Flipped Nordic combined competition at Winter Start a challenge embraced by SSWSC athlete Bennett Gamber
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The blustery winds and gray skies quieted the excitement of the Winter Start Nordic combined competition at Howelsen Hill on Saturday morning.
Cars packed the parking lot, but athletes and spectators stayed indoors, waiting for conditions to subside. Last year, they were hoping for snow like this, postponing the Winter Start competition by a week due to warm weather and low snowpack. Now, they just needed the weather to calm down.
The Nordic combined competition normally starts with a ski jump and follows with a seeded cross country race based on jump performance. That means, normally, the cross country race determines the winner.
U20 Men, Nordic combined
1. Jared Shumate, USA Nordic
2. Bennett Gamber, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club
3. Niklas Malacinski, SSWSC
7. Erik Belshaw, SSWSC
9. Gunnar Gilbertson, SSWSC
10. Canden Wilkinson, SSWSC
Senior Men, Nordic combined
1. Grant Andrews, USA Nordic
2. Erik Lynch, SSWSC
U20 Female, HS100 Special Jumping
1. Annika Belshaw, USA Nordic
2. Paige Jones, Park City Ski and Snowboard
3. Anna Hoffman, PCSS
10. Tess Arnone, SSWSC
11. Adeline Swanson, SSWSC
U20 Male, HS100 Special Jumping
1. Decker Dean, USA Nordic
2. Jared Shumate, USA Nordic
3. Andrew Urlaub, PCSS
4. Bennett Gamber, SSWSC
6. Canden Wilkinson, SSWSC
9. Erik Belshaw, SSWSC
10. Gunnar Gilbertson, SSWSC
13. Niklas Malacinski, SSWSC
Senior Female, HS100 Special Jumping
1. Logan Sankey, USA Nordic
Senior Male, HS100 Special Jumping
1. Casey Larson, USA Nordic
2. Matthew Soukup, Team Canada
3. Grant Andrews, USA Nordic
7. Erik Lynch, SSWSC
U16 Female, HS75 Special Jumping
1. Rachel Haerter, PCSS
2. Adeline Swanson, Central Ski Jumping
3. Daisy Forester, CEN
4. Tess Arnone, SSWSC
5. Alexa Brabec, SSWSC
U16 Male, HS75 Special Jumping
1. Erik Belshaw, SSWSC
2. Zach Selzman, PCSS
3. Gunnar Gilbertson, SSWSC
8. Thomas Miller, SSWSC
U18 Male, HS 75 Special Jumping
1. Landon Lee, CEN
2. Tim Ziegler, CEN
3. Logan Gundry, CEN
But, as the morning progressed, the winds stayed equally as treacherous for jumpers. There are certain degrees of wind athletes can jump in, but it doesn’t necessarily depend on wind speed — it depends on direction. A tail wind is a disadvantage for jumpers, making them land early. A headwind is an advantage, providing more lift for the jumpers. Like a plane in the sky, jumpers would like a little headwind for liftoff.
Neither were the case on Saturday. A sideways wind would blow the jumpers to either side of the jump, instead of straight, making it too risky.
“We don’t want kids going sideways in the air,” Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club associate executive director Jon Nolting said.
The conditions forced the SSWSC to flip the competition, beginning with the cross country race. This meant, instead of the jump seeding the race, athletes began the race in a mass start. The jump, slated for 4 p.m. that evening, would determine the winner through a special process of calculations.
Nolting recalls being at a competition once with the flipped format, saying it actually ended in a tie, which normally doesn’t happen in Nordic combined, even with a close finish in the cross country race.
Steamboat Springs had multiple athletes in the U20 and senior division 10-kilometer cross country race, including Bennett Gamber and Niklas Malicinski. It would be the first race of the day.
Gamber, 17, one of SSWSC’s top Nordic combined athletes, had been itching all morning to kick off his winter season, which was apparent as he started on pace with the front pack of skiers.
Approaching the fourth lap of competition, athletes Jared Shumate, Grant Andrews and Aidan Ripp broke away from the pack to make way towards the finish. Gamber remained within a pack of three skiers until the bitter end. Coming down the final stretch, Gamber slid to the outside to attempt to pass the two other skiers, but he finished behind them in sixth place with a time of 29 minutes and 56 seconds.
“I’m really happy with how I did,” Gamber said. “I was trying really hard, and then this last corner came around and I tried to make a move on the farthest side and got a ton of wind, but it blew me back.”
Windy days like Saturday are especially not advantageous for Gamber, one of the shortest Nordic combined athletes. But he has a strategy to overcome his deficits.
“I’m only 152 centimeters,” Gamber said. “And everyone else is 169-170, so it’s hard to compare. I’m more affected by wind because I’m so much lighter, but it does help getting drafts when they’re bigger, and I’m smaller. I can kind of slip in, but I’ve got to stay more efficient. I always have a faster stride to try to lengthen it out and be as efficient as possible.”
If placed in the top seven at the end of competition, Gamber will have a chance to compete in the Continental Cup in two weeks in Steamboat Springs. A spot in a prestigious international competition could earn him points towards a place on the U.S. Ski Team. But, this is also one of three qualifiers for the World Junior Championship Team, which is another one of his goals this season.
“It’s been all his life that he’s been shorter than average,” SSWSC U16/U18 Nordic combined head coach Karl Denney said. “But, he basically has just amplified his tenacity and everything out there during practice. He’s out there to prove that size doesn’t matter, that he can keep up no matter what. He takes that to pretty much everything. Shows up in races, too.”
On days like these, where the competition is flipped, Gamber says the mental game plays a big role in athletes’ performance. He’s experienced the flipped competition before at junior nationals in Anchorage, Alaska, this past March. But, to him, it felt like home being in a snowstorm.
It’s easy to assume that winter is the favorite of all the athletes competing in Nordic combined. They’re coming off a summer of jumping on plastic, but this has been the first week of winter jumping in Steamboat Springs, and Gamber said it would be interesting to see how well everyone performed in winter conditions again.
Later that day, it was announced the jumping competition was postponed until Sunday, Dec. 2. Gamber took his practice jump at 10 a.m. on a sunny, 6 degree day. He finished with jumps at 86 and 91 meters.
Gamber finished at second overall in Class U20 men, behind Jared Shumate.
“Whoever is strongest mentally can really push through and thrive in this kind of situation.” Gamber said.
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