. In Steamboat, athletes and their families have to make difficult decisions, have honest conversations about the chances and ask, "Is it worth it?"
Not every athlete experiences any one moment when the Olympics go from figment to fact. Anna Marno, a Steamboat Springs Alpine skier and U.S. Ski Team member since she was 16 years old, is a long shot to make February's Olympics, but she has hopes beyond that. She said the realization that she could hack it as a professional ski racer was gradual.
She always was fast compared to her peers, and that just never changed, even as the stakes increased.
"It wasn't one day or one race or anything," she said. "When I started racing, I had success. Eventually, I made it to the level where I could actually see myself competing against the fastest women in the world."
The Fletcher brothers, meanwhile, both pointed to specific times in their lives when they decided to chase the dream.
Bryan earned a scholarship to the Winter Sports School in Park City, Utah, but had to leave Steamboat Springs High School with about a month remaining in his junior year, giving up in an instant what usually are the sweetest days of high school.
An April 1 phone call telling him he got into the Winter Sports School sent him packing for Utah.
The school runs through the summer, giving athletes the winter off to train and compete.
"Right then and there, I thought I'd have the winter to focus on skiing, nothing but skiing," he said. "I did the best I could, and luckily enough, that year I was named to the U.S. Ski Team.
"If I hadn't been named then, I would have gone a different path."
Taylor, meanwhile, said he had it easier because he was able to follow in big brother Bryan's footsteps. He still recalls a discussion with a skiing coach when he was just a sophomore in high school â€” the coach pressing him to pick either Nordic combined or the high school soccer team.
"It wasn't a hard choice to make," he said. "It's worked out pretty well."
Asked to pinpoint one moment when it all seemed possible, Gantick doesn't pick something he did personally. Instead, he mentioned the 2003 World Championship won by Steamboat's Johnny Spillane as a defining event in Gantick's career. The Nordic combined team's medal haul in Vancouver furthered his faith.
He was 9 years old when Spillane first skied to glory, and when the U.S. Ski Team scored medals in Vancouver, Gantick still was nearly a decade removed for any chance at competing in the Olympics himself. But that's when he believed.
"I know my potential," he said. "I have the same coaches, the same opportunities. Seeing that those guys can do it on the big world stage, why can't I?"
Why not, indeed.
A simple path
Being in Nordic combined actually is a decided advantage for an athlete chasing the Olympic dream.
For those now on the verge, it's fairly clear what needs to happen. There traditionally are five slots on the United States' Nordic combined A team, though only four currently are filled. Four more athletes are on the B team, not a fully funded squad but one covering about half the overall expenses of a season.
The goal, of course, is to get one of those eight spots in the short term, and one of the five A team spots in the long term, by 2018. Spillane retired last spring, and his position wasn't immediately filled. Demong, 33, has announced his intention to retire after Sochi, and while Lodwick, 37, often only grins wide and declines to commit to anything when asked of his intentions, he too is likely to finally hang it up after this season.
It's no easy path, but it's not the most difficult, and it's at least well defined.
"Look at snowboarding, where you can be 15 or 16 years old and going to Sochi," said Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic skiing coach Brian Tate. "That's just impossible for cross-country skiers. It's just not done. There have been 18-year-olds one time or another over the years, but this year, the youngest likely to go in cross-country skiing will be 22, and that's still young."
It's the same story in Nordic combined. Athletes hit their prime in their early 20s, or even later. The average age of the four members of the U.S. silver-medal Nordic combined relay team in 2010 was 29 years old.
The team for PyeongChang in 2018 certainly still is up in the air. If the Fletchers stay on for another Olympiad (or two), three spots should be available. And in all likelihood, those three spots will go to athletes already in the pipeline, currently on either the B team or in the National Training Group.
But it's not easy, either, and in some ways, the small size of the group gunning for those positions adds to the complexity. Consider, for instance, the future of the roughly 10 athletes on track to be the right age with the right experience in February 2018.
They all believe they'll have one of those spots.
For now, they share a dream. Many of them live together, work together, recreate together and travel together, but there's no way they all can make it. Some already have fallen away when results no longer offset mounting bills and the knowledge that only about one-third can "make it."
"If I didn't make it, I would probably still try to go to college full time and do NCAA cross-country skiing," said Tyler Smith, a Park City skier now living in Steamboat to train.
He was there bright and early on a frosty morning, working out in the weight room at the base of Howelsen Hill along with a half-dozen members of the National Training Group, keeping the dream alive.
Smith roller-skied from a 14th-place start to finish 10th in October's National Championships. He is 20, a year older than Gantick, and has been competing in Nordic combined for 13 years, more than half his life.
The prospect of not making it, of having to someday give up after all he's already invested, doesn't sit well.
