Steamboat Pilot & Today sports reporter and photographer Joel Reichenberger can be reached at 871-4253 or jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs It starts today, with members of the U.S. Nordic combined team filing into their Park City, Utah, training facility at 8 a.m. for VO2 max testing, or “roller skiing on a big, giant treadmill until you can’t go any more, until you fall off the back,” as Taylor Fletcher explained it.
“It’s as bad as it sounds,” he added.
Today marks the start of the 2013-14 season for the U.S. team, and if all goes as planned, the journey will lead in 10 months to a podium in Russia, dreams fulfilled for Fletcher and the other skiers on the Nordic combined team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
I’m still a little hung up on the 2012-13 season, which ended only two weeks ago at the final World Cup event in Oslo.
There, Fletcher dished a quote in a U.S. Ski Team news release that’s hung with me, one sentence that in every way summed up what was a breakout season for the Steamboat Springs skier while also displaying an attitude that could carry him to that Sochi podium.
“I was thinking after the jumping that I had a good shot at another podium,” he said in Oslo.
It’s rather fundamental, at least on the surface. It’s Nordic combined, so of course good jumping allows for podium possibilities. Still, there’s a lot more to Fletcher's words than is first apparent.
For Fletcher and any Nordic combined athlete, it’s always been a race to get good at both jumping and cross-country skiing. It’s far more difficult than it sounds. As soon as Fletcher nailed jumping, he grew 5 inches, throwing every thing off. As soon as he got fast on his skis, he moved up a division to be completely outclassed again.
Many never figure it all out, and Nordic combined races, even at the World Cup level, are filled with athletes who excel at one or the other. The best jumpers frequently aren’t good enough skiers to hang on to the leads they’re awarded, and many of the best skiers aren’t fast enough to make up the time they sacrificed because of poor jumps.
Those few who can marry the two skills are the World Cup champions and the gold medalists. They’re Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong, Jason Lamy Chappuis and Eric Frenzel.
Fletcher wasn’t great on either side of the sport at the 2010 Olympics, at least not by Olympics standards. He got a start in the large hill event in Vancouver, and while teammates Demong and Johnny Spillane went gold-silver, he finished last, the day’s worst jumper and its 32nd best skier.
It took two more full seasons on the World Cup circuit for it to make sense to Fletcher, but now he’s getting close.
By the end of the just-completed season, he was the very best skier in the world.
How good was he? The numbers certainly bear out the dominance: he had the fastest cross-country ski time in five different individual competitions this season, and he had the second-fastest time in four more events. Only once since Jan. 1 did he have a ski time worse that second, and he wasn’t worse than ninth all season.
There’s a far better way to consider how he’s separated from the field, however.
In the second-to-last competition of the season, in Oslo, Fletcher jumped to 23rd place, meaning he’d start the cross-country race behind 22 elite athletes just as dedicated to the sport as he was. Some started the 10-kilometer course as much as 1 minute, 31 seconds before he did.
Fletcher’s response? That quote: “I was thinking after the jumping that I had a good shot at another podium.”
How fast was Taylor Fletcher by season’s end? Fast enough to be in 23rd position and be able to nod and say, “Sweet!”
Fletcher climbed as high as fifth that day, so it wasn’t quite perfect even though he did register the fastest ski time yet again, finishing nearly a minute faster on the course than that day's — and the season's — champ, Germany’s Frenzel.
He's now set on finding a way to give himself a better chance at podium finishes, to work a few tweaks into his jumping, because as nice as starting 23rd is, starting 15th would be nicer. He said shedding even five pounds could make a big difference on the jump hill, and he and the rest of the squad are ever working on refining technique and managing the mental side of elite competition.
But, he doesn’t figure to lose that confidence, and as he and the team set out for a new season and the glory that awaits 10 months away, it’s that attitude that will light the way.