BY AIMEE BERG I OCT. 8, 2013
|Bryan Fletcher poses during the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional shoot on April 23, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
The highest achievements for a Nordic combined skier are: winning Olympic gold, winning the FIS World Cup overall title, and winning the Holmenkollen in Oslo.
One out of three ain’t bad.
And the victory is even more sublime if it comes after beating childhood cancer and being surpassed by a younger brother who became the family’s first Olympian — a double whammy that Bryan Fletcher knows too well.
Fletcher grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo., the son of a ski patrolman. He was skiing by age 3 and flying off every little bump on the hill, for fun, trying to catch air. When he first saw the Olympic-style ski jumps in downtown Steamboat, he was amazed. “Those are the biggest jumps in the world,” he thought. “That’s what I want to do!”
But the high-energy skier soon contracted frequent headaches. He started sleeping a lot. He began to lose weight and his natural enthusiasm. A doctor ordered tests, and at age 3, Fletcher was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
But Fletcher still wanted to spend time on snow and in the air, so his parents, Tim and Penny, decided to let him enjoy skiing and jumping while he could. At age 4, they enrolled him in Steamboat’s learn-to-jump program and Bryan was immediately hooked.
Once he began cancer treatment, he said, “Jumping became my escape from chemotherapy.”
Chemo lasted four years, and Fletcher said he had a stroke in the middle of it so he doesn’t remember the early parts of his illness.
But he distinctly remembers this: “My parents always kept my optimism up. I knew I was sick, but I didn’t ever think that I was going to die. They never let me doubt my belief that I would be a normal kid. I was 100 percent confident I was going to beat it.”
But still, being the only bald kid on the first day of kindergarten wasn’t easy. “I was nervous; I didn’t know if I’d be teased,” he said. “But we all loved [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles, so I painted my head green and dressed up like a Ninja Turtle, and all the kids got a good laugh out of it. It took the heat off and I got to explain what was going on with me a bit. I was never shy about it. I just showed the other kids what it was.”
Looking back, he said, “That was crazy. I can’t believe I did that.”
Chemo was followed by a two-year remission study that involved long drives to Denver for blood tests. Eventually, there were fewer and fewer drives, and by age 10, Fletcher was cancer-free.
That year, Bryan’s 4-year-old brother Taylor also joined the learn-to-jump class, and the program would eventually launch the pair to world-class careers in Nordic combined, one of the original winter Olympic disciplines that entails ski jumping and cross-country ski racing on the same day.
Thirteen years later, in 2010, the elder Fletcher was living and training in Park City, Utah. At 23, he seemed to be on the cusp of making his Olympic debut. But the U.S. could only take five men to Vancouver to compete in Nordic combined. The frontrunners included veteran powerhouses Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane — along with 2006 Olympian Brett Camerota.
That left one berth wide open, and Fletcher had world championship experience.
In January 2010 — one month before the Games — Fletcher was in Germany competing at a Continental Cup event when he fell down stairs in his ski boots and badly sprained his ankle. Meanwhile, his kid brother Taylor, a 19-year-old rookie on the national team, had just scored his first world cup points with a 29th-place finish at a world cup event in Italy, and Taylor — not Bryan — claimed the final spot on the team.
“It was bittersweet,” Bryan said, but there was no way he’d miss the moment so he and his family flew to Canada to watch.
As the fifth man, Taylor didn’t actually expect to race in Vancouver (because only four athletes per nation could start each event), but a surprising chain of events allowed him to compete in two events — in two different disciplines. The U.S. ski jumping team was short-handed for the team event, so Taylor stepped in as its fourth man. Three days later, Camerota, who had helped the U.S. take a silver medal in the Nordic combined team event, gave up his place in the last Nordic combined event so Fletcher could gain experience.
Bryan Fletcher in action during the Nordic combined team
4x5-kilometer at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on
Feb. 24, 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Meanwhile, Bryan had been busy reprising the role he had played eight years earlier, as a 15-year-old during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Then, as in Vancouver, he was a forejumper — a qualified volunteer who jumps prior to the competition to make sure the inrun and conditions are safe. Unlike 2002, however, Fletcher wasn’t measuring his jumps against the field thinking, “What if?”
The Vancouver jumps, he explained, “were probably my first jumps back after that [ankle] injury.”
Being a forejumper in 2010 also enabled him to relay useful information to his teammates and help the squad make history. Entering the Games, the U.S. had never won an Olympic medal in Nordic combined. By the end, the U.S. had captured four of seven possible medals in the discipline — including the first in U.S. history (by Spillane) and the first U.S. gold (Demong).
Fletcher not only witnessed the milestones, but his role as a spectator also gave him an outside perspective — one that proved to be crucial to breaking through in the lead-up to Sochi.
“During that month, I realized I was going in the totally opposite direction of the sport,” he said. “I had clearly sacrificed my jumps for the cross-country side.
“I focused on trying to get faster, thinking: it doesn’t matter how good or bad I jumped — as long as I was close, I could make up the deficit in the ski [the second component of Nordic combined].
“After that, I realized I needed to focus more on the jumping side.”
His new goal was to place among the top 15 jumpers at each world cup event in order to be in a better position to win after the skiing leg. To do so, he also lost 22 pounds between April and November 2010, meaning the 5-foot-9 Fletcher dropped from 160 to 138 pounds.
“It was a bit of a risk,” he said. “I didn’t know how bad it would affect me on the cross-country side. I also had to do a lot of flexibility and coordination drills in conjunction with that [to change my jumping technique.]”
Almost instantly, the risk was rewarded. In December 2010, Fletcher earned his first top-10 result on the world cup circuit: eighth place in Ramsau, Austria.
The following season was even better. Fletcher earned five top-7 results on the tour, including his first victory — at the mother of all Nordic events: the Holmenkollen in Oslo, thereby joining a tiny list of American Nordic combined athletes to do it since the event’s inception in 1892. The others were John Bower (1968), Kerry Lynch (1983) and Lodwick (1998). (In 2009, Demong also won the event, known as the “King’s Cup,” but it was held in Vikersund, Norway, while the Oslo stadium was being renovated.)
“He seized the day,” said U.S. head coach Dave Jarrett.
“He had the perfect race,” said Taylor. Taylor hadn’t qualified for the season finale but even from the sidelines, he said, “it was surreal.”
Fletcher’s victory boosted him to 17th overall in the world cup rankings — his finest season to date.
Aside from claiming Holmenkollen fame, Fletcher is now the best jumper on the U.S. Nordic combined team. “I’m usually the yardstick for the rest of the U.S. guys to follow,” he admitted.
In another post-Vancouver twist, little brother Taylor has subsequently became one of the fastest skiers on the U.S. team. The brothers’ opposite strengths and the format of Nordic combined (in which those with the best jumping results get a head start on the ski leg) mean that Taylor will often catch up to Bryan during the ski race, and the two can work together, pacing each other and drafting off one another to save energy — as they did at the Olympic test event in Sochi last February where Taylor finished fifth and Bryan placed 15th.
Last season, the elder Fletcher proved his consistency by tallying four more top-8 finishes on the world cup tour and helping the U.S. take bronze in the team event at the 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, where he and Taylor shared the podium.
Now that the Fletcher brothers have become key members of the team (and Olympians Spillane and Camerota have retired), there’s an excellent chance the pair will represent the U.S. in Sochi in 2014.
Beyond that? Taylor said, “I think we’re in it for the long haul.”
- Read about Taylor Fletcher in the October 15 Go For The Gold.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.