U.S. Ski Team Nordic combined skier Bryan Fletcher works out Friday morning on River Road in Steamboat Springs. Fletcher soared to his best season with the team last winter and hopes to build on that success this coming year.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

U.S. Ski Team Nordic combined skier Bryan Fletcher works out Friday morning on River Road in Steamboat Springs. Fletcher soared to his best season with the team last winter and hopes to build on that success this coming year.

Steamboat skier Bryan Fletcher's giant leap sets stage

Nordic combined athlete doubles down commitment to find greatest success

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U.S. Ski Team

Bryan Fletcher

— Being a world-class athlete takes dedication, focus and commitment.

That’s not news to Bryan Fletcher.

Early morning workouts long have been a way of life for the 26-year-old Steamboat Springs resident and U.S. Nordic combined team skier. He put in the laps on the snow, the days on the jump hill and the hours in the gym.

There’s really no other option when the U.S. Ski Team is your goal.

World Cup podiums, however? That takes an entirely different level of commitment, and Fletcher said it was only after coming to terms with the idea that there was more he could do — more he had to do — that he was able to break through and realize his once lofty goals. In doing so, he’s established himself as perhaps Steamboat’s next great winter sports athlete.

Top of the mountain

Fletcher went from “local boy making good” to “next big thing” — or maybe just “big thing” — thanks to one glorious day in Norway. Preparing for the season’s final World Cup event, he already had penciled in the 2011-12 season as a successful one. He’d made a podium finish one of his season goals, and although he had come up just short of that, he had enjoyed far and away his best year, leading the U.S. team while placing as high as fourth and consistently figuring in the top 10.

Then, on March 10, his breakout campaign broke out a good bit more. He fought to his first World Cup victory, winning in Oslo, Norway, at the jumps at Holmenkollen, the biggest single event of the year on the World Cup circuit.

Life hasn’t changed much, Fletcher said, but it has changed.

“It’s a learned process, confidence in skiing,” he said. “It’s definitely been growing in me. My confidence as an athlete, a top athlete, has been growing since I got my first top 10 at Ramsau (Austria) in 2010. You learn through experience. Your confidence comes through experience. Every little step you take toward the top of the podium gives you a little more.”

Now, Fletcher is at the forefront of his sport, a hero in his hometown of Steamboat Springs.

The champions of Steamboat Springs? That’s him. The Olympians of Ski Town USA? That in all likelihood will be him in a mere 19 months, when he’s expected to be included on the team headed to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

He’s not famous enough to be the top response in a “Bryan Fletcher” Google search — an NFL tight end steals that honor — but he’s big enough to have a Facebook fan page and, although he said he’s entirely unaware, his very own Wikipedia entry.

Critical changes

It never “just happened” for Fletcher’s predecessors — friends and local Nordic combined legends like Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Billy Demong. And it didn’t just happen for Fletcher.

For Dave Jarrett, the change came in large part after the 2009-10 winter, when Fletcher just missed a chance to compete in the Olympics, falling short of his brother, Taylor, for the final team spot.

“Some people, they’re not willing to fight any more. They feel they’ve put everything into it and they have nothing left,” said Jarrett, the U.S. Nordic combined coach. “And then you have others that take it as a means to do better. They set out not to be in that position again.

“You either get better because of it or you quit because of it. Bryan got better.”

Getting better involves hundreds of small decisions, none alone remotely related to a cross-country ski race six months away but all collectively critical to that event.

“The biggest thing last summer was making that commitment to training as being your lifestyle every single day,” Fletcher said. “That means making the most of every session you have. If you have a two-hour ski, it’s not skiing for one hour, 50 minutes. It’s skiing for two hours and making sure you do recovery afterward.”

Fletcher wasn’t immature, and he wasn’t unaccomplished. A skier can’t be either and still make the U.S. Ski Team. It was only with the commitment to something more that Fletcher was able to scale up his level of accomplishment dramatically.

He moved out of a house with three buddies and into a house with his girlfriend. He cut out many of the late nights and the sleeping in.

“It definitely takes sacrifices,” he said. “You don’t hang out with friends as much. You don’t go out on the town and have fun as often. But it’s important. That’s the best thing I’ve done in the last year.”

Things are never easy for world-class athletes, and they’ve never been easy for Fletcher. He dedicates much of his free time to three different efforts related to childhood cancer, inspired because he himself overcame an acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosis when he was 3.

He doesn’t expect one World Cup win to make anything easy. He figures he’s still an unknown on the circuit and still needs to earn the recognition of his competitors.

He still works a part-time job at a Park City, Utah, pizza joint in a struggle to pay the bills, and he regularly meets with the ski team’s sports psychologist to help make sure he’s good to go — mind and body — on race days.

But the extra level of dedication Fletcher awakened and rode to World Cup glory still is there, and a new season — this one highlighted by the World Championships in February — is nothing but a winter of opportunity for Steamboat’s next big skiing star.

“The team, we’re continuing to do the same things we’ve done,” he said. “This summer is just another season to build and to continue down the path we’re on. We know it’s successful. We know this winter will be successful.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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