Waiting the game in Nordic combined
Steamboat Springs — The hardest part, Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier Ben Berend said, is the waiting.
Berend turned 21 years old Wednesday, and by any measure, he’s still one of the “young guns” on the U.S. Nordic combined Ski Team, one of the pack of skiers who will be challenging this coming winter to compete at the 2017 World Championships and who, next winter, will be fighting for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Still, he’s been at it so long already and has sacrificed so much.
He focused on the sport through high school, and now, beyond, forgoing college and everything else to move to Park City, Utah and train … and train and train.
He’s as fit as he could hope to be, yet even he knows he’s not fit enough and may not be for years.
“I’m not a patient person,” Berend said. “I don’t like being bad at things. I did think I was pretty good at this; then, you get to a higher level, and you realize how much more work you have to do, and that it takes years for it to come to fruition.”
Jumping farther, skiing slower
Berend’s coming off the biggest winter of his career, one in which he spent the majority of the season competing on the World Cup.
Ten of his 13 career starts on that series came last winter.
Making it to the World Cup didn’t exactly equate to success on the World Cup, however. His top result came in Lahti, Finland, in February, when he placed 33rd.
Only finishes inside the top 30 earn World Cup points, however, and without any of those, Berend didn’t register in the season-ending World Cup standings.
His jumping, however, was a bright spot.
He was 10th after the jumping at an event in Val di Fiemme, Italy, his best performance, the hill in the season — then was 20th at the event in Finland.
He was also consistently one of the team’s best in jumping. Of his nine individual World Cup starts, he had the United States’ best jumping score in five, and was second-best on the team in three more.
Cross country skiing was his weak element.
Through those nine starts, he averaged the 42nd best skiing time in fields that ran between 45 and 55 athletes deep.
Far too often, he had to watch his strong jumping results slide away as racer after racer passed him on the skiing course.
“That’s always been the case with me,” Berend said. “When I started doing Continental Cups, I would jump top 10 or 15, then get booted right out the back in the race. That finally stopped happening, and once I got onto World Cup, it was like deja vu.”
That’s actually a familiar sensation for many in the sports.
Two types make it
The unique aspect of Nordic combined is, of course, its combination of two different sports, and the frustrating aspect can be learning to master both at the same time.
Few actually do master both, at least early in their careers.
Some, such as Steamboat Springs’ six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick, prove naturals from their first competitions. Many more, however, spend their careers trying to balance between the disciplines, and jumping is often the one that comes around first.
“Kids tend to have a very fast acceleration on the jumping side,” said Todd Wilson, Nordic combined and ski jumping director at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and a two-time Olympian.
“Ski jumping is not necessarily about brute strength, but also about technique, so athletes can get better at that earlier” he said. “Endurance takes years to develop. Being a good cross country skier takes many years.”
Wilson retired at 26 years old, a longtime veteran of the World Cup but also one who’d never broken into its top ranks.
He doesn’t regret that decision. He fell immediately into coaching in Steamboat and has loved his role with the Winter Sports Club.
Still, he wonders. Did he leave before those skills had fully matured?
“I feel I had my best years ahead of me,” he said.
That patience tries even the best in the sport.
Bill Demong, an Olympic gold medalist and world champion, said he was so frustrated with his results at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City he struggled to sleep for months. He missed one of the ensuing seasons due to an accident, and that time away from the sport was critical in processing the ups and downs of Nordic combined.
“Taking a year off was the only thing that saved me,” Demong said.
He said he’s seen two types of athletes who can make it at the highest levels of Nordic combined.
“There are a few, they go through a tremendous transformation, and by the time they’re 18, they’re at the top of the game,” he said. “Then, there are guys like Ben, who’s got incredible talent for ski jumping and a good engine, but to get that last little bit, he has to buckle down, follow the program, and every year, he’ll get incrementally faster.”
Head down, ski hard
Berend said he’s working as hard this summer as ever, and if he can earn the right to those World Cup starts again — he’s certainly not the only American pursuing them — he has high hopes.
“The goal is to get more comfortable there and get to the point where I’m scoring points consistently,” he said.
No matter what he does this summer, however, he’s unlikely to reach his pinnacle. Those dreams of World Cup podiums, or maybe of a World Championship breakthrough, may have to wait as he continues the long slog that defines his sport for so many.
Then, maybe, just maybe, it will come together. His body, already plenty fit, will round into prime form, not only for lifting weights, but also for skiing far and fast.
He’s not thrilled about the timeline, but he can’t do anything now but work hard and wait.
“You just have to keep your head down and keep putting in the work,” he said. “It’s going to happen, but you have to be patient, or else you’ll just get burnt out.”
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