Every summer the best Nordic combined skiers in the world face off in an event called Summer Grand Prix. There is a lot of excitement as all the athletes, staff, and volunteers get to reunite for a fast paced two weeks. The overall atmosphere during Grand Prix is different than the winter. World Cup points/spots aren’t up for grabs so the stakes are much lower. There is a much more relaxed aura presiding over the venues. However, the second that the competition starts the smiles turn to grimaces and the true competitor comes out in us all. This years Grand Prix was no different.
Saturday August 27th
We started off in Oberweisenthal, Germany. This is a great venue with a tremendous fan turnout. The first day was a two-man team sprint. Since Bryan Fletcher was at home awaiting the birth of his baby girl, I had the opportunity to ski with Taylor Fletcher for this event. We ended up balancing each other out in the competition. Taylor did not have his best jump but skied fast in the race while I had an awesome jump but skied a slow race. We finished in 14th place both a little disappointed with our performances but looking forward to the next day.
Sunday August 28th
Unfortunately I woke up in the morning with a sore throat, stuffy nose, and wicked headache. I was quarantined to my room for the entire day while my teammates competed. I certainly did not picture my Grand Prix starting off with lying in bed all day watching The Office on my computer. However I was determined to get healthy and compete in the next competition.
On Sunday Taylor jumped well and raced even better. He was the fastest skier on the course and moved his way into the group at the front fighting for the podium. In the end he was outsprinted and finished in 7th place, just seconds off the podium. The talent level of Nordic combined is outrageous at the moment. Every year athletes show up jumping further and skiing faster. There are athletes who can out jump some of the best ski jumpers in the world as well as athletes who can beat some of the fastest cross-country skiers. So for Taylor to be fighting it out at the front with these guys was a very good sign.
On Sunday afternoon we drove from Oberweisenthal to Munich. I had a good nights rest and awoke Monday morning feeling relatively healthy. I knew by Wednesday I would be ready to compete.
Monday August 29th
Monday morning we drove from Munich to Villach, Austria. The rest of the team took the afternoon off after racing hard on Sunday. I chose to go take an afternoon jump session with coaches Nik Huber and Dave Jarrett. After sitting around in my own misery for almost two days I was ready to move around. It was fun being the only athlete on the hill with two coaches all to myself. This session ended up being very productive and I felt confident going into the competition.
Tuesday August 30th
For anyone who doesn’t know what a provisional jump is, I’ll explain that. The provisional jump is the back pocket competition for the weekend. What I mean by back pocket is that the results from the provisional jump can be pulled out and used for a race in case the weather gets too gnarly for jumping over the weekend. The provisional is always held the day before the competitions actually start. You would be amazed at how often these provisional jumps are used. Every athlete has a love/hate relationship with the provisional. If the provisional goes well, you immediately get back to the hotel and check the weather forecast hoping for a tornado, typhoon, volcano, or a simple 20 km/h of wind. The most hilarious part is when the weather actually does get nasty the entire field of 60-70 athletes splits into two groups. There is one group who, “don’t think the conditions are very safe for jumping” and another group who claims, “The conditions look fine let’s go!” This has nothing to do with anyone’s actual beliefs or safety concerns and everything to do with who had a good provisional jump the day before.
In Villach I believe 62 athletes jumped in the provisional. My provisional jump of 90.5 meters was the third furthest jump on the hill. After style and wind compensation points I would have been in 8th place. I say would have because I was disqualified. In my four years of competing internationally I have never been disqualified. I did some research and found that I have competed in 71 International FIS events in my life… zero disqualifications. So you can understand my shock when I was disqualified for a suit infraction. Also I was pissed because I had just jumped to 8th place in a competition containing 62 of the best Nordic Combined skier in the world and now it doesn’t count.
Our suits are allowed to be 3 cm’s bigger than our body measurement. So for example, if I measured the circumference of any spot on my body, my suit can only be 3 cm bigger than that measurement in that spot. This is an extremely annoying process which I hate dealing with. That night I went home, measured my suit, and marked where it needed to be brought in. FYI we are talking centimeters here. Our suit guy brought it in and I passed equipment control the next day with flying colors. Equipment control does a great job and I feel very confident that nobody is getting away with cheating. On the other hand, I know guys who have suits they have measured a hundred times but somehow cannot pass in the comp. I’m not naming names but there was a competitor from a different nation who was disqualified for his crotch measurement in three out of first four events during grand prix. I know this dude wasn’t cheating because he was trying his hardest. Before the provisional in Villach he looked me right in the eyes and said, “fingers crossed this time,” I could see how nervous he was. Our performance isn’t the only thing we have to focus on as athletes. So much energy and attention to detail must be put into our equipment. One tiny mistake and an athlete won’t even get an opportunity to showcase his performance.
