Game changer: Growing family makes life on the World Cup circuit difficult
Bryan Fletcher has spent a decade skiing the World Cup in Europe, but leaving home has never been this difficult
Steamboat Springs — Like any new parent, Bryan Fletcher talks about his baby at work.
He swaps stories with his co-workers and sometimes a few sleeping tips. They take turns passing around smartphones, too, grinning widely at the shots of a young child waiting at home while dad’s on the job.
Unlike most parents, however, Fletcher’s conversations typically occur atop a ski jump in a snowy corner of Europe, and they come with some of the best athletes on the Nordic combined circuit — Germans and Austrians, Finns and Norwegians.
“We talk about the joys of parenting,” said Fletcher, in his ninth year representing the United States in the Nordic combined World Cup. “We don’t really talk about training too much or anything like that. We talk about what it’s like to be a parent and to be traveling the World Cup circuit, what it’s like to be away from family.”
Fletcher, born and raised in Steamboat Springs, and his wife, Nikki Fletcher, welcomed their first child, a daughter named Ellery Ardene, in August, and they said it changed their lives in all the ways a first child does.
They’re not just any family, however. Bryan spends months at a time on the road during winter, and usually a month or two training in Europe in summer and fall.
Both raising a child and competing in elite Nordic combined events are difficult. Together? It’s been a challenge the Fletchers, living near Park City, Utah, have learned to, for now, tolerate.
Life cycle progession
An athlete going from a young, single teenager to a married adult in his late 20s or early 30s is a lifecycle administrators on teams like the U.S. Nordic combined team come to know well. Dave Jarrett is certainly familiar, as he’s watched — either as a fellow competitor or, in the past decade, as a coach — athletes such as Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Billy Demong go from one step to the next.
The Spillanes had their first child, Hadley, in summer 2010, only months after Johnny won three silver medals at the Winter Olympics. Olympic gold medalist Billy Demong’s young son, Liam, was there at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to welcome his father to the finish line of Nordic combined events.
Moments like that are wonderful.
Others are more difficult.
“The travel got a lot harder,” said Spillane, who competed for three more years as his oldest daughter grew and his youngest, Genevieve, was born.
“You miss the experiences your wife and your child are having without you,” he said. “That was the hardest part for me.”
Those families offered the Fletchers at least some idea what they were diving into, but added only so much preparation is possible.
“I’ve had some good role models,” Nikki Fletcher said. “I definitely reached out to Hillary (Spillane) and Katie (Demong) and said, ‘How do you do this?’”
Loads of help
There are worse situations. The Fletchers are well aware of that, considering military families split by deployments, or single mothers or fathers who raise children alone all year instead of only several months at a time.
“It’s obviously difficult, but there are a lot of single, hard-working parents who have less support in their lives,” Nikki Fletcher said. “We’re really lucky we have a lot of help.”
That help has come from near and far. Between trips to Utah from Nikki Fletcher’s family, spread between California and Wisconsin, and Bryan’s, still in Steamboat Springs, they’ve been able to frequently have help on hand.
Still, raising a child with one parent living a World Cup skier’s life comes with unique difficulties, even when the whole family’s at home.
There are occasionally some difficult moments late at night; a crying baby at 4 a.m. brings questions such as, “Who’s turn is it?” or, “What’s Bryan’s training day look like tomorrow?”
If it’s a big day, it could mean it’s Nikki Fletcher’s turn to wake up, no matter who answered the bell last time.
“There are definitely moments where I think, ‘Boy, this is a little unbalanced,’” Nikki Fletcher said, laughing. “Still, we knew what we were getting into when we decided to have a baby.”
When both are at home there’s a carefully calculated schedule to ensure someone’s on Ellery duty, but even detailed plans can have flaws.
An autumn afternoon was thrown into disarray, when training on the jumping hill was postponed by several hours.
Nikki Fletcher was at work when Bryan called from home.
“I said, ‘Listen, babe, that’s on you. I’m at work,’” she said. “I told him to take her to the hill and ask someone to hold her or put her in the carrier when he jumped.”
Ellery’s already made plenty of trips to Park City’s Center of Excellence U.S. team training gym. When dad Bryan’s taking a turn on the treadmill, uncle Taylor Fletcher, Bryan’s younger brother and also a member of the U.S. Nordic combined team, steps in to entertain.
“He’s super uncle,” Nikki Fletcher said.
Ellery’s logged late nights and early mornings watching via internet TV streams as her father competes in far-flung locations. Bryan Fletcher’s also spent plenty of time on Facetime, checking in on video to see how the family’s doing when he’s overseas.
“FaceTime’s pretty much key,” Bryan Fletcher said. “We do that almost every day, and it’s a brief window back into your home life. It keeps you connected.”
It doesn’t account for every moment.
“The hardest thing isn’t the 2 a.m. feeds by myself,” Nikki Fletcher said. “The hardest part is knowing she’s changing. He’s gone five weeks this time. When he comes back, she’ll be a totally different baby. Every day, she’s doing something different.”
Earlier this week, it was the first test with solid food that ended up a mess.
“She’s growing so fast, and it makes me sad he’s missing it,” she said. “He can’t turn back time and go back and see the first time she put sweet potatoes in her mouth and spit them all over. That’s the hardest part.”
It hasn’t changed Bryan Fletcher’s career timeline, but it’s helped reinforce ideas he was already entertaining.
The 2018 Winter Olympics loom less than a year away — in February in PyeongChang, South Korea. He has already had a successful career, winning a World Championship bronze medal in a 2013 relay and a World Cup in 2012.
A second Olympics would be another accomplishment, and, considering what he’s missing back home, it could be enough for him to call it a career. Whether that’s the end, or whether he competes another year at the World Championships in Seefeld, Austria, the finish line is close.
“For a lot of athletes, a child means all of the sudden, the sport looks a little different. It changes it,” he said. “They think in the back of their head, ‘It’s so hard to be away. I could be home enjoying life with my family.’”
In the short term, Bryan Fletcher has several more weeks in Europe, finishing off the 2016-17 World Cup schedule. Beyond that, the end may be a year or two away.
For now, however, he’s doing his best with daily FaceTime updates and plenty of photos from home, sloppy sweet potatoes included — photos he’s always quick to share with the fellow dads in his office, waiting their turn at the top of a snowy ski jump.
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