Heber valley resident Bryan Fletcher earns ticket to Olympics
When Bryan Fletcher skied across the finish line at Saturday’s Nordic combined Team trials at the Utah Olympic Park, he was wracked from exhaustion. A victorious shout was all he had left before crumpling on the snow at the base of the ski jump in front of 3,000 spectators.
The 31-year-old father and Heber valley resident had taken first place over brothers Adam and Ben Loomis, along with six other national team competitors, after starting 1 minute and 24 seconds behind pole position. To catch his teammates and earn a position in the 2018 Winter Games, he had to put in a herculean effort.
Just hours earlier, it looked like the race would fall easily into his hands. Fletcher’s day had started with a long elegant practice jump – the farthest of the practice session. But when the competition started, his form failed him.
As soon as he left the ground, Fletcher knew his technique could have been better – he had jumped slightly too early into unpredictable gusts. While looking down over the crowd, he felt no updraft to prolong his flight and instead he sunk quickly to the normal hill’s slope.
On the scoreboard, a confusing sight: his name paired with Adam Loomis’s second-place score, starting him 56 seconds behind the 19-year old jump-leader Ben Loomis. Fletcher assumed his score must have been bolstered by wind compensation points. Not so.
When it came time for the 10K Nordic race, he saw his name listed fifth on the start sheet — the original second-place listing must have been a scoreboard mistake.
“It played a trick on my head when I saw the official start list and I was at 1:24 back,” he said after the race.
To make up 56 seconds was tough but certainly doable.
“But 1:24, it brought that doubt in,” he said.
It meant Fletcher would have to perform at his very best.
“I just said, ‘OK, I’m going all-out and if I win, I win. If I lose I lose,’” he said.
There were still other, albeit more stressful, ways to make the Olympic team if he didn’t take first, but shoring it up would give him time to hone his skills before Pyeongchang.
“I’ve had great performances on the cross-country side leading into this season, so I knew I could make up that deficit,” he said. “I knew if I could catch (Ben and Adam Loomis) I had a chance.”
Fletcher was also in danger of getting caught by other athletes, including his brother Taylor, a notoriously strong skier who was starting 30 seconds behind him.
The athletes staggered themselves behind the starting line in the center of the ski jump’s run-out, and at 1 p.m. Ben Loomis pushed off, skate skiing his way through the winding infield course and out onto the hills around the jumps.
Adam Loomis followed soon after, then Ben Berend, Jasper Good, Bryan Fletcher and his brother, Taylor. As soon as the race started, the Fletchers started closing on the leaders.
By the third lap of five, Bryan had moved up to second place, past Berend, Good and Adam Loomis and had cut Ben’s lead in half. Taylor had closed to fourth.
By the final lap, Bryan had taken over the lead with the Loomis brothers close behind. Meanwhile Taylor languished in no man’s land, with no one around to help him keep pace.
“I knew any one of those guys was capable of a strong finish,” Bryan said. “Both those guys were skiing strong in the race.”
Bryan said his best option was attacking from far outside the finish in hopes of tiring the Loomis brothers out enough so he could break away up the final hills.
At the bottom of the hills he made his run, opening up a small gap in the process, which widened as they crested the final hill.
“When I came around the corner, I was totally dead, I almost started walking,” he said. “But I looked back and saw those guys were in the hurt locker, too, and I had a 10 second gap, so I just kept going as hard as I could, tried to build momentum and take deep breaths and hold it to the line. Luckily it held out.”
He crossed the finish line and used the last of his energy in a victorious shout, then collapsed on his side.
“If it had been another 500 meters, it very easily could have been (Ben or Adam),” he said.
In Febraury, Fletcher will go to his second Olympics, after competing in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
“I’m just very relieved,” he said. “I can breathe now and focus on training and peaking for the Olympics.”
In one massive effort, the team’s veteran assured the rest of his season would be spent fine tuning his technique, not worrying about making the team. His next big push will be for an Olympic medal.