As an Olympic athlete and cancer survivor, Bryan Fletcher revels in normalcy
PARK CITY, Utah — Bryan Fletcher is starting his workout. The Nordic combined athlete, new father and Heber resident warmed up with a round of infinite knockout in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s basketball court at the Center for Excellence. Admittedly, basketball is not his sport.
“I’m as far away from hoop dreams as it gets,” Fletcher said. “I can’t make most baskets and pretty much the only basketball game I play is knockout. … I’m usually the kid who comes around with a ball and knocks everyone else’s ball away.”
But it does serve as a good way to warm up before hitting the weight room.
In the main gym area, the team started its workouts in earnest – dynamic stretching, then core exercises followed by lifting.
Fletcher girth-hitched a broad rubber band around a pull-up bar and wheeled a bench in front of it. Threading his legs through the band, he used his core to lift them up and ease them down with only his forearms and elbows supporting him on the bench.
“This exercise is brutal,” he said. “You would think that because it’s got a bungee it would be easier, and unfortunately that’s not the case.”
Because of the nature of Nordic combined, he spends a lot of time doing exercises like this and constantly works to balance his strength and aerobic capacity.
That dedication helped him earn a spot at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, and he has plans on going to the Pyeongchang, South Korea, Olympics in February.
But Fletcher is also a childhood cancer survivor.
As he went through the workout, he reflected on the five years he spent in and out of remission from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He said he sees his life now as a natural extension of a compulsion to be like any other kid.
“I think the premise from my viewpoint is as a kid that’s been through it all,” he said as he swung his legs up and down. “Most kids that are going through cancer, they want to be like their friends, they want to have the opportunity to play sports, to go to school, to do whatever.
“I always just wanted to do the things that my friends were doing,” he continued. “Luckily I was able to do that, and as soon as I was cancer free, I hit the ground running. I don’t think I even really looked back or reflected on that whole experience until I was in high school.”
Instead, he was focused on athletics. He described his commitment to Nordic combined as if he was making up for lost time. Before he had even finished his chemotherapy, he started ski jumping.
He turned from his left side to facing down, with both elbows down on the bench, his voice straining as he lifted his legs.
“There’s just so many cool things out there that you want to do, and so I think that was kind of the way I view it,” he said. “This is what normal kids do to some degree, they get to be out there chasing their dreams, whether it’s academically, athletically, they are just trying to reach their full potential. To me that’s what being a normal kid is all about – what everybody wants to do.
“When you go through that whole process, that’s one of those things where you look at the other kids and, not with jealousy or envy — it was with motivation or optimism that I would get to be a normal kid again and I would push through it.”
Fletcher runs a nonprofit called ccThrive, which helps support children with cancer achieve their goals. He’s seen the mortality statistics and said while generally numbers get better each year, many are still grim, especially when you consider side effects.
After a short break to readjust, he turned over onto his right side, raising his feet to the left.
“I felt like I was never worried I was going to die, or maybe I was but my parents did a really good job of reassuring me, and I never gave up that optimistic hope that I would be OK one day,” he said. “And I just kind of viewed it as, ‘This is a challenge I have to get through to be a normal kid one day,’ and just break it down into small pieces and work through it each and every day. I think when you’re done with that whole process, and you realize, ‘I did all this and now I can go out there and do whatever I want – I don’t have to go get an infusion, don’t have to go to the hospital or anything like that’ – it’s just so relieving and so cool.”
After finishing his last set, he stood up, unslung the band and started walking toward the weights where the rest of the team was already pumping iron. On Saturday, he will compete in the Olympic Team Qualifying competition at the Utah Olympic Park. If he wins that, he will automatically earn a spot at the Winter Games.
“I like to try and be an open book about it because you never know who’s reading,” he said. “It’s been a good experience for me. Maybe it wasn’t so good at the time but now it is; now it’s a good thing to be like, ‘Yeah I’ve overcome that.’ No matter how bad the day is out on the course you can look back and be like, ‘Well it’s not so bad.’”
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The Aspen High School ski team wrapped up its short and sweet regular season Friday with home races at Highlands. The Skiers hosted both a slalom and giant slalom on Thunderbowl, with an AHS athlete taking three of the wins.