Olympic spots up for grabs for Steamboat skiers
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Someone’s about to earn a spot at the Olympics. That’s the simple part.
Analyzing the race for the four positions on the United States’ Nordic combined Olympic team can get complicated and confusing, bogged down by counting points and projecting results, but the eight members of the U.S. team, more than half of whom are from Steamboat Springs, can make it all very easy Saturday.
The U.S. Olympic Trials, which are set to begin at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah, will make everything very easy for one American skier. Win, and they get a spot on the team no matter their marks in any other qualifying standards.
“It’s really important to be able to know I’m going to the Olympics, guaranteed,” Bryan Fletcher said. “It would be pretty relieving to know.”
The Nordic combined event will wrap up with a 1 p.m. race Saturday. The men’s ski jumping Olympic trials will start at 10:30 a.m. Sunday with the women’s at 12:30 p.m.
Fletcher, a Steamboat Springs-born skier, may be the only member of the team who all but knows he’ll be there in PyeongChang, South Korea, when the 2018 Winter Olympics start Feb. 9.
He was the team’s top competitor a year ago and has won three of the last four national championships in Nordic combined, including this year’s, back in October in Lake Placid, New York.
He’s had the best start to the winter, as well, recording top-30 finishes in five of the six World Cups he’s entered and, a seventh-place finish Dec. 16 in Ramsau, Austria, his best result in nearly two years. He’s sitting at 19th in the World Cup rankings, the only one of his teammates to have earned any points on that circuit this season.
He’s basically guaranteed to make the Olympic team — his second — regardless of his finish Saturday, though there is one more carrot for him — a $10,000 winner-take-all cash prize.
“That would be a season-maker, for sure. That’s a pretty substantial amount of funding,” he said.
Winning Saturday’s competition would mean something a little different for the rest of the team, some of whom are on the path to a spot on the team but none of whom are ready to trade in some U.S. dollars for South Korean won, the country’s currency.
Taylor Fletcher is plenty eager to join his brother by securing a spot on the team. The early portion of the season hasn’t gone smoothly for the younger Fletcher, aiming to make his third Olympic team.
He didn’t jump well enough in the qualification round of the first five individual World Cup events to participate in the actual competitions. When he did make the cut in the sixth, an unfortunate twist with the weather erased his best jump of the season and bumped him to the back of the pack and eliminated a very solid chance at a top-30 finish. Those World Cup points would likely have put him on the Olympic team.
“I’ve put myself in a big pickle,” he said. “I don’t have any Continental Cup points or World Cup points, so on paper, I’m way back. Hopefully, this weekend I can put a good jump together and make my life a lot easier.”
If he can jump anywhere near the front of the pack, he’s shown over and over again he has the legs in the ski race to ski away with the victory.
“I’ve definitely been working hard to get in shape and get my jumping on track,” he said. “It’s close, and I’ve made a lot of progress.”
After that, there’s a pack of young skiers all vying to make a first Olympic appearance.
Ben Loomis, a 19-year old from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, set himself in a strong position to make the team and to challenge for the win Saturday with a big performance at a trio of Continental Cup events earlier this month in Steamboat Springs. He was fifth in each of the performances.
Adam Loomis, 25, and Ben Berend, 22, have the most World Cup starts of all except for the Fletchers. Jasper Good had the best weekend of Continental Cup racing earlier this month in Steamboat, recording two top-10 finishes. Stephen Schumann was top 20 every day in Steamboat and Grant Andrews top 30 on two of the three days.
“It’s going to be a dog fight,” Taylor Fletcher said. “Everyone’s fighting for that one spot. It’s going to be a good competition.”
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