John Russell's sports column appears Tuesdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Every winter, I watch the young athletes of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club training and competing on the jumps at Howelsen Hill.
Every winter, I have to stop for a moment and ask myself what drives these young athletes to want to be jumpers.
It only took me a few minutes on the phone with Nordic combined ski jumper Bryan Fletcher to realize that he is driven by a feeling that few of us will ever understand, the same feeling he experienced the first time he soared off a jump at age 4.
These days, the jumps are bigger, and most of the time, it’s business as usual for the Nordic combined skier from Steamboat Springs.
But he continues to travel across the world in search of top World Cup finishes, in search of the feeling that comes from riding a cushion of air from the top of a ski jump to the bottom of the hill.
A few weeks ago, Fletcher rediscovered his love of the sport when he competed in his first ski flying competition in Planica, Slovenia. The K185 jump took him back to a time he thought he had forgotten.
“It was huge. My heart was pounding,” he said. “It was kind of like the first time I jumped off the big hill at Howelsen — only bigger.”
He described the feelings as a mix of fear and excitement similar to the first time he pushed off the bar on the larger hills at Howelsen. It’s a feeling he hasn’t experienced in a while. The jump in Planica is nearly twice the size of the big hill at Howelsen and bigger than most of the jumps he sees on the World Cup circuit.
A normal person might feel queasy simply standing at the top of a hill like the one in Planica, but ski jumpers are a slightly different breed.
Fletcher admits that he was nervous, but that didn’t stop him from pushing off the bar. His best jump was 173.5 meters and was the longest ride of his career. But it was nothing compared to the top special jumpers at the event.
Special jumper Robert Kranjec, of Slovenia, won this year’s event with jumps of 227.5 meters and 215 meters. Fletcher didn’t clear 200 meters but was smiling just the same after the event.
“That’s the feeling most of us seek,” Fletcher said. “You only get to compete on a jump like that every couple of years, so I don’t think that feeling will ever go away.”
The sport of ski flying takes the world’s best ski jumpers and best Nordic combined skiers out of their comfort zone to a place that few athletes have the guts or skill to handle. But jumpers come to places like Planica with a new sense of urgency and a new sense of excitement.
Winning here might be the goal, but for the athletes who compete, it’s about a lot more than winning.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com