How Bryan Fletcher would recover from two knee surgeries was unknown, but he answered any questions with three podium finishes in four events at the 2005 North American Junior Championships in special jumping and Nordic combined last weekend.
Fletcher, 18, a Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club member, had surgery on both knees in 2003 and has struggled to regain his form, physically and mentally.
"He never had the strength and the comfort level," coach Chris Gilbertson said. "It's pretty hard to come back from knee surgery."
Then came the trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., last weekend, and everything changed. Fletcher placed second in an individual 8-kilometer sprint, starting in third after the jump and skiing into second.
Fletcher also placed second in the K-90 jumping competition with jumps of 118 and 119 meters. He teamed up with Winter Sports Club athlete Davis Miller to place third in the Nordic combined team sprint, as well. The Rocky Mountain Division team of Alex Miller and Matt Delaney, an Eastern Division athlete training in Steamboat Springs, came in second.
"It surpassed anything I expected from him this year," Gilbertson said. "I didn't have high expectations. One of our goals was to make the world junior team, and he's on track for that. This definitely shows he's on pace. He's getting better and better."
Fletcher is back in Steamboat training. A recent high school graduate, Fletcher can put all his energy into his goal of being one of the nation's elite Nordic combined athletes. He already has proven to be one of the best junior competitors.
"This is the first full winter back," Fletcher said. "This is the first competition where I knew I was skiing well enough to jump at my best. The fact that I had been getting better during the last couple weeks in Steamboat and knowing that I can ski that well made a big difference. Also, what helped me know I was going to ski well, I won competitions the previous weekend in Park City."
The North American Junior Championships consisted of competitors 19 and younger from the United States and Canada. The United States had teams competing from the Eastern, Central, Intermountain and Rocky Mountain divisions. The Eastern Division competed on its home site, and Eastern Division competitor Willy Graves took advantage, winning both individual events.
"He's had an awesome season," Fletcher said. "I expected a tough competition out of him."
Other than the weather being bitterly cold in upstate New York, conditions were favorable for the athletes.
"The jumps were in the best shape I've ever seen skiing there," Fletcher said. "Despite the cold, I think the conditions, as far as wind-wise and air-wise, were very good."
Alex and Davis Miller, both 19, were the other Rocky Mountain Division representatives in Lake Placid. Davis placed fourth and Alex was sixth in the individual 8K sprint. Both recovered from average jumps to place among the top six.
The Miller twins aren't jumping particularly well right now, but Gilbertson said it's common for athletes to have valleys in their training. Gilbertson is going to work to get all three Winter Sports Club athletes prepared for the upcoming world junior team qualifiers in Wisconsin and Michigan.
"Davis came out of the blocks really strong this year," Gilbertson said. "He's been having some lower back problems so he was getting a lot of therapy (in Lake Placid) for that. The technique is just not there. When we first started skiing on snow, they were totally different skiers than last summer. It's kind of fallen back. ... (In Lake Placid) they skied closer to Bryan than they had in the past, and they weren't that far behind Willy. They are starting to ski faster."