Americans fly high at Springer Tournee
Saturday’s U.S. Large Hill and Nordic Combined National Championships at the Utah Olympic Park had a little bit of everything.
In the women’s ski jumping competition, 2014 Olympian Jessica Jerome claimed a whopping 13th national title after taking all of last season off. She won with jumps of 120.5 and 122.5 meters, beating out second-place finisher Cara Larson and third-place jumper Logan Sankey. (Canadian Taylor Henrich won the competition, but only U.S. jumpers are eligible for the national title.)
In the men’s ski jumping contest, Parkite Will Rhoads defended his 2015 title by earning a second-straight national championship. He won with jumps of 132.5 and 132 meters, beating out second-place finisher Kevin Bickner.
And, rounding out the weekend, brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher battled it out on the roller ski trails of Soldier Hollow, with Taylor coming from behind after the jumping portion of the event to prevent Bryan from winning his third-straight title.
“It was probably one of the most intense national championships we’ve had in a while,” Bryan said.
“It was cool to see how well everyone was skiing,” Taylor added. “I think we all skied relatively well for our team. We’re excited and looking to continue to improve.”
In Nordic combined, athletes earn points based on how far they jump and those points determine when each racer will start on the ski portion of the competition. Ben Berend won the jumping contest and Ben Loomis finished second, so Berend got a 20-second head start on Loomis. Bryan Fletcher started 30 seconds after Loomis, Adam Loomis started 1:00 after his brother and Taylor Fletcher started 1:02 after the leader.
Quickly, though, Taylor closed the gap on Bryan and together they chased down Berend.
“I knew I had 32 seconds to get to Bryan, who’s a fast skier,” Taylor said. “Ben Berend had a really solid jump, but I knew I was well within range to catch everybody. I felt fairly confident I could catch Bryan, so I went out pretty hard in the first two laps. I ended up catching him I think at the end of the second lap, so we had two laps left. I sat in and waited for my moment to come.”
That moment came late in the fourth lap, when Taylor powered his way past Bryan and Berend on the steep incline known as Hermod’s Hill.
“I knew if I could get a gap on Hermod’s, I’d be able to hold it pretty well,” he said. “From there it’s all downhill pretty much into the finish. I was able to not fall down on the downhill, which would have been pretty embarrassing.”
“When I caught Ben, I knew Taylor was coming in pretty hot,” Bryan added. “I was out in front and, knowing they were dropping off of me, I slowed down quite a bit to conserve my energy as well. What ended up happening was Taylor started to go and I just jumped on his wheels and went. I was right with him the whole way and in the last little bit, he gapped me by about five meters. We finished about five seconds apart. It was a good fight and we gave it all we could.”
For Taylor, Saturday marked an end to a few years of frustrating finishes at Nationals.
“I’ve been on the podium every single year since like 2011, so to finally be on the top step is nice,” he said. “It just means that I’m improving in the summer. Right now, we’ve gone through some coaching changes on the jump hill. To find confidence in my jumping like I did was nice and I can use this weekend as a performance marker.”
Bryan won the 2014 and 2015 titles, but said the right person won on Saturday.
“I wanted the three-peat, but Taylor was really the best man that day,” he said. “He’s definitely been working hard. I didn’t have my best performance that day and Taylor had one of his better performances. He stepped it up.”
Saturday certainly won’t be the last time the Fletchers battle it out at a competition, but Taylor said he looks forward to the next time he’ll go toe-to-toe with his older sibling.
“Bryan and I have a great relationship,” he said. “We’re extremely competitive and we really push each other to become the best we can. I say a lot that I have the best training partner and teammate I can ask for. We work really well together, but, even though he’s my brother, we still want to beat each other every day.”
Taylor and other members of the U.S. Nordic Combined Team will head to Europe in a couple of weeks to compete in Summer Grand Prix races. Bryan, meanwhile, will stay in America as he and his wife await the birth of their first daughter.
Taylor said he’s excited to take the momentum from his national title and see how he stacks up against international competition.
“Mostly, I just want to go over there and have some good results,” he said. “My main objective is to continue to improve in the jumping. If I can get on the podium or have a series of top-10 finishes, I’ll be really happy with that.”
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