Steamboat Springs skier Bryan Fletcher retires from Nordic combined racing
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There was always pressure, which isn’t to say Bryan Fletcher didn’t love his career in Nordic combined.
He did, from the training in the spring to the camps in the summer to the competitions that kicked off winter, but there was always pressure — pressure to find the right equipment, to jump further, to ski faster, to place higher, to medal.
There was pressure to find a way to make the teams, then to earn the spots in the big competitions, and still then to fund the life, but finally, Wednesday morning, all of it was gone.
Fletcher waited atop the ski jump in Trondheim, Norway, and while so much waited at the bottom, at the end of his last World Cup competition and in retirement, for the moment, there was nothing in front of him but a ski jump, and so utterly freed, he rode it to one of the most complete competitive results of his career and to his final result.
Competing in his final professional competition, Fletcher, a 10-year veteran of the World Cup circuit who was born and raised in Steamboat Springs, jumped to 11th place in the first half of the competition — his best jump in a full-field World Cup competition in four full years.
He then skied up to seventh place for one of his best overall results in that same span.
“I think it was because I didn’t care,” Fletcher said, reflecting on that jump. “I was going out just happy to enjoy jumping and that takes a little bit of the pressure off and that makes it all a little easier.”
Fletcher, 31 years old, skied with the podium pack for much of the 10-kilometer race but couldn’t hang when the pace picked up in the home stretch, slipping away from the podium in the final surge toward the finish line.
That wasn’t lingering on his mind, however.
He walked away happy.
The result was the 26th top-10 finish at a World Cup in his career.
That career on the World Cup level started in January 2009 with a 28th-place finish at an event in Italy.
From there, Fletcher went on to an up-and-down career, but one that stands high in the ranks of U.S. Nordic combined athletes.
He’s one of just five Americans to have ever won a World Championship medal in Nordic combined, picking up a bronze medal in the 4 x 5-kilometer normal hill team event in Val di Fiemme, Italy, in 2013 with teammates Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong and Taylor Fletcher, Bryan’s younger brother.
Perhaps his ultimate career highlight came the year before, when he capped the 2012 World Cup season by winning the King’s Cup competition on the jumps at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.
He got to meet the Norwegian king that day, and he etched his name on an elite list of U.S. Nordic combined skiers.
That is one of just 12 individual World Cup events U.S. Nordic combined skiers have ever won, and Fletcher is one of six skiers to ever accomplish it.
“I grew up in Steamboat, and like a lot of kids are doing there now, I dreamed of being one of those athletes,” Fletcher said that day in 2012. “Now, to come to such a historic event, to meet the king and achieve such a tremendous first podium, I’m just beside myself to win.”
But, that wasn’t just his first podium. It was his only individual podium.
He developed into an elite cross-country ski racer in recent seasons, but, along with the entire U.S. team, he’s struggled to jump well enough to ride those fast skis to a top-three finish.
He had close calls and in big events. He placed fifth in a World Championships race in 2015. He was in the battle for a medal late in a championships race in 2017.
He finished fifth or better three times on the World Cup, including that incredible day in Norway.
“I’m walking away happy,” he said. “There’s always that question of ‘what if?’, especially on days like today. The main goal was to win Olympic medals, World Championship medals. I was lucky to be able to get one of those, and that was awesome, and to win a World Cup. My career was pretty awesome.”
Usually, when he has moved into the top 10 in recent seasons, he’s done it from back in the pack, from 29th place earlier this year, from 22nd in another race. He’s made the top 10 from as far back as 36th.
“There’s always a bit of me that wishes I could have accomplished a little more,” he said, “but, in the end, I’m walking away feeling like I accomplished the dreams I set out to accomplish.”
That he even was able to start to realize those dreams seemed like a miracle after he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as a 3-year-old. He received treatments for the next five years, and Nordic combined eventually became an escape from the endless trips to Denver for medical care and from the stints in the hospital.
It became more than that as he grew. He moved from Steamboat Springs to finish high school in Park City, Utah, in 2004, then was quickly on the U.S. Ski Team.
He just missed the 2010 Winter Olympics but made his first Olympic team for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, then won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials to earn his second trip in December.
He finished as the top U.S. skier on the World Cup in six of the last seven seasons and is currently ranked No. 26. His highest finish came in 2015 when he was 15th.
He led the U.S. team with a pair of 17th-place finishes in the individual events at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and has been strong in the events since the Olympics, too. He was 17th earlier this week in Oslo, then 12th Tuesday in Trondheim before placing seventh Wednesday, tying for his best result of the season.
Jumping as well as he has in years, fast on his feet and just a sprint away from the podium, hasn’t done anything to change his mind.
Fletcher, who lives in Heber City, Utah, near Park City with his wife, Nikki Fletcher, is the father to an 18-month-old daughter Ellery.
He’s a year away from finishing an undergraduate degree at Utah State University, then he hopes to work as a nurse’s aide as he accumulates the necessary experience to apply to a master’s program.
Along the way, he plans to continue to work with the charity he helped establish, ccThrive, designed to help young cancer survivors move on with their lives after defeating the disease, as Fletcher was able to do so well.
He rode a bus away from the cross-country course Wednesday, away from his last race. His coaches were at his side, and he talked about the idea of coming back, of trying to capitalize on a strong finish to this season, on what dreams may still be attainable.
Jan Matura, one of the U.S. coaches, gave Fletcher a quick elbow to the ribs, a shot of encouragement, as he laid out the case to return, to make a seventh-place finish the start of something else in the sport.
Fletcher, however, remained quite content to make it the end, and the start of everything else, no pressure at all.
“This was pretty much the perfect finish,” he said. “I had a really strong jump and a great race and to be able to go out with a good result is pretty much the perfect way to do it.”
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American giant slalom stud Ted Ligety won six times at Birds of Prey, be it five World Cups and/or gold in the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, but we have to remember what a struggle it was for him to get there.