Nordic Junior Olympic team diverse


It will be a mix of event veterans and rookies when the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club J2 Junior Olympic Team travels to the Northeast.

Taylor Fletcher, Brett Denney and Charlie Stoddard represent the older, more experienced contingent. Joining them for Nordic combined Junior Olympics are youths Erik Lynch, Jake Barker, Aleck Gantick and Cliff Field.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association announced Thursday a decision to expand its program support of cross-country skiing, USSA Vice President of Athletics Alan Ashley said.

The decision is designed to affect the program in preparation for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and comes on the heels of improved results in the 2006 Winter Games.

Andy Newell's 11th-place finish in the sprint event was the best result for an American man since 1976. Kikkan Randall's ninth-place finish in the Olympic sprint was the best women's result in history.

"Our athletes are at a level now that our management recognizes that we really need to add these additional pieces of support to allow them to move up," said Luke Bodensteiner, U.S. Nordic program director, in a news release.

In the same release, Ashley said the expansion would include expanded World Cup support and the restart of an athletics development program to begin next season.

"First, we need to provide our existing elite-level athletes with a stronger program," Bodensteiner said. "Secondly, we need to rejuvenate the development programs we've started in the past, but have not been able to fully maintain. Right now, we don't have a way to get those young athletes the exposure to international racing, which they need."

Chris Gilbertson, junior coach with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club's Nordic program and former U.S. Ski Team special jumper, isn't sure what benefits -- if any -- Steamboat's athletes will reap from Ashley's announcement.

"That money, to my understanding, is to reinstate the women's cross-country team," Gilbertson said. "They didn't even have one this year. ... They haven't said anything about the Nordic combined or special jumping budget."

U.S. Ski Team CEO Bill Marolt has talked consistently about wanting to see results to get the paycheck. Steamboat athletes such as Bryan Fletcher, a Nordic combined athlete, and Trevor Wert, a special jumper, recently paid to compete in the Junior World Championships in Slovenia. They are considered the next generation of Olympic hopefuls, but to get top results, they need to compete internationally, which is expensive.

On the other hand, former Winter Sports Club cross-country skier Mark Iverson, a senior at Montana State University, is one of America's best young cross-country skiers, so he may reap the rewards of the new initiative. He has Olympic aspirations.

"We have confidence in the direction cross country is taking and want to be able to support those athletes as a matter of company priority," Ashley said.

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club junior coach Chris Gilbertson works with the three veterans on a regular basis. Todd Wilson works with the younger four athletes.

On Thursday, the group had a mini-competition at Howelsen Hill to prepare for the event in Lebanon, N.H., which is from Monday to March 5.

"That younger crew is a riot," Gilbertson said. "That might drive the older guys crazy, but it will be good for the younger guys to hang out with the older guys. The older guys have traveled a ton. I think, for the others, it's their first JOs, so they will be learning a lot."

The Junior Olympics are being held on a K-50 hill, which should enable Lynch, Barker, Gantick and Field to be more competitive. Steamboat's older athletes are looking for results.

"The good news is we are going in with a really strong team," said Gilbertson, who didn't want to predict outcomes in case he would jinx his boys. "Taylor is one of the top juniors in the country. He just missed going to World Juniors, and Brett beat Taylor earlier this year."

Bryan Fletcher, who is Taylor's older brother, and Trevor Wert got the chance to compete at the 2006 World Junior Championships, which wrapped up early this month in Kranj, Slovenia.

Bryan Fletcher made the team as a Nordic combined athlete, and Wert went overseas as a special jumper. Gilbertson traveled with the group, which included Skylar Keete and Logan Oxford of Park City, Utah, and Willy Graves and Pete Freire of Lake Placid, N.Y.

The group of Nordic combined athletes represents the next generation of U.S. Ski Team members, so Gilbertson was critical of their performances.

"When we started, I wasn't so psyched how the guys were jumping," he said. "Each comp got better and better."

Bryan Fletcher sat out the 10-kilometer Gunderson event at the World Junior Championships based on poor jumping results, but he was a part of the team event, in which the team finished 10th.

"We were in eighth place after jumping, and I think we were only 1 minute, 10 seconds behind first," Gilbertson said. "I was thinking we could get into the top six out of here. Willy had an awesome first leg. I think he got us up to six. Skylar hung on. The bummer was Logan didn't ski as well, and Bryan was trying to catch up and trying to take some chances."

In the individual sprint on the closing day, Graves placed 20th, Bryan Fletcher was 31st, Keete was 32nd, and Freire was 38th.

"Bryan was definitely skiing faster," Gilbertson said. "It was his jumping that let him down. I would say it's the cross-country skiing more, though, for those guys as a whole. Consistency, consistency, consistency; I harp on them all the time about it."

The World Junior Cham--pionships team will be back in action March 10 for the North American Junior Competition in Park City.


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