Flying in: Ben Berend looking for racing to match his big jumps | SteamboatToday.com

Flying in: Ben Berend looking for racing to match his big jumps

Ben Berend celebrates in the leader's box Friday at the World Ski Championships first Nordic combined event. He didn't lead for long but did have a solid jump on the day. He led for much longer last month at a World Cup in France, when he jumped to second place.

— At its best, ski jumping feels like flight, and on Jan. 21, Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier Ben Berend flew.

"I remember coming off the takeoff, and it was just so effortless," he said. You're not fighting anything. You feel like everything's working for you as opposed to against you. You're just getting carried to the bottom of the hill without doing anything.

"It's such an awesome feeling."

The World Cup is not new to Berend. He's been competing on the circuit on and off for three seasons. He's been more "on" this season than in any other, however, and never in his 25 starts has he flown as he did that day.

Competing in Chaux-Neuve, France, he leaped into second place, unheard of territory for the U.S. team in recent years. The last time an American started the cross-country ski portion of a top-tier international Nordic combined event No. 2 or better was the 2010 Olympics, in which the U.S. captured four Nordic combined medals, three silvers and a gold. Johnny Spillane started second in one individual event there, and Todd Lodwick second in the other.

That's as lofty as the company gets in the world of American Nordic combined, but for Berend, the day became as much about what not to do in a race.

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Second at the start, he ended up 32nd, overall, just outside the vital World Cup points, awarded to the top 30 finishers and, overall, a result not very different than has been his average on the circuit.

Competing through the next 10 days with the U.S. team at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland, Berend's hoping to learn from those lessons, the good and the bad.

Jumping in

Berend may have soared in from out of the blue that day, but his result didn't. He had a good day, no doubt, but the 21-year old has put up some the best jumping results on the team this season.

He was 13th a day after his big second-place jump. In the first event of World Championships, Friday's normal hill 10-kilometer individual race, he jumped to 22nd place, second-best on the team.
"He's definitely shown in the World Cups he's capable of being among the very best jumpers in Nordic combined," U.S. coach Dave Jarrett said. "We suspected he had that potential. He's only going to get better."

He's lacked in consistency. He didn't crack the top 30 in jumping when the World Cup went to Austria a week after his big leap in France and only did so twice in events earlier in the season. But he's working on that.

He puts a focus on training himself to jump higher in the gym, a move not as conventional as logic would suggest. That means squats and plenty of work with hurdles.

"It doesn't seem like things have changed that much, but obviously, it has without realizing it," Berend said. "It's been little, small improvements every month over the last couple of years."

Those improvements showed in a big way Jan. 21. He was one of the competition's first jumpers and landed in first place. He then watched as the world's best Nordic combined athletes all tried to match his mark.

Eric Frenzel and Johannes Rydzek, the German duo who have dominated the World Cup circuit this season and who went gold-silver in Friday's event, both came up short. Japan's Akito Watabe, a World Cup winner in 2017, didn't beat him, either.

Finally, Norway's Jarl Magnus Riiber matched Berend's distance, then won out on landing points.

When the race started, it was Riiber in the front, then Berend and in third, Frenzel, eight times a World Cup winner this season alone.

"It's pretty special to start ahead of someone like Eric Frenzel," Jarrett said.

Pain train

That's where things went south for Berend.

There was a race plan he'd discussed with his coaches, and it was fairly simple.

Relax.

Maintain a reasonable pace, and when the big dogs catch up, try to link on to them and ride to as high a finish as possible.

That's easier said than down, however.

Berend took the biggest spotlight he's had in the sport, and he skied all out, sprinting away from the starting line and refusing to relent.

"I just couldn't do it," he said. "I was so psyched and I just … I went out there guns blazing."

Things seemed to be going great, at first. After the first of four 2.5-kilometer laps, Frenzel still lagged behind him.

He came into the day hoping for a top-30 finish, but that seemed in the bag. He began to hope for more. Top 20? Very doable. Top 10? Why not? Podium? Maybe.

But then, he paid the price for his enthusiasm. He began to slow, and Frenzel and a train of athletes blew by him. He tried to jump in, but skiers in the line did their best to keep him out.

They didn't expect Berend to be able to keep pace with the group leaders, and they didn't want to end up behind him and lose ground with him.

"It was very apparent I wasn't going to be holding on to them," Berend said. "They were crushing it. That's when I realized I was fighting for points."

More groups caught him, and he slipped out of the top 10, then out of the top 20.

His body screamed for his frenetic start, and he skied ever slower.

Finally, he made it to the finish line, but in 32nd place. He was 2 minutes and 26 seconds behind the day's winner, Rydzek, and 15 seconds behind 30th, the spot he needed more than anything.

He had finished with the 39th-best skiing time out of the 44-athlete field.

"I can laugh about it now," he said. "I know I'm capable of such a better race than that."

It could be awhile until he's ready to race as well as he's shown he can jump, but it may not take long for him to shine brightly enough to earn those points or to score a solid finish at the World Championships this week. 


His first dance with the front of the pack wasn't what he'd hoped, but if all goes well, his next could be.


"It takes years of endurance training to build that engine," Jarrett said. "He's going to continue to increase his training volume and get faster on the cross-country side. It won't take a giant leap for him to stay in the points. He's going to race faster next time."

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

Nordic combined World Championship Schedule

Friday:

Normal hill, 10K results

14- Bryan Fletcher

21- Taylro Fletcher

33- Adam Loomis

41- Ben Berend

Sunday: Normal hill, 20K four-man relay

March 1: Large hill, 10K

March 3: Large hill, 15K two-man relay