Since I have brought up crotch measurements I might as well delve into it. I know guys already have a terrible habit of talking about their crotches too much. Well Nordic combined skiers take that a step further. Every athlete has to have a crotch measurement. The process consists of standing with your feet 40 cm apart wearing nothing but underwear. Then a metal rod is moved up as high as possible until it hits your junk. The measurement is essentially junk to floor in centimeters. At the top of the ski jump every athlete must have his crotch measured while in his ski jumping suit. The measurement from the spot on the ski jumping suit where the legs begin to the ground must be the same number or higher than that particular athlete’s crotch measurement. Even if you measure your suit 1000 times and it is legal, there is still a chance that in the stress of the moment the athlete doesn’t stand the right way and it is a little off. What follows next is something I have termed the "walk of shame”. If an athlete fails the crotch measurement at the top he does not get to jump. The only way back down is the way you came up. This means the athlete must turn around, walk to the lift, then ride it back down to the bottom. During his walk to the lift he must pass all the athletes sitting at the top getting ready to go. Then once on the lift, he has to pass all the athletes who are taking the lift up for their jumps. When is the last time you saw someone riding a ski lift down? It's impossible not to notice. The one thing I have learned is don’t make eye contact with an athlete engaged in the "walk of shame”. Once eye contact is established, awkwardness ensues. Am I supposed to say something? One time I squeaked out a half assed, “sorry.” It ended up sounding oddly sarcastic and I vowed to never do it again.
Wednesday August 31st
If there is one thing Nordic Combined has taught me, it is how to be patient. The amount of sitting around and waiting we do is unreal. FIS Nordic Combined should have a mission statement that reads, “hurry up and wait”. Here is what our schedule looked like for the day: 4:00 pm trial jump, 5:30 pm competition jump, 7:30 pm race. During SGP the schedule is catered towards the fans with night competitions. It’s a blast because we get a large crowd cheering us on but waiting around all day for everything to happen kills me. Here is the thing, Exercising results in guilt-free laziness. That is why we all do it right? During a World Cup in the winter we jump in the morning and race in the early afternoon. This means the whole afternoon post race consists of guilt free laziness. When we don’t need to be at the venue until 3:00 pm this results in a whole day of guilty laziness. My day was spent lying in bed watching season 6 of The Office. During the next Nordic Combined World Cup I’m going to do some investigative journalism and find out what all the other athletes waste their time doing. I know that the police have shown up to hotels before because athletes were illegally downloading movies. This makes me think my time is spent just like everyone else’s.
The competition went really well in Villach. I didn’t have my best jump but it was competitive. I started the race in 19th place. I was lucky to start around some skiers close to my speed. This allowed me to work into my race and not go out and blow myself on the first lap. Here is how the race looked from a lap perspective.
Lap 1 (2.5km): 19th place, Front of group in 17th place
Lap 2 (5 km): 27th place, Front of group in 16th place
Lap 3 (7.5 km): 28th place, Front of group in 15th place
Finish (10 km): 33rd place
I just stayed relaxed and sat on the back of a really good group. Even though my placing changed, I was still in a group with 15th place going into the last lap. On the final lap I lost contact. Everyone kind of stood up and look around before we entered the last lap. I was sitting on the back feeling impressively comfortable. The second we started the last lap though, I got absolutely torched off the back. I didn’t have the speed these other guys had. I know I can ski with these guys for a majority of a race. My endurance is on a good level. If I want to start scoring consistent World Cup points next winter I need to improve my speed on the last lap. I’m pissed off because I was so close but I’m psyched because I was so close with an average jump and a lot of improvement left in the cross-country. I know I will be there soon. I finished 1:42 behind the winner and that was 33rd place. This goes to show how tight and competitive the Nordic Combined circuit is right now.
