Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Brotherly love: Steamboat’s Bryan and Taylor Fletcher share a passion for Nordic combined

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— Both Bryan and Taylor Fletcher readily admit that the quality of their answers come and go.

What do people expect, anyway? They aren’t movie stars. They’re athletes who have surged in recent seasons to make up the core of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, they’re Steamboat Springs natives and they’re two of the town’s best hope to score medals at the looming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Faced with 15 hours of questions from national media and interviews in front of NBC and ESPN cameras, their energy levels wavered.

“It’s hard not to say the same thing over and over,” said Taylor, who at 23 is the younger brother of the pair, preparing for his second Olympics.

Bryan and Taylor are brothers, of course, and throughout more than a dozen interviews, it became clear that the wider world finds their relationship very interesting.

“What is it like competing with your brother? How do you guys work together?” said Bryan, 27, repeating the questions that come in waves.

“Early in the day, you struggle with the questions, then you get really good,” Bryan continued. “Then you get tired and aren’t as good. Then you’d reinvent the story and get really good again. It was like a roller-coaster ride.”

It was intense, and when they stumbled out into the dark of the night after a full day of interviews, they felt a little lucky.

They had seen the interview schedules for their more famous U.S. Olympic Ski Team teammates, superstars like Shaun White and gold medalists like fellow Nordic combined athlete Bill Demong. Those bigger names sustained three days of interviews, and compared to that, one day in the chairs didn’t seem so bad.

But despite their joy in being released — free to get out of a chair and back to training, where they feel at home — they couldn’t shake another emotion as they considered the fate of their gold medal-winning teammates.

“In the back of your head, you’re envious,” Taylor said. “I want that same thing.”

The path to Olympic glory isn’t simple for either brother, but with the 2014 Winter Olympics only weeks away, they’re as focused on their goals as they’ve ever been. They’ve spent years preparing, building their lives around training and travel schedules, learning to absorb the bumps and bruises, intricacies and occasional triumphs that define life on the Nordic combined World Cup circuit.

The dreams of competing in Nordic combined and at the Olympics have overcome them, and now, they quite literally dream about it.

Competitive and complementary

So, what is it like competing with your brother?

It has its ups and downs.

Most of the time, they’re ups.

The Fletcher brothers are different in oh-so-many ways, physically and personality wise. Taylor is taller, a bit more of a natural athlete, but he said having Bryan as a trailbreaker in terms of getting into Nordic combined and aspiring to the U.S. team was priceless.

Their skills complement each other to the point that if you could combine the brothers’ sets of abilities, you may come up with an unbeatable champion.

Bryan has been the more balanced competitor this season and a better jumper in recent years. Taylor, on the other hand, is so fast skiing in the cross-country portion that he passes more people than a sirens-blaring ambulance on a busy highway.

“We’re competing against each other but also using each other’s strengths to help better our weaknesses,” Bryan said.

It’s not always all wonderful, however. In 2010, for instance, they both stumbled into difficult moments.

Bryan started out the 2009-10 season as the favorite to lock down the fifth Olympic spot on the U.S. Nordic combined team. He would have served as the alternate in the team relay event — an official member of the U.S. Olympic team for the first time in his life.

After spending only half the season on the World Cup circuit the winter before, he got the nod from coaches to start the Olympic year with the A team.

“There was risk involved,” Bryan said. “I knew if I didn’t perform perfectly in the World Cup and get points, it would potentially cost me the Olympics.

“I knew that was my opportunity to shine.”

He didn’t.

He didn’t log a finish higher than 35th — top 30 finishers earn World Cup points — in the two months leading up to the Olympics.

Taylor, meanwhile, got several World Cup starts of his own, and in the fourth one, in Val di Fiemme, Italy, he finished 29th, scoring points and placing himself solidly in fifth among U.S. skiers.

“The coaches didn’t really have a choice,” Bryan said, recalling the heartbreak.

He sprained his ankle soon afterward, cementing the decision. The two were rooming together at the time, and the coaches informed Taylor he was in for the 2010 Olympics, initially swearing him to silence.

“Mom didn’t even know I was going for a while,” Taylor said. “I told other teammates Bryan and I don’t room well together because I knew it wasn’t going to be a fun week when he found out, but unfortunately, we were still rooming together when he did find out he wasn’t going and I was.”

It set off a bizarre mix of emotions for Bryan — utter disappointment in his own predicament and somehow, somewhere, pride in his brother’s achievement.

“It was obvious I wasn’t on my game, performing at the level I needed to be at,” he said.

