Say the words “Nordic Combined” to most people and you will be on the receiving end of a blank stare, especially if it’s not an Olympic year. But Park City is home to a number of notable Nordic Combined athletes, Olympians who live in the area for many reasons, one major one being the Olympic training facilities. When they aren’t decked out in their flight suits with their super-long skis attached, flying through the air, planning to stick the perfect landing, or logging mile after mile on their skinny skate skis, you might find a few of these Olympians delivering pizzas, hanging out with their friends, or lobbying to keep the Nordic Combined program funded by the U.S. Ski Association. BigLife’s Thomas Cooke talks to three Park City-based Olympians, the recently-retired Billy Demong, and the still competing brothers Taylor and Bryan Fletcher about their sport, the bets they lose to each other, and what it feels like to fly.
I’m standing at the top of historic Main Street in Park City with Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, U.S. Nordic Combined athletes, waiting outside of Red Banjo, one of the oldest restaurants in town. It occurs to me that Main Street resembles a ski jump—it’s pitched and long, and if you were on jumping skis, with a little imagination, you might think you could drop in from the top, get some speed, pop off the take-off point, and extend fully, launching into the haze of Snyderville Basin below. But we’re looking up, not down, so we temper our daydream. We’re waiting on recently-retired Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Demong. Billy was supposed to be here already, but there is a traffic jam in Salt Lake City, so he’s taking the long cut up Big Cottonwood Canyon, over Guardsman Pass, and dropping into the top of Main Street from above. He tells me all this in a 20-second phone call that has at least 1,000 words but ends abruptly with, “I’m in the canyon, so I might lose you.”
“Typical Billy,” says Taylor. “Always going a million miles an hour, but still running behind.”
Billy slides his car curbside, almost unnoticed, except for the fact that he is driving a Jetta TDI, so we can’t resist ribbing him about his choice in cars. The jokes don’t stick. It’s still a good car, dirty or not. Billy jumps right into the conversation we are having about the Fletchers’ recent trip to Europe for fall competitions.
“Dude, I’ll bet by now you know more about the sport of Nordic Combined than you ever wanted to know,” Billy jabs at me. The truth is, it would be easier to tell the stories of these three athletes if I knew less; the sport is that complicated. I know more about it now than I ever did, and I still don’t totally get it.
Billy’s eyes are a little bloodshot. He has been working a lot these days for Salt Lake City-based Reynolds Cycling, manufacturers of high-end carbon fiber racing wheels, and his day today started at 4am. We’re here to talk about Nordic Combined, but almost immediately Billy gets distracted and starts geeking out and telling us about the latest racing wheel they are working on, and how badass it is. Bryan and Taylor are cyclists as well, so it’s an easy diversion before we head into the Banjo and order a pitcher and some pie.
Nordic Combined is an Olympic winter sport mash-up of ski jumping and cross-country ski racing, and if you asked the average American sports fan if she could name the two parts, you’d be lucky to get one correct answer.
It’s not so much that it is misunderstood as not understood at all. If you boiled a single competition down to the essence, it’s ski jumping combined with cross-country ski racing, but with a twist that binds the two together: jump farther off the ski jumps than the others, and you will get a head start in the ski race portion. Jump shorter than the others, and you will be chasing from behind. First one across the line at the end wins. Seems simple enough. But nothing in Nordic Combined is quite that simple.
Since first being included in the Winter Olympics in 1924, Nordic Combined has always been seriously dominated by the Norwegians, Finns, and Germans. That is, until the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, when the American team came out of nowhere and surprised the world. It’s odd to say they came out of nowhere. Everybody comes from somewhere. Everyone has a story. Many of us ski town residents are transplants, but home is the place where you hang your hat. For recently-retired U.S. Nordic Combined athlete Billy Demong, and current athletes Bryan Fletcher and his younger brother Taylor Fletcher, Park City is where they hang their hats.
Demong dropped his roots to start a family and professional life here after a legendary career that spanned five Olympic Games. Measured in terms of years competing, that’s almost 20 percent of the total time Nordic Combined has been in the Olympics. His trophy shelf includes an Olympic gold medal, an Olympic silver medal, FIS World Championship gold, silver, and bronze medals, and over two dozen FIS World Cup medals.
