Olympics season jumps off in Finland for U.S. Nordic Combined
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The road to PyeongChang, South Korea begins Friday for a trio of Steamboat Springs skiers.
The Nordic Combined World Cup 2017-18 season kicks off Friday in Kuusamo, Finland with a trio of events, one each Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Kuusamo, less than 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is dark in November. Its jumping hill is steep, and persistent winds make it a challenge unlike any other in Europe.
The trio of U.S. skiers — all who came up through Steamboat Springs — are hoping that dark, steep, challenging slope will launch them toward the bright lights of PyeongChang, the cold snows of South Korea and the glory of the 2018 Winter Olympics, looming now just a little more than two months away.
“Every year we come in there thinking we’re on track, and we may be, but we’re thinking too much about it and it shoots us in the foot,” U.S. skier Taylor Fletcher said. “Kuusamo is not a place you want to be second-guessing yourself.”
The two most experienced skiers on the U.S Nordic Combined Ski Team, Steamboat-born brothers Bryan Fletcher, 31, and Taylor Fletcher, 27, will compete this weekend in Kuusamo, as will Ben Berend, another Steamboater who’s become a fixture on the World Cup circuit in the last two seasons.
They all need strong starts for reasons both deep and simple, but it may be most important for Berend.
The Fletchers already have three Olympics between them, two for Taylor and one for Bryan. They’ve consistently had the top U.S. results since the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and barring something drastic such as an injury, they’re a lock to push the family Olympic count to five.
Berend, on the other hand, is the first among a group of young Americans to get a crack at proving he belongs at the Olympics. At 22-years old, he’s one of several vying for what will likely be two more spots on the Olympic roster.
The key to his winning one of those spots — or at least taking a first good solid step toward winning one — is a top-30 finish this weekend. World Cup points are awarded for to skiers in the top 30, placing a skier in the world rankings that will factor heavily into who will represent the U.S. in South Korea.
“I need to start scoring World Cup points,” Berend said this summer. “That’s the easy way to do it. … It’s tight between all of us. I don’t see anyone who’s out of the question. It’s going to be a fun year.”
Kuusamo with that sharp wind and daunting hill hasn’t been kind to U.S. skiers recently.
It’s served as the World Cup opener two of the last three seasons and in the three individual races between those two seasons the U.S. has just one top-20 finish and just two in the top 30.
Compare that to the year the World Cup started in Lillehammer, Norway where the U.S. had three top-30 finishes in two races.
Last year in Kuusamo, Bryan Fletcher had the highest U.S. finish at No. 23. Taylor Fletcher placed 40th one day and didn’t jump far enough in qualification the next day to earn a start in the actual event. Berend, then, was disqualified for not having his suit fully zipped up.
Two years ago, Jasper Good, another Steamboat skier on the U.S. Team, made eight trips to the top of the jump only to be sent back down again each time as fierce winds whipped below.
It all amounts to enough for the place to have earned a bit of a bad reputation among the U.S. skiers, and a willingness to not overinvest in one weekend’s results. The World Cup heads to Lillehammer after its stop in Finland.
“You just don’t know how you’re doing until the next week after Kuusamo,” Taylor Fletcher said.
No doubt, however, with what’s on the line this season, nothing would be sweeter than a big start on the dark slopes of Kuusamo.
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