"I don't want to think about that," he said.
Making the cut
What committed athletes could be doing besides pursuing Olympic glory is something that weighs on their minds.
There's the small stuff, the things most 19-year-olds fill their time with, like hanging out with friends, eating out or drinking at parties.
"I've definitely had to really discipline myself not to be persuaded by that at all," Gantick said. "I do get looked at funny for saying, 'No, I'm not going to drink. Yeah, and I don't go to college, either.'"
College is one of the big things.
It would be impossible to take a full class load with the training demands and the travel to and from far-flung competitions. Some athletes make do by taking a few classes online, but generally speaking, that part of their lives is on pause.
That leaves some athletes feeling ostracized late in high school when their friends are planning for the future.
"We're seen as outlaws," Smith said with a laugh. "Everyone goes to school, so we're definitely different."
It even can be awkward when those friends come home from college on school breaks.
"It's hard seeing some of your best friends go off to college and get a new set of friends," Gantick said. "Then they come back and hardly know who you are anymore."
Many of the athletes at least applied to colleges, keeping their options open as high school wound down. Smith said he had several options, and Gantick was accepted into the four he applied to, from Montana State to University of Utah to University of Colorado. He even earned a coveted spot in CU's School of Architecture and Planning.
"I was seriously considering it," he said. "But I had this ongoing conversation in my head. 'Are you going to regret it? Will you regret not doing this, taking the one chance you have to go to the Olympics?'
"How many people get to say they had an opportunity to do that? I didn't want to be looking back when I'm 50 years old thinking, 'I should have stuck with it.'"
So, they often rationalize their decisions to put off college, promising themselves they'll give it a year, maybe two to realize the dream.
Bryan Fletcher gave himself one winter to go all-in, and he made the team, albeit in a different environment than the one that faces today's up-and-comers.
Smith said he also gave himself one year, then another when he wasn't yet on the team.
He readily admits that's a dangerous way to think, but he can't shake the sensation that the U.S. team is right there, and that he is on the brink. South Korea is four years away, but to those dreaming of it, the date seems so close.
Smith and Gantick deferred their college acceptances, postponing the decision one year.
"You can't do that forever, though," Smith said. "I lost my deferrals with those schools. In the end, it was Nordic combined or nothing."
Like everyone in that small weight room on a sub-zero morning, he chose Nordic combined.
Gantick always has been competitive, from ruling his family's Monopoly games as a child with a ruthless flip-over-the-board approach to winning jumping events as he grew into his tall, lean body.
That characteristic, described asÂ a "fire in his eyes" by dad Matt Gantick, is at the root of the belief.
"I've been watching it evolve for 14 or 15 years now, and I've seen it every inch of the way," Matt Gantick said.
Competitive doesn't pay the bills, though.
For that, Aleck and several other local Nordic combined athletes both work and ask for support. They work when they can for businesses like Straightline Sports in downtown Steamboat, helping out in the shop and being grateful to be allowed to wrap their hours around training commitments and long trips to competitions in Europe.
They try to sock away whatever they can and get help from the National Nordic Foundation, private sponsors, friends, extended family and, of course, parents.
A year competing at the National Training Group level can cost about $20,000. The largest bulk of that is travel expenses, about $12,000, Aleck estimated. Then there are coaching fees, equipment costs and the basic expenses that go along with life, from food to cellphone plans.
Matt Gantick and his wife, Cindy, have backed up their belief in their son with financial support, as well, saying it's not much different than college, and with all its life lessons and travel opportunities, Nordic combined has proven to be a worthy classroom in its own right.
"The level of commitment and mental and physical toughness that are required for this sport are attributes that will translate to anything you do in life," Matt Gantick said. "This is such an incredibly unique experience, and very few people in the world have the opportunity."
None of that â€”Â from the uniqueness of the opportunity to the blessing of parents willing to make it happen â€” is lost on Aleck.
"I can't find any words to thank them enough for being there all the time to help me out," Aleck said. "They're great."
It all seems like a gamble, for each of the young men chasing after U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team spots and for all the athletes who put their lives on hold to chase a dream, often bringing their family along for the ride.
But it's not gambling if you know you're going to win, right? There's no such bravado when they speak of it, but the Ganticks believe.
Aleck said he dreams of life on the U.S. Ski Team, picturing himself atop a World Cup or Olympic podium.
"Every day," he said. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about it."
Matt Gantick dreams of it, too, imagining his son coming around the last turn in South Korea in third place, then hammering it to the line to win by a nose.
When they talk about it all happening, they take time to thank everyone who's lent a hand, made donations or simply sent well wishes.
"It takes a village," Matt Gantick said.
Indeed it does.
But it also takes a deep, honest, true-blue belief. And the Ganticks believe.