After years of being grounded, Steamboat Nordic combined skier takes flight again
Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Right now, winter athletes are striving for the Olympics, national championships or Junior National Championships. Steamboat Springs skier Erik Lynch is just trying to get back to where he was.
After almost five years of not competing in Nordic combined, Lynch started his comeback. Over the past three years, he’s made huge strides toward his goal of returning to the national team and becoming one of the best Nordic combined athletes in the world.
The 27-year-old is not ready to call it a comeback. He doesn’t want to be applauded for simply participating and finishing at the bottom of the pack.
“My goal is not to be like, ‘Oh, can I get a spot here, a spot there?’” he said. “My goal is to be competitive with the best in the world. I know what that’s going to take to get to that level, and I’ve got a ton I can do to work on that.”
Still, his return to the sport is admirable.
In 2011, Lynch was a promising up-and-comer in American Nordic combined, competing on the Continental Cup and qualifying for the Junior World Championships.
Dave Jarrett was the coach for the national team when Lynch was skiing at that level. Jarrett traveled with the World Cup team, but Lynch was on his radar.
“He was young when I was coaching him and certainly had a lot of potential,” Jarrett said.
In 2012, Lynch made the national team and qualified for Junior Worlds again. He continued to compete in the Continental Cup in 2013 and once again qualified for Junior Worlds. All the while, he had been dealing with a string of strange, undiagnosed health issues.
“When I was 19, we were trying to figure stuff out throughout the spring and summer months,” he said. “I was still able to come back and qualify for World Juniors, score a few more Continental Cup points, nothing major. After that season wrapped up, the issues were even worse.”
He powered through for a few years, but after the 2014 season, Lynch could no longer compensate for the symptoms and stopped skiing.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is like a surgery — you rehab it, you fix it, you rehab it, you come back. Alright, we got to just focus on this until it’s fixed,’’” Lynch said, adding that he thought it would take about six months to recover.
After devoting time to finding out what was ailing him, he was diagnosed with Lyme Disease.
That made so much sense to Lynch. A few years prior, his family had gone on a vacation to Jacksonville, Florida. On a day trip to Cumberland Island in Georgia, Lynch got a tick on his head. No one thought anything of it until the diagnosis.
Upon consideration, Lynch recalled, the symptoms began shortly thereafter. Cumberland Island also has a long history of having ticks that carry Lyme Disease.
The diagnosis allowed Lynch to undergo treatment, which cured him of the disease.
For almost five years, Lynch underwent what he called full-time treatment and rehab, repairing his body from the effects of Lyme Disease, as well as recovering from injuries. Not once did Lynch think of the setback as career-ending.
“I’ve just loved skiing and skiing is what I’ve always wanted to do, and be an Olympian and compete in world championships. I’ve wanted to do that since I was 5,” Lynch said. “So, really my ski goals are what got me through that big gap of time and all the medical treatments. I’m going to make it back. I’m going to make it back and keep skiing. Turns out it took me many more years than I was thinking.”
The way back
Despite best efforts from his parents, Nordic combined Olympian Kerry Lynch, and World Cup cross-country skier, Chrissy Lynch, Erik got into the niche sport.
“It’s the biggest challenge,” Erik Lynch said. “Nordic combined specifically, it builds you into a really good athlete and the training for it is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else.”
Lynch was so hooked that even years away couldn’t keep him from at least trying to get back to the jump hill.
At 24, Lynch started the long climb back to the top of the jump hill. While balancing his new job of web design and marketing, he started skiing again, implementing a diligent workout routine to get back into the shape he was in years before.
He gradually started skiing farther distances and only got back to consistently jumping the past year or so.
“That’s been the longest process,” Lynch said. “A proper in-run and a proper jump off the takeoff, I’m getting there right about now. I still definitely have a lot of work to do.”
His work was independent, lacking a coach or team support. He is now registered as a drop-in with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, but that only came to be recently.
Working that way is harder. Lynch has been forging a path that few have traveled. The typical trajectory to any national team is followed by a 17-year-old who is named to the development team, then perhaps around 20, is named to the national team. At 27, Lynch is taking a less traditional route.
His first competition back was a Continental Cup in Steamboat Springs on Dec. 15, 2018, where he jumped 60 meters, putting him 45th out of 52 athletes. He then skied to 41st.
“It’s becoming less embarrassing — I’d have to use that word, ‘embarrassing,’” he said. “I can deal with it, for sure. For the level I was at before and to come back, you just have to deal with it. That’s where I’m at and that’s alright.”
Those results weren’t enough to shake Lynch’s resolve. He wasn’t discouraged to the point of quitting.
“I did not consider that,” he said. “It’s a little bit more normal when you’re 15 to be in that position. It’s not normal at my age to be like that. From where I’m coming from and what I’m building back from and that time off, the age just makes it look a little weird. … I just know part of the process is: You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Completing the comeback
Lynch isn’t satisfied with what’s he’s done so far.
Most recently, he competed at Winter Start at Howelsen Hill. He jumped 62.5 meters and skied the 10-kilometer course faster than anyone else, in 20 minutes and 37 seconds. He’s been training sporadically with the SSWSC athletes, and coached occasionally by the under-16 and under-18 athletes coach Karl Denney.
“He’s incredibly dedicated and self-motivated,” Denney said. “It’s amazing the way he can schedule his own training, go the extra mile and follow through with everything.”
“I wouldn’t hesitate to say to his face, ‘It’s a little nuts. It’s a little crazy,’” Denney added. “But in a great way, he’s really committing to this crazy idea. He believes so much that he can make it.”
Lynch is loving being back in the competitive atmosphere, especially since he’s feeling a little more competitive. His jumping is still weak, since he hasn’t had repetitive exposure to a competition-size jump hill. His skiing is strong, though.
“In a long-term view, I am confident for sure,” Lynch said. “As far as this year goes, I definitely would say I feel behind.”
Lynch was hoping to compete in some Continental Cups, but he was told he doesn’t have priority over national team or junior national team athletes, who have been traveling around Europe for weeks.
Although Lynch has more experience on the Continental Cup than some of the athletes competing on the circuit now, those results are in the past. He has to prove himself to USA Nordic, the governing body of the sport in the United States, all over again.
Winter Start at Howelsen was one place to do that, and next, he’ll show them what he’s got at the Olympic Trials in Lake Placid on Friday. He’s curious to see how he’ll do in comparison to the national team competitors, particularly on the cross-country course.
“I’m definitely targeting the next quadrennial,” Lynch said. “(I expect) the next four years of competitions to be much, much better.”
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