For the Fletcher brothers, Park City is the best place to live and train while they continue to pursue their dreams of matching or surpassing the accomplishments of their longtime mentor, good friend, and now one of their biggest supporters. The Fletchers each have World Championships bronze medals, as well as World Cup podium results between them, and they are the U.S. team’s best bet in the talent pipeline for the next Winter Olympic Games.
Collectively, these guys have a long history of pushing each other to new levels, and pulling the younger guys up along with them. That’s how the talent pipeline in Nordic Combined has always worked. With Billy now on the sidelines, the Fletchers are continuing that legacy, competing at the highest level in international competition and rallying the next generation of younger Nordic Combined athletes. But if the sport weren’t hard enough already, they’ve recently had to add a third discipline to the “combined” of Nordic Combined: actively raising the funds required for its continued existence. In addition to everything else they are doing, Billy and the Fletchers are a few of the driving forces behind two non-profits working to keep the sport alive, the National Nordic Foundation and USA Nordic Sports.
Prior to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, the entire Nordic Combined national team had effectively completed the process of moving their program from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to Park City, to take advantage of the infrastructure and facilities left after the 2002 Winter Games. This meant better jumping facilities at the Utah Olympic Park (UOP), more year-round training opportunities, and reduced travel times out of Salt Lake City for international competitions like the World Cup. With USSA funding the team and being headquartered here, the magnetic pull to centralize everything in Park City was strong. Vancouver was proof that it was all working out as planned, and the pay-off was a whole bunch of medals in a sport where the U.S. had never earned a single one.
That 2010 team was led by Park City’s Billy Demong and Steamboat’s Johnny Spillane. Spillane earned the first U.S. medal in the sport early in the games when he took individual silver in the normal hill competition. Demong later claimed the first and only U.S. gold in the large hill competition. To cap it all off, they made up half of the U.S. team that claimed silver in the relay event, along with another Park City resident, Brett Camerota, and Steamboat’s Todd Lodwick. A young Taylor Fletcher was the fifth member of the team sent to Vancouver, but he didn’t jump or ski on that silver medal relay team.
With so much success in Vancouver, why is it so much harder for Nordic Combined athletes today, just five years later, after such a demonstrative performance? They earned plenty of prime time TV eyeballs. There were Today Show appearances. After Vancouver, Billy was featured in Visa and Alka-Seltzer Plus commercials in the build-up to Sochi. One would think the medals the team earned in 2010 would buy down the future of the program for the next generation in the pipeline, mainly the Fletchers, for at least a couple more Olympic cycles. Then again, nothing in Nordic Combined is quite that simple, and those years in between Olympics are long. Shortly after Sochi, most of the funding for the Nordic Combined program was pulled. There was also a reorganization at USSA (United States Ski and Snowboard Association). USSA remains the National Governing Body of Nordic Combined; they are just not bank-rolling it at the same levels that they did leading up to Vancouver, and the way they do for other, more popular winter sports that fall under their organization.
If you are going to become a world-class Nordic Combined athlete, you need to practice jumping, and while there are many Nordic ski jumps peppered throughout parts of the U.S., many in the Midwest, the pipeline for ski jumping talent comes from only a handful of towns where there are jumps, and where there is skiing, and where there are kids crazy enough to give it a try, and where there are coaches willing to teach them how to do it. Lake Placid, New York. Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Park City, Utah. That’s pretty much it. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the epicenter of the U.S. Nordic Combined “program” was based in Steamboat Springs and the jumps at Howelsen Hill.
Billy’s story goes through Steamboat, but started back in the Adirondacks. He came into Nordic Combined from the cross-country ski racing side at the tender age of five when his parents signed him up for a youth racing program at local Dewey Mountain, in Saranac Lake, New York. Billy was born with the racing gene, and even in retirement from the sport these days, everything is a race, and Billy is hard to keep up with. Not many people can come close, except for maybe the Fletchers. In 2014, as his Nordic Combined career was winding down, Billy decided to give running a try, and with about eight weeks of training, he and a friend ran the New York City Marathon, his first-ever try at a marathon. The night before, Billy had Olympic-sized nerves, but the morning of the event, the racing gene took over. Billy ran a 2:33:05, finishing 52nd out of over 52,000.
