Johnny Spillane put away his competition bib before last season. Todd Lodwick did the same this past summer after six Olympic Games. Billy Demong won’t start his season this year until January.
That means the U.S. Nordic combined team that brothers Taylor and Bryan Fletcher have been standing on the edges of for the past six years is now theirs.
“In reality, they’ve carried the torch since (the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in) Vancouver,” said Demong, a 2010 Olympic gold and silver medalist and 2009 world champion.
The 28-year-old Bryan Fletcher and his younger brother Taylor, 24, will begin the Nordic combined world cup season on Saturday in Ruka, Finland, as the undisputed leaders of Team USA in the sport that combines cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
The loss of Spillane, 34, and Lodwick, 38, to retirement has cost Team USA the experience of four Olympic silver medals and three world championship titles as well as a bronze medal.
|Taylor Fletcher competes in a trial jump for the Nordic combined large hill competition at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center on Feb. 18, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
The Fletcher brothers, who, along with Demong and Lodwick, skied Team USA to a bronze medal at the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Italy, enter the new season coming off a sixth-place finish at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, where they again skied with Demong and Lodwick in the team event.
Taylor was the highest placed American in the Sochi large hill event, finishing 20th, with Bryan two spots behind him.
“Taylor is the fastest guy in the fort,” Demong said. “They’re very, very elite. It’s the same (pattern) that John, Todd and I did: Not only are they two of Nordic combined’s top competitors, there are 15 athletes following them around.
“This is where I think we’ve established a legacy, not only of results, but of culture, to be world beaters together.”
The next Fletchers, at least for the start of this season, are 22-year-old Adam Loomis and 24-year-old Brett Denney, who will take the other two starting spots reserved for Team USA in world cup competition.
The 34-year-old Demong, who is still recovering from his 2:33:05 performance in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 2, had planned to retire from competition following the Sochi Games this past year.
But in a season immediately following an Olympic Winter Games, budgets are often cut.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association faced a $2 million shortfall, and Nordic combined’s funding was slashed to $40,000, according to coach Dave Jarrett.
While $40,000 is a mere fraction of what is needed to compete, the USSA advanced the Nordic combined team 15 “Gold Passes” — transferable ski passes for the 2014-15 season good at any U.S. ski area, valued at about $10,000 each. But the Nordic team has to sell them.
Demong felt an obligation to help his team. He postponed his retirement to remain on the competitive roster. That way he could use his Olympic celebrity to sell sponsorship and raise donations, and more importantly, help form a relationship between Nordic combined and their ski jumping brethren to organize a permanent funding mechanism. The Fletchers, Loomis, Denney and others have done their part as well.
While giving so much attention to fundraising doesn’t affect training, Jarrett said it can affect recovery time.
“You can’t burn the candle at both ends forever,” Jarrett said. “We’ve really worked hard to make sure athletes stay focused on training. But people want to talk to the athletes, not administrators, and our guys are good at getting people to write checks.”
|Bryan Fletcher competes in the Nordic combined 4x5-kilometer team event at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 20, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
Demong, Team USA’s first Olympic gold medalist in Nordic combined, is the biggest draw. And he’s using the early season to not only raise money but to also recover from the New York Marathon, so he can rejoin the circuit in Germany in the new year with the ultimate test coming at the Feb. 18-March 1 world championships in Falun, Sweden.
Taylor Fletcher had his best season on the world cup circuit in 2013 with a 16th-place finish, when his brother Bryan finished 21st. One year earlier, he landed his first world cup podium with a third-place finish in Seefeld, Austria.
Bryan had nine top-10 performances last season to finish 18th in the world cup standings, just behind his career-best 17th in 2012. He won the Holmenkollen world cup event in 2012 in Oslo, Norway.
This will be Loomis’ and Denney’s first full seasons on the world cup circuit, having climbed from the second-tier Continental Cup.
The United States has won medals at four of the last six world championships, in individual and team events, leaving Demong to believe that — at least competitively — the sport has a bright future.
“Over the long run, we have a lot better club system, a lot better athletes,” Demong said. “With the onset of the reality of funding, we realize we have to do more to preserve what we’ve started. It’s about more than having good results in you career.
“Athletically I feel very good about the talent.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.