Every athlete has breakthroughs in sports. They don't happen every weekend. Sometimes they don't happen for years. I remember my first really big breakthrough two years ago. I finished in 14th place in a Continental Cup and my previous best finish was 36th place. I surprised myself because honestly I had no idea I was capable of that result.
Since then I've matured as a person and an athlete. I was confident going into the first weekend of Continental Cups last weekend. More confident than I have ever been before. I've learned that sports are won and lost in the mind. Fitness and talent matter to a certain point but I truly believe the mind is the most important tool. This past weekend I made the biggest breakthrough of my career so far. I used my newfound confidence to post career best finishes three days in a row.
Starting at the front of the race is important for me. While my xc skiing has improved drastically, I still feel most comfortable and always have my best races from the front. On the first day I jumped to 4th place which put me right where I want to be. I was able to start out smooth and controlled while getting a grasp of how the skiers around me were skiing. As the laps went by, I began to realize this was going to be a career day. I was still towards the front of the race around the halfway point. However, on one of the downhills an Austrian skier came flying past me and pointed at my feet saying, "Your ski is broken." I glanced down and saw that the base of my ski had peeled off from the tip and was catching in the snow. Instead of panicking, I tried my best to remain calm and not get pulled out of the zone. In every race, my goal is to get into "the zone" or "flow state". This means that there are no thoughts running through my head. I'm existing in the present moment and the pain my body feels from racing kind of just becomes numb. All of my best races come from this "zone" or "flow state". An incident such as a crash, getting passed by people, or in my case a broken ski, can try to pull you out of this state by making your brain kick in and start producing unnecessary thoughts. I kept skiing for probably another half kilometer. My coach yelled at me when I passed saying, "Bryan is going to give you a ski before the next climb." I made it to Bryan, popped my ski off, put a new ski on, then kept going. I could have created thoughts in my head such as, "I'm screwed, why did this have to happen," but I blocked the negative thoughts out and kept fighting. In Nordic Combined, the fast skiers that do not jump to the front of the race usually form packs. They work their way through the field with the goal of catching the lead pack. Unfortunately on the last lap I was passed by one of these descent sized groups. I ended up coming into the finish line in 12th place. New personal best!
Even though I had my best ever finish on the first day, I couldn't help but feel unsatisfied. I had lost 8 places in the race and really believed that I could do better. I wanted to jump to the front again and race better. I had another solid jump on the second day which put me into 4th place once again. Having one race under my belt, I was confident I could start a little bit harder than the day before. Luckily I started the race with a Norwegian who was racing well. We switched off leading each other around the course. The drafting effect isn't quite as big of a deal as it is in cycling, but it certainly helps. By switching off leads we allowed ourselves to ski faster than if we both had to race alone. Going into the 5th and final lap of the 2km loop, it was pretty apparent that the large group coming from behind would not be able to catch us. I crossed the finish line in 8th place. Four positions better than the day before and my first ever top 10 finish.
I was happy with the result but I was even more happy with my teammate Ben Loomis's result! He jumped to 2nd place and finished in 4th place just off the podium. For those of you who don't know, Ben Loomis is 17 years old. Stephen Schumann who is 15 years old finished 25th, 27th, and 26th. The development pipeline of our sport is stronger than I can ever remember. I'm stoked for these guys as they have garnered results that will put them on the national team next year!
On the third and final day, I was tired from the previous days of racing. I was also determined to have an even better jump. The day before I started 15 seconds behind third place and watched as the podium unfolded in front of me. I had an even better jump than the two days prior and started in third place right behind David Pommer from Austria who had won the previous days competitions. I figured I had nothing to lose and this time, I would go out a little too hard and see what happened. I tried my best to stick with David Pommer on the first lap. I hung in behind him and we passed bib number one on the first hill. Coming into the stadium after the first lap I was sitting in 2nd place about 10 seconds behind David. Some very fast skiers started fairly close behind me and whenever they caught up, I gave everything I had to hang on. Going into the 4th lap I was already dead and had exerted far too much energy. I was in 5th place though so slowing down just wasn't an option. On the 4th lap I was caught by a Russian skier and dug deep on one of the climbs to get rid of him. On the 5th lap, things were getting messy for me. I was digging deeper than I ever have before. Everything hurt. Every muscle in my body was screaming at me to slow down. I could hear the Russian skiing hard behind me trying to catch back up. I was blowing up harder than I ever had before. The Russian caught me at the base of the last long climb. This was evidence to the fact that I was slowing down rapidly. It was on this climb that I pushed past another mental limit and kicked things into a faster gear. Once again, I dropped the Russian on the climb then descended the downhill back towards the finish line. There was a gap between the Russian athlete and myself but I could tell that he was gaining time on me. I rounded the turn into the finish and sprinted as best as I could (which obviously wasn't very good). As I crossed the finish line, I saw a foot fly into my peripheral vision. Then I collapsed. About five minutes later I was able to peel my aching body off the freezing cold snow. I found my family in the crowd and gave them all a big hug. My dad was freaking out. I don't know if I have ever met someone more into Nordic Combined than my dad. He loves it.
I stood there with my family just taking in the moment. I could see the happiness on their faces. This was as much their accomplishment as it was mine. They are the ones who have supported me day in and day out. Through the good days and the bad days. I was happy, but not ecstatic. At first I couldn't figure out why. Then I thought about one of my all time favorite quotes.
"When you make a choice and say, 'come hell or high-water, I am going to be this,' then you should not be surprised when you are that. It should not be something that feels intoxicating or out of character because you have seen this moment for so long that when that moment comes, of course it is here because it has been here the whole time because it has been in your mind the whole time" - Kobe Bryant
It's not that I wasn't happy, I just wasn't surprised. My mind no longer holds me back. I knew I was capable of results like these before the weekend had even started. Cheers to unlocking the minds potential and not setting limits on achievement!
I later found out I had been beaten in the photo finish for 5th place. I guess I need to work on my sprinting. There will always be improvements that need to be made and better results to strive for. In this sport, one guy goes home as a winner and the other 40 to 50 guys go home as losers. It's important though to celebrate and cherish days like this. I may not have been on top of the podium but I improved, and improvement is the only way to get there. I'm so thankful for all my sponsors, coaches, family, friends, and teammates. I want to say congratulations to all my teammates who competed this weekend as almost all of them set new personal best finishes which is huge! Thank you Rudy Project, One Way, Madshus, Sport 2000, Feed The Machine, and Honey Stinger. Also a huge shootout to all the people who have donated money to our organization USA Nordic Sports. We wouldn't be where we are without you. I feel blessed to have this amazing support. Love you all!