The racing gene revealed itself in Billy long before his one-race career as an elite level marathoner, long before his breakout gold medal in Vancouver, even long before his first Continental Cup Nordic Combined competition. Without a doubt, the first signs of a genetic disposition for pummeling competitors into the snow showed itself under the night skiing lights at Dewey Mountain. “I vividly remember my first ski race and hunting down the other kids who started in front of me (interval pursuit style, just like the ski portion of Nordic Combined). I was hooked!”
At some point not too long after those early races, a jumping coach from Lake Placid, Larry Stone, enticed Billy and a few friends to try the jumping, eventually putting it all together in Nordic Combined. “It was an instant match. I loved the adrenaline thrill of jumping and the physical challenges of the ski race.”
Billy had grown up dreaming of the mountains of the West, cowboys, and skiing powder. He jumped at the chance to get on the Nordic Combined program, which meant leaving home and moving in with the Spillane family while he was still in high school. Together as friends and teammates, Billy and Johnny Spillane pushed each other to fly farther and ski faster. It wasn’t long before these two were challenging some of the veterans and more established athletes in the program. Back then, the program had funding under the U.S. Ski Team (now USSA).
Billy recalls that as he, Johnny Spillane and a few others were rising through the international ranks and starting to make waves, they really started to believe they could be the best in the world someday. They were determined to push the boundaries of what U.S. athletes had accomplished in World Cup and Olympic competitions, but in order to do that, they had to push themselves harder than ever before. A cohesiveness within the team developed. Leaders emerged. Europeans grew concerned. These guys were for real. And there were other youngsters watching this all go down who wanted to get a piece of it, mainly the Fletcher boys.
The Fletchers grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and recall being motivated and inspired by the friendly fire of Demong and Spillane pushing each other to the limits. While Billy was drawn to the sport from the Nordic ski racing side, Bryan Fletcher, the older of the two Fletcher siblings, came to the sport through the jumping side. As many ski-town groms do, Bryan recalls always being on the mountain with his father, at first on his father’s back, then later on his own two feet, hitting as many jumps on the sides of the ski runs as he could find. Family friends talked his parents into signing him up for a Learn-to-Jump program. Little did they know, the precocious ski town rugrat was about to be standing at the top staring down the barrel of the biggest jump he’d ever face in life.
At three years old, Bryan was diagnosed with childhood leukemia, A.L.L. or Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, to be exact. He spent the next two years back and forth between home in Steamboat, and chemo treatments in Denver. Two weeks in the hospital in Denver, then a week back at his home in Steamboat. His parents weren’t sure launching himself into the air off of the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill was the right form of recovery for a young boy trying to deal with the chemicals being pumped into his small frame. Not exactly what the doctors would think of as “taking it easy.” But all Bryan wanted to do was fly off those jumps. Jumping was what got him through, the perfect prescription. A recurring pattern developed. He dreaded the coming of the day when it was time to pack up for Denver, and counted down the days until he could return to his mountain town home and hit the jumps. After three years of this pattern, and with all the support of his family and friends, young Bryan stuck the landing on the biggest jump. By six, he was cancer-free.
Taylor was maybe too young to remember much of the ordeal of what Bryan and the family went through back then, although today he recalls some vague memories of riding along to Denver for Bryan’s chemo treatments. What he remembers most is getting his big brother back and cancer-free, so he could resume one of his favorite pastimes; being Bryan’s shadow in everything Steamboat had to offer, but mainly ski jumping and cross-country ski racing.
The Fletcher family was always part of the Nordic Combined program when Steamboat was still the epicenter. They took in resident athletes to live with them in their home, the way the Spillane family took in Billy. This provided another connection to the sport for Bryan and Taylor. Bryan chased Billy. Taylor chased Bryan. But it wasn’t long before they all started to get the feeling they would be chasing Taylor. Taylor made that historic 2010 Vancouver team, but as the fifth member, he wasn’t chosen to ski in the team event. He remembers coming home to Park City while the Vancouver Games were happening, because there was a long break in between Nordic Combined events. He says, simply, “I came home because I was bored.” To kill the time before heading back to Vancouver, Taylor delivered pizzas for Red Banjo in his Olympic team jacket. Why not earn a little extra money? It was during the Sundance Film Festival, when the town of Park City is at full capacity, so Taylor was delivering a lot of pizzas and getting a lot of tips. “Hey, isn’t that an Olympic Team uniform?” a customer asked. “Yup,” replied Taylor. “Aren’t the Olympics happening right now?” asked the customer. “Yup,” replied Taylor. No further explanation. No grasp for admiration.