Four years later, Bryan hasn’t forgotten that experience. Instead, it’s one of many that have helped shape him into one of the team’s best threats for an individual medal.

If he’s learned anything in four years, it’s that there’s a fine line separating most skiers from the elite.

Learning to adapt

Bryan responded to missing the 2010 Olympics by changing his focus as a Nordic combined athlete.

He had, to some degree, neglected jumping leading up to that season, dedicating extra focus on his cross-country skiing, which he thought had more potential to pay off. When it didn’t, he resolved to split himself more evenly between the disciplines.

That meant losing the 25 pounds of weight holding him back on the jump hill because flying a few extra feet in the air can shave precious seconds off the start in the cross-country ski portion.

It meant reorganizing his life, improving his time management and hitting every workout throughout the summer with equal intensity.

“I learned more about myself than I’d ever known,” he said.

He responded by earning his first World Cup top-10 finish in the ensuing season. In 2012, he earned his first win, soaring ahead of the field to win the King’s Cup, the final and most prestigious event of the year.

That following summer, hoping to capitalize on what had been a career highlight, he learned another lesson.

“I wanted it,” he said. “I thought I needed to work even harder to prove I can do it, and I trained 100 percent every day. I never gave myself an opportunity to rest.”

When he hit the season last winter, he was wiped out, tired and ineffective. Bryan finally decided midway through the season to cut his workouts in half, and finally began to flourish.

He was in the top 10 in five of his final eight World Cup starts last season and helped the team — with Taylor, Demong and Todd Lodwick — in February to a third-place medal at the World Ski Championships in Italy.

“It took me half the season to realize I was overtrained and under-recovered,” he said.

This past summer, Bryan tried to find that recipe for success again, balancing hard work with adequate rest and intensity with sanity.

Showing yet again that nothing is easy, the results have been mixed early. He’s been as high as fourth in a team relay and seventh in an individual event, and as low as 28th. That’s not counting the first race of the year, when he had to sit out after he didn’t log a long enough jump to make the race field.

When fast isn’t enough

Taylor has had an equally mixed series of results since 2010.

He got the chance to race in those Olympics in the men’s large hill event. He finished dead last, but as one of the youngest competitors in the field, he soaked up the experience.

Taylor’s skiing has distinguished him in the past four years, and in 2013, it shot him to the top of the field.

He earned his first individual top-10 finish, placing 10th in January 2013, then followed that up with a fifth-place showing a week later. Then the day after that, competing in Schonach, Germany, he was third, making his World Cup podium debut thanks in large part to his incredible performances on the cross-country course.

He was on the medal-winning team at the World Championships and closed out the season in Norway with two more strong performances — getting fifth and 11th.

“I knew my racing was fast, so that took a lot of pressure off so I could focus on jumping,” he said.

With the ability to depend on one of the fastest ski times on the circuit week in and week out, jumping seemed to be the only thing holding Taylor back.

A new jumping coach with the U.S. team — Marc Noelke, who had worked with the German and Austrian teams — helped, and by the end of the summer training session, Taylor was convinced he was close.

“I’m definitely jumping the best I’ve ever jumped,” he said in November, a week before leaving for the start of the World Cup season.

He radiated strength and was eager and confident, sure of himself and his path.

That training didn’t pay off in competitions, however. Taylor struggled even to get into the races in the first part of the World Cup season, when jumpers outside the top 50 in a provisional jumping competition weren’t allowed to participate in the actual event.

Goals that had included multiple podiums and a top-10 finish in the season-long World Cup standings were adjusted as frustration grew.

“It was very tough,” Taylor said. “To not be able to get into races was very tough, very challenging. It really tore me apart, broke me down and crushed me a little to where I wasn’t confident, and I wasn’t as sure of myself.”

He bounced back early this month, showcasing that speed he’d been banking on when he notched back-to-back sixth-place World Cup finishes in Chaikovskiy, Russia. But last week, competing in France, he struggled again, missing a race because of poor jumping for the fifth time in nine events.

Aiming to peak

Both Bryan and Taylor Fletcher want medals in Sochi.

They don’t need medals. They say all the right things about a fourth-place finish that truly represented their best effort being good enough, but they won’t deny it. They still want medals.

Just how good anyone thinks their chances are depends on how much faith one puts into the idea of improving as the season goes along and peaking at the biggest event.

Considering the team’s success in recent big events — the 2009 and 2013 World Championships and the 2010 Olympics — there’s reason to believe.

