It was chaotic: Steamboat athletes compete in last-minute, historic mass start race in Europe
Last Saturday, the men’s and women’s Nordic combined national teams expected a long day in Otepää, Estonia, a notoriously gusty venue.
The provisional jump the day before was canceled due to unpredictable winds. Typically, if jumps can’t be completed on competition day, the provisional jumps are used. That made Saturday’s jumps crucial and meant they would be completed — hell or high winds.
It would likely just take a while to get all the jumps in while waiting out the blustery moments.
Shortly before 7 a.m., Steamboat Springs resident and national team member Taylor Fletcher had just finished breakfast and was heading to the gym to warm up when he got a message. It told him jumping would not take place. Instead, athletes would compete in a mass start.
At the same time, national team member and Steamboat resident Annika Malacinski was heading out the door to the jumps with coach Tomas Matura and Nick Hendrickson, the men’s Nordic Combined team director.
Upon hearing the news of the schedule change, Hendrickson and Matura established a plan.
“So we just had this understanding in about five seconds of the three to five important things that had to happen, and we set off in a run and just started knocking on doors,” Hendrickson said.
The athletes had it pretty easy, mentally preparing for a race rather than a jump, but the wax techs had a rough couple of hours. They were woken up and then rushed to the wax cabins, where they got to work.
Waxing skis takes more than spreading a substance on the base of skis. It’s a science in a way, requiring knowledge of current and incoming weather, the state of the snow and how it could change over the course of the race. With those contributing factors in mind, the techs will prepare the skis and test them. Then, perhaps, they will adjust how they wax the skis.
Hendrickson and Matura helped test skis to speed up what’s typically an hourslong process.
Under pressure and a ticking clock, the wax techs worked magic and set up every American skier for success, helping the athletes earn career-best finishes.
“The whole thing was a total mess in the sense that it was chaotic, because it was totally unplanned,” Hendrickson said. “But we have a really great staff, and everyone works well together. … It rolled out as smooth as it possibly could have.”
The mass start
The mass start sent 50 men out at once, rather than staggering athletes based on their jump results.
In the typical format, known as the Gunderson format, athletes jump first and are judged and scored with points. The leader after the jumps starts the race first. For every point an athlete is behind the leader, that person starts four seconds behind the leader.
The mass start puts everyone on an even playing field. Fletcher equated it to hanging in the peloton of the Tour de France.
“Mass starts do not favor the cross-country skier unless it’s a really hard course where the strong skiers can really ski away from the strong jumpers or the ones who aren’t as good at cross-country. Because you’re starting in a mass group, … it gives those slower skiers the ability to hang on for a little bit longer,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher, who is a stronger skier than jumper, still seemed to benefit. He finished 12th, just six seconds out of first place. Using the same points-to-seconds ratio, that meant Fletcher was 1.7 points behind the leader after the race.
Then came the jumps. Fletcher had a fine jump at 82 meters. The judges scored his performance and gave him a 87.4. Then Fletcher’s 1.7 point deficit was calculated in, giving him a total of 85.9 points in the competition and 20th place. The top 20 finish is Fletcher’s best result this winter.
His performances have been following a larger trend of U.S. men having career-best results at the World Cup and Continental Cup levels. Ben Loomis has been having his best year ever. He finished 25th at the mass start event and 28th the next day in the Gunderson format. He’s finished in the top 30 in every race this year.
“I think we have a good system in place,” Fletcher said. “Chris Gilbertson, our head jump coach, and Gregor Linsing, our assistant jump coach, have done a very good job all summer long, so we’re seeing consistency and improvement through the whole team.”
Malacinski is the one American woman competing on the World Cup circuit, which is just in its second year. She had her best finish ever, taking 12th in the first-ever women’s mass start and nearing her goal of a top 10 finish. She skied to 10th, just 20 seconds behind the leader. Her jump of 75 meters put her in 12th.
Nearing Olympic trials
Competition continues this weekend in Ramsau, Austria, where both the men and women will compete.
Additionally, there are athletes traveling to Ruka, Finland, to compete on the men’s Nordic combined Continental Cup circuit, and Notodden, Norway, for the women’s ski jumping Continental Cup competition. All competitions are available for streaming on Peacock.
Upon conclusion of that event, men’s and women’s ski jumpers and men’s Nordic combined athletes will fly back to the U.S. ahead of the Olympic Trials on Dec. 24-25 at Lake Placid, New York.
Malacinski will remain in Europe to compete on the World Cup circuit, since women’s Nordic combined is not yet an Olympic sport.
Whoever wins the Olympic Trials will earn a spot on the Olympic team. Steamboat’s Logan Sankey has a shot in women’s ski jumping. Lake Placid’s Nina Lussi is the favorite, though, especially after her 17th place finish in a Continental Cup event last weekend.
Decker Dean, also of Steamboat, is vying for a men’s ski jumping spot. If trends continue, the men’s Nordic combined winner will likely be Loomis or Fletcher.
Fletcher, who has been to three Olympics, said he’s never won an Olympic trial and thinks this could be his year.
“We had a great camp there this fall and got to try out the new jumps, and they suited me pretty well,” he said. “I’m pretty excited to go there knowing I can jump at a high level, and my cross-country form is getting better and better every weekend.”
Shelby Reardon is the assistant editor at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach her, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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