While being an Olympian was a great experience for a 19-year-old kid, being part of the team and present for the history-making performance of his teammates, there was a beast inside Taylor gnawing at his guts, waiting to be set free. Taylor wanted to compete at that higher level. Just like Billy, Taylor was born with the racing gene. Put him on a road bike, and he forgets he is a Nordic Combined athlete. He becomes a bike racer. Just like Billy, everything is a race, and even Billy knows this all too well. While Billy was still competing, Taylor set his sights on the old man.
“Taylor and I had a season-long competition to see who was the faster skier, so over the course of the year we recorded our ski times from every single competition down to the second. The stakes were pretty high; the loser was going to have to wear a costume 24/7 for the following year’s European training camp, as if American Nordic Combined athletes don’t already stand out enough in Europe.” All season long they traded blows. Billy would be up by 30 seconds. Taylor would push him, evening the score and then taking 20 seconds. For an entire season, through 25 or so competitions, they had a race within a race. They had a spreadsheet. Depending on who you talk to, the final margin was either less than the other claims, or quite a bit more. One would say the other has a selective memory. The other would say one has a habit of exaggeration and a flair for the dramatic. Either way, Billy came out on top. So the next year, a man of his word, Taylor donned a Captain America costume, which by rule, could only be removed when he was jumping or sleeping. For two weeks, in Germany, Austria, and Italy, Taylor wore the costume. The photos and iPhone videos collected by teammates during training camp showed not a vanquished loser, but someone who almost relished in his punishment and was already plotting his revenge for next year’s bet. In fact, Taylor and Billy did the same bet the following season, and when you ask Billy, he gets awfully quiet about the time he had to be Aquaman for two weeks.
Billy tells me exactly what Taylor needs to do to win World Cups, and possibly a medal at the next Olympics, and he is very precise. “Year in and year out Taylor is the fastest guy in the sport of Nordic Combined (though Bryan still beats him frequently!). Taylor’s breakthrough will be when he consistently gives himself opportunities to start within a minute of the leader after jumping. To put it in perspective, he needs to jump about 3-5 percent (3 to 5 meters) farther on average.”
And, with that, the brother can’t hold his tongue. “If I had to choose one word to describe my brother’s competitiveness it would be relentless. He is unyielding, and the more you say he can’t do it, the harder he will try to make it happen,” says Bryan. So if Billy is right, and Taylor needs to come up with 3 to 5 more meters of distance off the jumps, that won’t be good enough for Taylor. He’ll probably find a way to come up with 6 or 7.
Park City locals can sometimes become desensitized to having so many world-class athletes in and around our community. There are those who have competed, those who are still competing, and those who have yet to compete, but surely will, in a winter sport at the Olympic level, and many of them end up calling Park City home. From alpine ski racers, to bobsled athletes, to freestyle skiers and snowboarders, the kid next door might be Sage Kotsenburg, or the guy down the street might be Ted Ligety’s dad. This is normal in Park City. It’s also perfectly normal to see a future gold medalist working behind the counter at one of Park City’s local restaurants, like the Red Banjo pizza joint, at the top of historic Main Street. Bryan and Taylor have both worked there while living in town and trying to make ends meet. While neither one currently works there now, a bunch of the younger Nordic Combined athletes do, thanks to the Fletchers who took them under their wings. They push each other to jump farther, ski faster, and bring up the younger athletes along with them. That commitment to the future generations is a part of the culture established by Demong.
Training and competing in what amounts to two different sports year round isn’t something normal people do. But the top U.S. athletes in the sport now have to hold the proverbial bake sale just to make it all happen. With only minimal baseline funding from USSA, this pack now only eats what it can kill. In addition to pushing each other to jump farther and ski faster, the new normal for them is working together to establish ways to secure a future for their team’s existence, and provide opportunities for the next pack of young guys. It won’t be long before one of the young guns like Adam Loomis or Michael Ward challenges Taylor to the same bet he had with Billy. He still keeps the Captain America costume handy, just in case.