Go For The Gold

BY AIMEE BERG  I OCT. 15, 2013

Taylor Fletcher poses during the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional shoot on April 23, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

It took the U.S. 86 years to win its first Olympic medal in Nordic combined — a sport that requires ski jumping and cross-country skiing on the same day. And when it did, it won big: claiming four of seven possible medals in Vancouver. The lone gold medalist, Billy Demong, is one of the fastest cross-country skiers in the sport. But who keeps the four-time Olympian looking over his shoulder in training?

Taylor Fletcher.

“When I show up for intervals, he’s eyeballing me across the parking lot,” Demong said.

Since his rookie year on the national team, Fletcher, 23, has been chasing the 33-year-old Demong. Back then, Demong had just won a 2009 world championship title so, Fletcher said, “I shadowed Bill every chance I could get. Every single day, every training session.”

Now, Demong said, “any time he goes for it, I just cringe — ‘cause he’s going to crack my legs on the bike,” referring to their primary summer training tool. “He just chews people up all over town, all the time.”

Lately, Fletcher has been keeping up on snow, too.

Last season, Fletcher posted six top-10 finishes on the FIS World Cup circuit, including his first podium: third place at a world cup in Seefeld, Austria, in January.

And when he’s not chasing Demong, Fletcher relentlessly follows another teammate — his older brother, Bryan.

Bryan, 27, is the best jumper on the U.S. team and while Taylor is one of the team’s top cross-country skiers, it’s not unusual for siblings to have opposite strengths.

Nor is it unusual to find family members competing at a world-class level in Nordic combined.

Taylor Fletcher in action during the Nordic combined ski jumping
HS134 at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on
Feb. 28, 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

Internationally, there are least five sets of brothers competing on the world cup tour. And as recently as 2009, the U.S. team alone featured identical twins (the Millers), fraternal twins (the Camerotas), and the Fletchers.

Unlike the twins, however, the Fletchers are a safe bet to make the Sochi Olympic Team together. Already, the two shared a podium at the 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, where they helped the U.S. earn a bronze medal in the team event.

The world medal was a memorable one, but Fletcher would not be in such a strong position to make the 2014 Olympic Team had it not been for another crucial juncture: the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Taylor — then a 19-year-old rookie on the world cup tour — ended up earning the last spot on the Olympic Team while Bryan was sidelined by a sprained ankle and didn’t make the cut.

“For Taylor to go from being the new guy to making the Olympic Team was a trajectory we saw early on, but he solidified it by earning that spot” said U.S. head coach Dave Jarrett. “He took that, motivated himself, and became a contender on the world cup without really looking back.”

Every year, Taylor’s year-end ranking has improved and last season, he was the top American in the world cup standings, at 16th.

No one could be prouder of Taylor than Bryan, and vice versa, but it doesn’t mean the Fletchers want to be roommates on the road.

“Taylor is so competitive that everything I say will be wrong, and anything he says will be right, and it turns into a big battle,” said Bryan the elder. “We like to room with other people and mix it up. Otherwise, it’s too much like home.”

“Like any siblings, they’re at each other’s throats,” said coach Jarrett. “But when someone gets at their throat, they have each other’s back.”

Growing up as the only sons of a ski patroller in Steamboat, Colo., the Fletchers inevitably ended up in the learn-to-jump program at Howelsen Hill, the mecca of Nordic combined in the United States. But not every whippersnapper in the famous program made it to the world stage.

Off the snow, the younger but taller Taylor complemented his skiing by playing forward and midfield on his high school soccer team. “I think I had a lot of quick-twitching muscles from sprinting down the field,” he said. He rarely rode the bench “because I could keep going and going and going.”

Then, right before his senior year, Taylor attended a junior Nordic combined camp where Demong was scouting teenage talent. (By then, Bryan was already on the national team.)

“He was a fast runner, a good skier, and probably more importantly at that age,” Demong recalled, “he already had a game mentality. He knew how to take himself to the very limit, past the limit. He wasn’t afraid to fail, either.”

At four consecutive junior world championships beginning in 2007, Taylor gradually improved and scored a career-best 11th place in his finale, in 2010.

Less than a month later, Taylor was named to the U.S. Olympic Team. He was the fifth man on a powerful Nordic combined squad, and only four men per nation were allowed to enter each event. But when the ski jumping team was one man short for the team event, Fletcher stepped in. “I jumped better than I expected,” he said, yet the team placed 11th (of 12 teams).

Then, three days later, after the U.S. Nordic combined team captured a silver medal in a heart-stopping finish in the team event, Brett Camerota gave Fletcher his start position in the final individual event of Nordic combined. The 19-year-old finished last, but the team’s historic performance, he said, “just opened my eyes. I realized I’m training with the best team in the world.”

Since then, Demong said, “I’m a little amazed at how fast he’s become. It’s one thing to ski the fastest time once or a couple times a year, but Taylor has an ability to hold on at a super-high level. Not just on skis. It’s all summer on the bike, in time trials.

“He’s been a very motivating teammate for me even though we’re a decade apart in age,” Demong said.

If Demong and both Fletchers end up in Sochi (as they should) it might be hard to surpass Demong’s status as world and Olympic champion, but which Fletcher will come out ahead in the individual events? Bryan, the older star jumper? Or Taylor the young, blazing-fast skier?   

One indication came at the Sochi test event last February where Taylor took fifth and Bryan placed 15th.

“I’m fighting to keep ahead,” said the elder Bryan. “It was very clear at a young age that he’d surpass me in the sport. When his jumping comes together, he will be a force to be reckoned with.”

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.