Autumn in the Alps: U.S. Nordic combined skiers log months in Europe
Steamboat Springs — They didn’t get away from the National Football League.
In fact, that became a touchstone for half a dozen Nordic combined athletes who spent some or all of the past three months living and training in Europe.
Sunday nights gathered around the TV gave them a taste of home, and having dived head-first into life in Solvenia, that was welcome.
“It helped us keep sanity,” Steamboat Springs Nordic combined athlete Ben Berend said.
Everything else, however, was foreign — until it wasn’t.
That was the idea, they said.
Spending part of the summer or fall in Europe is nothing new for U.S. Nordic combined athletes. They usually take part in the Summer Grand Prix Nordic combined events, flying from all-season ski jumps and racing on roller skis. They’ve also long turned to the Alps for important training camps, a way to hone focus and skills as the season approaches.
This year, however, some athletes straight up moved in.
A pair of Steamboat Springs skiers, Koby Vargas and Grant Andrews, spent most of the past three months in Europe. Others, including U.S. team skiers Jasper Good, Adam Loomis and Berend, logged two months in Slovenia. Ben Loomis and Stephen Schumann both spent time there, while World Cup staple Taylor Fletcher was there a month, and Bryan Fletcher, a new father as of this fall, was there 10 days.
It required some getting used to.
“I only learned enough Slovenian to make sure people understand I didn’t speak Slovenian,” Vargas said.
Still, the athletes warmed to some parts of the culture. Afternoon coffee and cake grew to be a staple for Berend. The history imbedded in every village they passed fascinated others.
“The oldness really hits you,” Vargas said.
Ultimately, it proved just the kind of unplugged experience they had hoped for, and the extended stay may become a regular feature of Nordic combined summers for U.S. athletes.
Martin Bayer, who coached several years for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club before moving up to the U.S. Nordic Combined Team, has taken up residency in Planica, Slovenia, and the team’s newest coach, Austrian jumping expert Nik Huber, also lives nearby.
It’s a new setup for the team, but one that’s proven more sustainable and cheaper than having traveling coaches live out of hotels for weeks at a time during competitions and camps.
“Before, we didn’t have staff that could stay on the road for eight or nine weeks,” U.S. coach Dave Jarrett said. “For those young guys, this was great. It made a huge difference.”
That same advantage trickled down to the visiting athletes, who rented an apartment rather than stay in a hotel.
The simple act of living out of a dresser and closet rather than a suitcase proved enormous.
“It’s nice to be able to really settle in and focus on training,” Taylor Fletcher said. “Before, we’ve always gone over there, moved around a bunch, and it doesn’t feel the same. This time, I was able to get into a good rhythm, focus on jumping enough and make sure I wasn’t losing anything on the cross country side.”
Time to focus
They all learned plenty about Nordic combined during the stay.
Slovenia is a small nation wedged in the Alps between Italy, Austria and Hungary. It has its own language, which rendered any German or Italian the U.S. skiers may have picked up through the years mostly useless.
That has an advantage, too. It creates an atmosphere almost of sensory deprivation for visiting athletes, a place they can focus intently on their sport.
“It’s so focused over there,” Berend said. “There’s nothing else we’re doing. We don’t know anyone over there. You train, and you do your homework and you sleep.”
Still, Slovenia is far from remote and is actually right in the heart of the Nordic combined world. Many of the World Cup venues are within several hours, and the European teams are always around training.
A young jumper like Vargas, 18 years old, would be working on the same jumping hill not just with several U.S. World Cup veterans, but potentially, with dozens.
“Not being the only game is town at the hill is key, to have some contact with the other teams,” Jarrett said. “You don’t get that when you’re squirreled away by yourself in Park City or Steamboat Springs.”
It’s a big season for the U.S. team, with the World Championships looming late next winter. The squad was in Steamboat this weekend for a fundraiser and took time Friday and Saturday to work with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
World Championship medalists, such as the Fletchers, waited in the jumping flats for Steamboat and Park City skiers and offered advice and high fives as the young athletes worked through one of their final training days on the plastic jumps.
It made for a quick break from their own training, though they’ll be tuned back in shortly. The World Cup is only a month away, kicking off Nov. 26 in Ruka, Finland.
That’ll mean a trip back to Europe for the U.S. athletes, where they hope they’ll be more comfortable than they’ve ever been.
“Mostly, when I was there, I realized how close we are to being where we want to be,” Berend said.
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