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Skiers jump in with big boys

Utah races offer young racers unique chance

Steamboat Springs ski jumper Decker Dean flies Saturday in a Continental Cup Nordic combined competition in Park City, Utah. It was Dean's first taste of that level of international competition.
Joel Reichenberger

— It’s surreal, Decker Dean explained.

The 15-year-old Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier has long aspired to compete where athletes like Bryan and Taylor Fletcher currently compete, on the World Cup in Europe, at the Olympics and at World Championships.

And he knows the Fletchers well, having trained around them at various camps for years.



But to actually compete against them, head to head?

Decker got the chance Saturday during the Continental Cup’s three-day stay in Utah to ski, not just with Taylor Fletcher, but with an international field of elite competitors.



“I watch them on World Cup, so it’s pretty cool to ski with them, to warm up with them and jump with them,” he said. “They’re definitely faster than I expected.”

In the eyes of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, the Continental Cup is an essential part of the plan for a handful of reasons. The event’s stop in the United States always falls on an off-weekend for the World Cup, and the U.S. Team brings home at least a few of its top athletes to compete.

They often do well, helping earn points to solidify the team’s allotment of World Cup starting spots.

It’s also a chance for younger U.S. skiers to get a rare taste of world-class competition, and that’s exactly what several young Steamboat skiers took from the experience.

“It’s amazing,” said Koby Vargas, 17. “It really opens up your eyes to what opportunities are out there.”

Vargas started in two of the three events while Decker got one start.

Neither had particularly strong results.

Vargas finished ahead of two competitors in each of his races, placing 32nd Friday and 33rd Sunday. Dean was 38th on Saturday, ahead of one racer.

It’s not really about the results at this point, though. It’s about the experience, and no one had to look far last weekend to find evidence that the experience can be valuable.

Ben Loomis, 17, finished fourth in Saturday’s race and also logged 16th- and 21st-place finishes. That was a dramatic improvement on his first Continental Cup experience, a year ago in Utah, when he placed 39th and 40th over two days.

Dean and Vargas got the message.

“It’s showing me what it’s going to be like for the rest of my career and how dedicated and hard working everyone else is,” Vargas said.

It all took a little getting used to, Dean said.

He found the jumping stressful. There are strict rules about equipment at that level, and Dean’s new jumping suit proved to be 1 centimeter too long. He had to use an older training suit for his competition jump, and he thought the stress of it all weighed down his result.

Racing was interesting, too. When Taylor Fletcher came up behind him, en route to try to win the race, Dean just got out of the way as fast as possible.

“It’s more intense racing with those guys than you’d think,” he said.

Still, none of that soured the experience.

Neither Vargas nor Dean will continue with the Continental Cup circuit this season. They’re focused on qualifying for the Junior Worlds competition, set for February in Romania.

For one weekend, though, they lived a level up, and they enjoyed every second.

“The highlight,” Dean said, “was just getting to ski there. That was my goal.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9


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