Taylor Fletcher hoping to jump clear of problems
December 16, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Taylor Fletcher takes comfort in the fact that he's never started strong.
Many Nordic combined World Cup events only allocate competition spots to the top 50 jumpers in a provisional round, and a year ago Fletcher, a Steamboat Springs-born U.S. Nordic combined team skier, didn't jump well enough to race at any of the early World Cup stops.
He had a breakout season two winters ago, the 2012-13 campaign, and even that year, he got off to a rough start.
"I hate being on the sidelines, watching other people race," he said. "But when I look back, it's not like I've ever really done super well in those first couple of competitions. I have to realize it's not the end of the world."
Fletcher again is off to a slow start to the season this winter. Of the three individual World Cup events he's entered, he's competed in just one, the season's first in Ruka, Finland, that didn't cut competitors after the provisional round.
Now he's with the team — which also includes Bryan Fletcher, Adam Loomis and, for the first time this season, Billy Demong — in Ramsau, Austria, preparing for another weekend of World Cup action, and he's reminding himself of another trend that has emerged in his six years racing at the top level: He's always gotten better as the season has gone on.
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Last year was a fine example.
A bumpy ride through the early schedule fed a so-so performance by the entire team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and after missing the cut at several more World Cup stops after Sochi, Fletcher was feeling finished.
"I was ready to go home and I talked to (coach Dave Jarrett) for a long time," Fletcher said. "I decided to stick it out a few more weeks."
He hung on, but knowing he could have left somehow freed his mind. In four of the last events of the season, he logged four of his best finishes, including two in the top 15. In the last event against the cream of the World Cup crop in Falun, Sweden, he jumped 25th and raced to 11th.
"It calmed me down, and I just started doing it," Fletcher said. "I was in a much cleaner state of mind. I was more relaxed. It was the end of the season, and that's when it just clicked."
Home field, little advantage
The problems now, as they've been in recent season for the U.S. team, are beginning and ending on the jump hill.
Bryan Fletcher has recorded the best jumps on the team this year and has yet to jump better than 32nd in a competition.
He's skied well enough to make up for that, up to eighth place in the most recent World Cup event, but it's a problem that plagues the whole team.
Of the eight entries the team had in the last two World Cups in Lillehammer, Norway, only three provisional jumps were strong enough to get athletes into the actual events, which took 50 of 65 competitors on each day.
Those same issues were glaring even last weekend at a Continental Cup event — the level below the World Cup — in Park City, Utah.
In the past, elite U.S. skiers have used those races as a tune-up. Demong and Todd Lodwick have racked up wins in that series in recent seasons when it's been on U.S. soil.
All told, U.S. skiers, often home during a break from the World Cup, have accounted for 10 wins, 16 podiums and 34 top-10 finishes in 18 United States Continental Cup races in the past five years.
This year, Taylor Fletcher was fifth and eighth in the two events, representing the U.S. team's only top-10 finishes. It was the first year since 2006 a Continental Cup race was in the United States and a U.S. team member didn't win one.
Mediocre-at-best jumping results defined the team, though Fletcher was fast enough on his skis to make up for it.
"Yes and no," Fletcher said, debating whether or not the team's results were troubling.
Continental Cups can be finicky in their talent level, and whipping Utah winds and a make-do cross country ski course set up on a slope usually used for tubing by vacationers made things more unpredictable than usual.
"Yes, I would have liked to have won one of those," he said.
He didn't have a great chance either day, thanks in part to a pair of excellent performances from Austrian World Cup veteran Tomaz Druml, who swept the top spot both days.
Fletcher jumped to 20th and 26th and finished 40 seconds back one day and 1:47 back the other.
"I didn't ski as well as I know I'm capable of," he said. "I know I can ski better, and I plan to this weekend."
Focusing in, jumping far
Fletcher said he saw progress in his Utah jumping, even if he didn't win one of the competitions. He's hoping it begins to show on the World Cup level this week.
He said the key will be in his aggressiveness.
"I wasn't being aggressive and I wasn't jumping like I normally could," he said. "I wasn't initiating my jump. I was more or less reacting to the jump. That's the biggest thing for me.
"If I can start my move on my own and not react to it, it's going to come out a lot better."
Jump more aggressive — if only it were as simple as it sounds.
There are other things Fletcher has changed, hoping for that spark.
He shed "5 kilos." (That's 11 pounds for those who don't spend as much time in Europe as Fletcher does.)
He was in shape before and he's in shape now, but he said cutting the mass can make a big difference in a sport involving flying.
He's tinkered with equipment and adjusted his heel block to give him a more forward, aggressive stance.
Meanwhile, his skiing certainly hasn't left him. He had the first- and third-fastest cross country times on the course in Utah, and that was a skiing performance he said he wasn't thrilled with.
He had the second-fastest time in the field in the one individual World Cup he's competed in.
"It's something that can change in one jump," he said. "You can go from not making the cut to jumping into position to have a chance at the podium."
How does he know?
Because he did it last year, and he's hoping to do it again.
"I proved it last year when I missed 75 percent of the competitions, then in Oslo had a legitimate shot at a podium. In Falun, I had the best jumping result of my career.
"I have to continue to believe it's going to work and it will happen.”