Part 4 of our campaign series featuring winter olympian's Bryan and Taylor Fletcher.
Getting into position, Bryan Fletcher peers out over the snow covered hill below him. He’s sitting atop the nauseating 142 meter “Ruka” ski jump in Kuusamo, Finland, and the elements around him make their presence felt. Despite the countless hours of training and preparation, the nerves never quite subside, even for an elite athlete like himself. It’s human instinct after all, although the physiological effects of impending risk and adrenaline only heighten his senses.
“Weather conditions, hill conditions and competition conditions all contribute to the nerves that arise at the top of a jump, not to mention the shear scale of the structure your standing on.” - Bryan Fletcher
For Bryan and his younger brother Taylor, both olympic athletes on the United States Nordic Combined Team, this is their reality, for half of any given competition that is. A duel discipline sport, Nordic Combined athletes compete in ski jumping, followed by a grueling cross country race which determines the overall winner. With each discipline challenging and unique in their own right, it’s the ski jumping that leaves spectators in awe.
“Weather conditions, hill conditions and competition conditions all contribute to the nerves that arise at the top of a jump, not to mention the shear scale of the structure your standing on.” say’s Bryan. A veteran in the sport, he’s accustomed to this feeling, and he know’s how to handle it. “Nerves can be both performance enhancing or diminishing depending on how you channel them.”
On this particular jump in Finland, athletes tear down a 100 meter long “inrun" (ramp for the uninitiated) reaching speeds of close to 58 mph at the point of take off. With ski’s flared into a V-shape, hands tucked closely at their sides, skier’s proceed to stoically soar through the air, covering distances longer than a football field. From the starting position, to the explosive takeoff, every phase of the jump is highly technical and timing is everything. As with all sports, the fitness and size of each athlete also plays a huge role. “Physical fitness in jumping is probably the first key to success in the sport,” exclaims Bryan. “One should be very lean and powerful in the legs with little to no upper body weight. This means strong legs with little to no muscle or fat in the upper body. Additionally a jumper should be flexible so they can sit in a low compact in run position.”
Judged on distance and style, the athlete with the highest number of points totaled will be awarded the first starting position heading into the cross country race. For all other competitors, their ski jumping scores determine the time start time between athletes. The system for scoring seems cut and dry, and for the most part it is, although any sport that’s judged will always tend to have some level of subjectivity and bias. But the factor that is less impartial, less forgiving, playing a role in the outcome of every jump is weather.
Wind variability is a love/hate relationship in ski jumping. It effects the outcome of a jump much more than any other elemental factor (snow, rain, etc.). Ironically, a headwind is preferred, as it allows for more lift in a jump, thus more distance. On the flip side, tailwind’s drive you down. The cruel reality of all of this - athletes never know how the wind will blow on a given jump. Luckily this is taken into account, and the score of each jump is impacted by this. “If you have a headwind, you will have points deducted from your total score depending on the strength of it. If you have a tailwind, points will be added depending on the strength of the wind. This can change your ranking quite a bit, as the wind is constantly changing and can effect you in a big way. It really comes down to luck.” say’s Taylor.
“The most common injuries are broken collar bones, concussions, as well as knee and back injuries. Personally I have had surgery on both knees resulting from the abuse they’ve sustained over the years." - Bryan Taylor
Risk is never totally absent, despite the elite talent of each athlete, and any skier can recount war stories of injuries experienced or witnessed on the hill. “The most common injuries are broken collar bones, concussions, as well as knee and back injuries. Personally I have had surgery on both knees resulting from the abuse they’ve sustained over the years, but I am very lucky to have never done any major ligament damage.” Bryan would later add that at 30 years old, he has perfectly healthy knees, although there may be an air of hopeful optimism in that statement. His brother Taylor has been more fortunate over the years, “Knock on wood, but I have been very lucky and haven’t had any bad crashes due to ski jumping. Although I’ve witnessed some crashes over the years. Unfortunately, some of the worst injuries have happened from crashes that didn’t look like much.” At the end of the day though, risk and reward go hand in hand, and the thrill is part of the appeal anyway.
For years man has had ambitions of taking to the sky. Innovation in aviation has taken us there in ways we could only once imagine. However a void still exists, as we will never truly know what it’s like to fly. For this small group of elite athletes however, scattered in pockets across the globe, they’re as close as one can come to filling that void. "There is no better feeling then flying all on your own and being able to control it," say's Taylor. "I have failed in trying to compare the feeling to something else, as I haven’t found anything even close to it."
Through the month of December, 10% of your purchase of any product in our shop will go towards sponsoring Bryan and Taylor Fletcher. For sports like Nordic combined, funding doesn't always come easy, and elite athletes often times have to incur large personal costs to compete at a high level. The Frynge is proud to provide a platform that allows readers and customers like yourself, to have a direct impact in supporting athletes like Bryan and Taylor. So be sure to check back each week for new stories, gear and apparel!