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Frequent Flier Nita Englund Leads U.S. Ski Jumpers Into Worlds

By Doug Williams | Feb. 18, 2015, 12:41 p.m. (ET)

Nita Englund competes during the FIS Women's Ski Jumping World Cup event at Schattenberg-Schanze Erdinger Arena on Jan. 25, 2015 in Oberstdorf, Germany.

It was a surreal moment for Nita Englund.

She had just finished second in the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup event at Rasnov, Romania, earlier this month, and there she was, sitting at a table between winner Sara Takanashi of Japan and third-place jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria, taking questions from the media.

It was her first podium finish on the world cup circuit, and she felt a bit out of place.

Her word for the experience: “Overwhelming.”

“I surprised myself that I got that,” said Englund, 22, who’s in her first full season on the world cup tour. “I was not really expecting myself to be wedged in between Daniela, like the top female ski jumper right now, top ranked, and Sara, who has always been up there.

“So I’m kind of sitting there. They obviously knew what they were doing, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing in a press conference with these two. I don’t know what’s happening.’”

Nita Englund smiles during the FIS Women's Ski Jumping World Cup event on Jan. 25, 2015 in Oberstdorf, Germany.

Englund laughs as she recalls the moment, still amazed it actually happened.

After all, she went into this season having no idea what to expect.

Englund had gotten over the disappointment of not qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games last year and was fully fit and healthy after injuries in recent years had delayed her progress. She also had moved her training base to Slovenia this past summer in order to work with U.S. traveling coach Vasja Bajc, a former Yugoslavian national ski jumper.

“I actually went into the season with no expectations,” she said. “Really. Just working on my jumping. I knew the year was going to be a little different just because it’s coming off an Olympic year, and there’s a lot of changes.”

Englund set some small, specific goals for herself about techniques and fundamentals, but didn’t make any kind of list about victories, podiums and rankings. And she certainly didn’t envision earning a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the Nordic World Ski Championships beginning this week in Falun, Sweden.

Yet Englund has been the most consistent U.S. jumper this season.

After getting a small taste of world cup jumping in Japan last season — where she finished 37th, 45th and 48th — she’s had five finishes of 10th or better since January. She’s finished seventh twice and eighth once. And she’s the highest-ranked American jumper in the world cup standings at No. 9, one spot ahead of teammate Sarah Hendrickson.

Because of that, she’s been selected to be part of the U.S. team to compete in Falun, along with Hendrickson, Tara Garaghty-Moats, Jessica Jerome and Abby Hughes.

Englund said what’s already happened this season is a “dream come true.” She’s excited to compete in the world championships, but is trying not to be.

“I’m trying to keep it where it’s just another week of competition for me,” she said.

She says her breakthrough in 2015 has been because of a number of factors.

First, she’s healthy and fit. In 2012, she suffered an ACL tear that forced her to dial back.

She decided to use the rehabilitation as a time to regroup. The native of Wisconsin set up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where she could train, get fit, work on her jumping, catch up on her college studies in graphic design, work and save money. She competed a bit, but was out of the main stream.

“I think I disappeared from the ski jumping world a little bit during that time period,” she said. “But it gave me an opportunity to save up money and know that I still really like the sport.”

Finishing sixth in the Olympic qualifying — while dealing with an Achilles’ tendon problem — was disappointing, but she said it sharpened her desire.

“Last season was really a struggle,” she said, “but it pushed me more for this year.”

Then she made the commitment to move to Slovenia and had strong summer jump-training sessions that left her feeling strong and confident.

Working with Bajc, too, has been a boost.

When she finished second at Rasnov, she had jumped poorly the day before. Then bad weather swept in on the second day and competitors were limited to just one jump.

As she waited at the top of the ramp to take it, the wind was blowing and conditions were awful. But she said it reminded her a bit of the conditions she jumped in back home, and that helped her focus.

“It got me really excited to jump and perform well,” she said. When she took off, she knew it was a good one. She flew 94 meters, just one meter behind Takanashi and 2½ more than Irsashko-Stolz.

Englund is a bit of a daredevil. She, her twin sister and older brother grew up in Wisconsin, near the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, jumping off hills at an early age, and she admits she has no fear of heights — or flying through the air. In high school she was a pole vaulter. But when she’s not jumping in skis off big hills, she says she’s shy. So, standing atop a podium or sitting up in front of the media — next to the sport’s biggest names — is something that doesn’t come naturally to her.

But the way she’s competing this season, she might have to get used to it. She has her sights set on the next Olympic Winter Games in 2018, with plenty of time between now and then to re-visit the podium.

Says Englund, laughing: “It would be nice to do more often.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.