“Our team does a really good job training to peak,” Bryan said. “It’s one of the things in the last five years we’ve been renowned for, peaking during the big events and really stepping up our game.”

Bryan, perhaps the team’s best jumper in recent years, has proven he can ski with the best this year, too. He’s logged top-five ski times in three races this year.

He can jump. He can ski. He can win a medal.

“I’m happy with the way I’ve been skiing, and the jumping is coming around,” he said. “It’s going in the right direction, and every day, we’re making progress or learning new things.

“This is the best start to a World Cup season I’ve ever had, and hopefully, I’ll continue to build on that.”

When Taylor races, he makes it clear that he hasn’t lost any of the speed that set him apart a winter ago.

When he landed in the top 10 in those two Russian races earlier this month, he had the fastest ski times in the 10-kilometer cross-country ski portion by absurd amounts — 26 seconds one day and 38 the other. He passed a total of 80 competitors in the two days of competition.

“It doesn’t even phase me,” he said about passing legions of world-class athletes. “I’m focused on going forward, and I don’t realize it. When I was passing people, I was passing them in groups, and I didn’t realize that some of the groups were 15 or 20 skiers. It goes really quickly.

“On one of the laps coming into the stadium, there was a big group that was taking up the whole track,” Taylor continued. “I felt like a race car trying to weave through them to get through all the different athletes. That was a challenge.”

At the Olympics, he’ll get to compete no matter how far he jumps. Competing in Sochi at a World Cup event a year ago, he jumped to 15th and moved up to fifth.

If he jumps to 15th when he returns to that hill, watch out.

Going all in

Bryan and Taylor Fletcher aren’t the same children who grew up in Steamboat Springs. They live in Park City, Utah, now to be closer to the U.S. team for training. They’ve built their lives there.

The Euro-centric nature of their sport has had an impact, too. They measure their weight in kilograms and their height in centimeters without thinking twice.

But given the chance, they gush about Steamboat Springs and the opportunities growing up in Ski Town USA, with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, provided.

It’s where Bryan fought and beat lymphoblastic leukemia for seven long years between ages 3 and 10. It’s where he learned to love Nordic combined — at first an outlet from that battle — and where, four years behind him, Taylor developed that same love.

It’s still “home,” and it’s where they learned to dream about the Olympics, and yes, they do dream about the Olympics.

They dream about it, and not in the figurative sense.

“How can you not think about it when for your whole entire summer, day in and day out, all day long, this is what we do?” Taylor asked.

Of course, the finish line often lingers there deep in the back of their minds during a hot July workout.

“Every training session, you’re thinking about it,” Bryan said in November in Park City. “Today, I was doing intervals and thinking about approaching the finish line at the Olympics. My heart rate went up 20 beats.”

Just as Nordic combined and the prospect of the Olympics have changed their daily lives, it’s changed their nights, too. They dream about the Olympics when they sleep, often in the kind of dreams that, when they wake up, force them to look around to make positively sure they’re not in a ski race, flying through the Caucasus Mountains on Russia’s southern frontier. They’re the kind of dreams that make them check their feet to confirm they aren’t wearing skis and to wipe their brows to make sure they aren’t sweating.

“As unconscious as I am sleeping, I have vivid dreams about it,” Taylor said. “I can tell you exactly what the course is like in Sochi. I’ve skied it two times, but I dream about it all the time.”

And now it’s time. The Olympics loom only weeks away.

A goal will be reached when they toe the line to compete on their sport’s grandest stage, but the Fletcher brothers dream about more, and they’re on the doorstep of the chance to live that dream.

“It’s what we live for,” Taylor said.

In his words

It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

The rest of the team that day wasn’t going, and they were sending me down, to be the only one going, because the rest had a competition two days later. I left that morning at, like, 10 a.m. and got home that night at 2:30 a.m. It was a super long day, but really cool.

You get ready, hop on a bus, go to the stadium with hundreds of other U.S. athletes and the rest of the world. You get to look across the stadium and see someone that you’ve seen on TV at previous Olympics. Everyone there is cheering for you.

You walk into the stadium, it’s so loud and there are flashes. Whenever you look at the Super Bowl, you see all the sparkle, the flashes from the cameras. That’s all you see in the stands. You don’t see faces. It’s camera after camera.

You look up and you have the guy in the front waving the flag for the opening ceremony, and you look back and everyone behind you is cheering and waving and super excited to be there. It’s a warm atmosphere, and everyone had a really good time. I got to meet a lot of great people I’m still in touch with today.

Taylor Fletcher, 2010 Olympic alternate on what it was like to enter the stadium

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

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