By the time the race was over, all of us had cooled down, showered, eaten dinner at the hotel, and packed the van it was 8:30 pm. Now we had a seven-hour drive to Oberstdorf, Germany ahead of us. Oh joy.
Thursday September 1st
We arrived to Oberstdorf very late. Actually I think early would be the correct term, 2:00 am to be exact. Luckily we had the morning off. Sleeping in would have been nice but I was wide-awake by 7:30, which is actually sleeping in for me. Probably the highlight of waiting around all day for the provisional was coffee and cake at 4:00 that afternoon. If you don’t know me very well I’ll give you some insider info. I will never say no to coffee and cake. On this day I went pretty overboard. After three cups of coffee complimented by three pieces of cake I was feeling great. One hour later when we arrived at the venue, I was not feeling great. Fighting my way through the sugar/caffeine buzz along with the three kilo’s of cake in my stomach I jumped to 19th place. I remember telling my teammates after the comp, “If I can jump to 19th full of cake, I’m going to crush it without cake.”
Friday September 2nd
The schedule for these events was even later than Villach. 6:00 pm trial jump, 7:00 pm competition jump, and 8:45 pm city race. I spent this day watching The Office and finishing We The Living by Ayn Rand, which is a book I’ve been trying to read all summer. By the time we arrived at the venue this had felt like the longest day of my entire life. My trial jump was beautiful. Possibly the best jump I have had all summer. This is exciting and also super stressful. Imagine doing something really epic and realizing nobody was watching so now you have to do it again. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it again. I completely blew it. The conditions were perfect for me (they sucked). I love when the conditions are terrible. When the air on the hill is bad I always seem to have an advantage. Somehow I still ended up in 17th place but I knew with the right jump I would have been top 10.
The night race in Oberstdorf is a crazy experience. There are a couple spots on the course where street lights are not present and it is pitch dark. The organizers require all athletes to wear glasses. Last year I didn't get the memo and showed up to the start without them. Some random dude gave me a pair of glasses that had the darkest lenses imaginable. I had no idea where I was going. This year I made sure to borrow a pair of clear lenses from Taylor Fletcher.
Although 17th is a good start position, the start times were brutal. 30th place was starting a mere 25 seconds behind me. I hung in the points for a few laps but ended up fading to 35th place just 25 seconds out of the top thirty.
Saturday September 3rd
Another 6:00 pm, 7:00 pm, 8:45 day. I can’t even remember what I spent this day doing but it obviously wasn’t memorable. My trial jump was TERRIBLE. In fact, I did everything I’ve been coached not to do on a ski jump. Knowing I couldn’t possibly do worse than that, I felt good. Then I absolutely crushed my comp jump. The conditions were tough and I flew. I was in 12th place after all 54 jumpers had gone. I truly thought this was my night. Without a doubt this was the night I was going to finish in the top 30. I raced well and fought hard. I did everything within my power but it just didn’t happen. With a better jump and a race time that was a minute faster than the night before I finished in 36th place. I couldn’t help but think, “How can this be possible?” I found the answer to be pretty simple. Nordic combined is a crazy unpredictable sport and sometimes it’s just not meant to be.
I took some time after Grand Prix to sit down and really appreciate how far I have come since the end of last winter. Growing up I never imagined I would be out jumping guys with World Championship medals and Overall World Cup podiums. However, now that I’m doing that it just seems so normal. This is the crazy thing about sports. You always dream of competing at a certain level but when you finally reach that level, all you want is more.
As a team I believe Summer Grand Prix was a success. Our team wasn't complete without Bryan Fletcher. It was weird not having him around but we are looking forward to having him head to Europe in a few weeks time. Taylor showed improved jumping form and cemented what we already knew, that he is the fastest dude out there. For the rest of us younger guys, we gained an understanding of just how close we are. The results weren't quite there but a lot of positives can be taken away from those two weeks. Ben Loomis is on fire and coming close to World Cup points at just eighteen years old while sixteen year old Stephen Schumann finished his first ever SGP in 42nd place. It's going to take a little time but Team USA will get back on top.
My sights are now set on the first World Cup of the season. I don’t feel out of place competing on this level anymore. I’m excited to work on some weaknesses and show up to Ruka, Finland ready to battle. Thank you to everyone for the support! Love you all!