US Nordic combined team eyeing Olympics as World Cup begins
November 20, 2013
Park City, Utah — An Olympic medal can't be lost in December, and it certainly can't be won. Still, the February's 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, cast a shadow over the lives of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team members during the summer and fall, and when they take to the snow when the World Cup circuit kicks off late this month, it will be with Sochi in mind.
U.S. team members trained through a cloudy day Wednesday at team headquarters in Park City, Utah, jumping early then working through intervals with rollerskis on treadmills. Their focus, however, was thousands of miles away in Kuusamo, Finland, site of the Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 World Cup opener.
The first overseas stint of the season for the team will last about a month and will give the squad the first hints of where it stands compared with the rest of the world. After an up-and-down campaign in the 2012-13 winter, the Americans are hoping they'll see the fruits of a grueling summer early and often.
"We're going into it confident and making sure what we're doing on the jump hill and the cross-country course is on track, on par with what we're capable of," Bryan Fletcher said. "These events are a great time to make sure we're on track, and it's good if we're not yet because we'll have real feedback about what we need to change."
Last year certainly wasn't a bad one for the team — it did haul home a World Championship medal — but things never quite added up as seemed possible.
Five-time Olympian Todd Lodwick struggled so mightily with his jumping that he returned to the U.S. midway through the season in a bid to iron it out and regain confidence.
Gold medalist Billy Demong never finished higher than 12th individually in a World Cup.
Bryan Fletcher, who won the final World Cup event of the 2011-12 season, was solid all year but wasn't able to duplicate that feat. His best 2012-13 individual result was a sixth-place finish.
Taylor Fletcher established himself as perhaps the circuit's premier cross-country skier and raced his way to his first individual World Cup podium, a third-place finish in January. More often, however, his jumping left him too far off the pace for him to threaten a high finish.
But the team says there are plenty of reasons for optimism this season. The squad was at its best when it was all together in relay events. There, it accounted for three of the team's four podiums on the winter.
It's hoping that can be the basis of a strong start this winter.
"We are already great," Lodwick said. "It's a matter of executing what we worked on all summer. … I'm excited to get this first World Cup under the belt."
After a pair of competitions in Finland, the World Cup heads to Lillehammer, Norway. It also stops in Austria and Germany before a two-week break over the holidays, when the team will return home. By that point, the U.S. skiers hope to know exactly where their training focus needs to be heading into January.
Finally, the Olympics and all the associated goals loom in February.
"It would be a dream come true," said Brett Denney, considering the prospects of making the Olympic team.
Denney won't start in Kuusamo but will get his fifth World Cup start a week later in Lillehammer. The pressure to perform will be on for the Steamboat Springs skier, but if he comes through, he could be the favorite to lock down the fifth and final Olympic team spot.
"That's been my dream forever," he said. "In Steamboat, that's what every kid thinks about."