Behind the Gold |

Behind the Gold

Tom Kelly, Record Columnist

Much of the ski world is following the buzz on Lindsey Vonn this Thanksgiving — will she ski in the Nature Valley Aspen Winternational after being struck by illness in Vail? But on the 1994 Olympic trails in Lillehammer, Norway, another drama is playing out with the opening of the 2012-13 World Cup nordic campaign. On the ski jumps, Park City’s Sarah Hendrickson will try to repeat the win that launched her to the World Cup title a year ago. Alongside her, rising nordic combined star Bryan Fletcher will seek to replicate his historic season-ending triumph at Holmenkollen in Oslo last March.

Sunday, Fletcher sat at Salt Lake International Airport preparing for his flight to Norway and running thoughts through his mind of that day in Holmenkollen and the chaotic season ahead. "I’m excited to get the season under way. Truthfully I have been ready mentally since October," said Fletcher. "Once the hard work is done and the body starts to feel better, it’s hard to wait for the season to start. That being said, the wait is not a bad thing as it allows you to put the fine touches on and take a deep breath before the chaos begins."

Fletcher is no stranger to challenges. As a three year old in Steamboat Springs, he was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died, undergoing chemo for seven years. His doctors said no skiing, but mom saw it made him happy, so she encouraged him. The rest is history.

"I still get jitters when I look back at the last event in Oslo at Holmenkollen," he said. "Winning such a historic event certainly makes me smile. To have won an event that my childhood idols have won is a dream come true."

Fletcher, who missed the Olympic Team in 2010, had been making steady progress following in the ski strides of his Olympic-medalist teammates. But in 2012 he rocketed to the top, becoming top-10 competitive in the latter half of the season leading up to his historic win at Holmenkollen.

"Coming off a win like that and entering into a new year, I have been asked a lot how I am preparing for this season," he added. "The truth is, I look at it as the first step in a very long staircase. In certain ways it takes the pressure off because I know if I never win again, I can be happy that I at least got one under my belt. However, I want more, and this summer I continued to work hard and didn’t rest on my laurels."

The 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer marked the start of the modern era of U.S. nordic combined. Steamboat Springs teen Todd Lodwick made his debut there, leading the USA in 13th. Since then, in a steady progression, the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team has moved into the global spotlight with Olympic medalists Billy Demong, Johnny Spillane and Lodwick still competing. Fletcher is leading the next generation.

"This is a venue every nordic combined athlete knows well," said Fletcher. "It’s a tame and relatively mild venue to start the winter. That means each athlete will be coming into the first comp with some confidence, instead of uncertainty. The only job of Team USA this weekend will be to come in with equal confidence and match the intensity. If we can do that we will remain as players throughout the rest of the season.

While the media will talk a lot this weekend about Fletcher’s end-of-season win, his focus will be squarely on the present.

"While it’s certainly exciting to be the last person to win a winter World Cup, I will not be focused on that," said Fletcher. "To me that was last year and this season is a new one. I have to be focused on that!"

One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the Team.