The last three holdouts of the dozen are close friends, because when you go through what they’ve been through together, when you spend the hours together they have and log the miles they have, friendship happens.
Six years ago, there were a dozen young men who woke early to work hard on frigidly cold mornings and who showed up to work hard on sweltering hot afternoons, all convinced it was for a purpose — convinced those hours and that commitment would one day lead to the Olympics, specifically the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
There had been even more when they were younger, maybe four times as many from their five-year age range, but by 2012, their numbers had shrunk to a core 12, and each of the 12 dreamed about those Olympics and planned for them and sacrificed to make them happen. They gave up everything from the trivial, weekends hanging out with friends, to the serious, scholarships to college.
They were aware of the numbers. The United States was likely to send four athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics to compete in Nordic combined. Given the age and skills of those already on the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, two of those spots were likely spoken for, which meant all 12 were competing for the remaining two spots.
Now, on the eve of those Olympics, three of the dozen remain, and as they barrel toward their dreams, they can only do so much to keep their skiing focused, their friendships intact and their lives in perspective.
“The Olympics have always been the goal,” Steamboat Springs skier Ben Berend said. “They’re the end goal of all of this.”
The 2010 Olympic performance is still a driving force with the team, particularly for Berend, Good, and Adam Loomis.
They were old enough at the time to have been heavily invested in Nordic combined, but young enough to have little actual contact with those legendary skiers.
The Fletchers competed side by side with that crew. Taylor was actually on the 2010 Olympic team, competing in one individual event. For Berend, Good and Loomis, however, the medal winners were poster-on-the-wall heroes.
Berend snuck a cell phone into class the day Demong won a gold medal, hiding in the bleachers of the gymnasium to check the morning’s ski jumping results every chance he got. Then he, Good and Loomis — in Steamboat training at the time — all raced to Howelsen Hill after school to watch the second half of the Nordic combined event, a 10-kilometer race.
The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club had set up a huge projector screen in Olympian Hall and tapped into an overseas internet stream to broadcast the race live.
“It seemed like there were more than 300 people packed in there,” Berend said. “The emotions were going everywhere. It would be screaming, then silent. Then Bill won, and everyone was crying.”
Being “that guy” has been more difficult than it looked on TV.
The U.S. has had a few highlights in the years since. Bryan Fletcher won a World Cup in 2012, and the U.S. relay team won a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2013.
The team’s success has been limited beyond that, especially for those dozen who were waiting in the wings and finally got their opportunity after the wave of retirements.
All of that group went on to get starts on the Continental Cup circuit, the level below the World Cup, but they didn’t all thrive there. Eight logged a top-10 finish on the Continental Cup. Six earned at least one World Cup start, and only one, Adam Loomis, has earned World Cup points, awarded for a top-30 finish.
That’s actually a real problem for the United States.
The Olympic field in Nordic combined will consist of 55 skiers. It will be the top 55 skiers in the world based on the World Cup points list except each nation can only enter four athletes. Germany, for instance, has six of the top 20 athletes on the most recent world point list, but every German after No. 4, Bjoern Kircheisen, won’t take up a spot or count toward the 55 Olympic spots.
Officials will go down the rankings as far as they need to, first through all those who have scored World Cup points, then through all those who’ve scored on the Continental Cup, to reach 50 skiers.
The Olympics also requires 10 full four-man relay teams. If it hasn’t reached that quota in its first 50 skiers, the highest-ranked team with three skiers already in can add its fourth skier into the field to complete the team.
So it goes until the field reaches 55 individual athletes and 10 full teams.
Loomis’s World Cup points came in January 2015, and have since expired, so the U.S. currently has just two skiers who have points, Bryan and Taylor Fletcher.
Bryan Fletcher, the longest-standing member of the U.S. team, has spent time wondering what he’s still doing here and what happened to the rest of his classmates — those friends and teammates he once shared a dream with.
“Was I the only one just willing to stay in it, or was it just dumb luck?,” he said. “It’s hard to tell who’s going to make it in this sport. Some of the most gifted athletes hit a wall and can’t ever get over. Then you see some of the least talented athletes with the work ethic that’s unbelievable.”
Fletcher’s American contemporaries have all retired.
One, on that 2010 relay team, left after an Olympic medal. Others were stopped by persistent injuries and more just grew tired of it.
That’s what happens, said Aleck Gantick.
He was one of “the dozen” with Berend, Good and Loomis. He was one who didn’t make it.
Gantick was as convinced as any in that group he’d be there in PyeongChang to compete. He graduated high school and decided to keep going in Nordic combined, turning down, at least temporarily, a juicy offer from the architecture program at Montana State University.
The U.S. Ski Team funding dried up in a big way after the 2014 Olympics, suddenly casting into question the finances of the entire sport in the United States. Whereas previously an athlete like Gantick could count on a little help trickling down from the top, now there would be none, adding to the already hefty financial load his parents were helping him shoulder.
Figure in lackluster results from that season, and his attitude changed quickly.
“I got to the point where I wasn’t having as much fun as I knew I should have been, and it was time to pursue another passion of mine, architecture,” he said.
Gantick is spending the summer in Steamboat Springs working an architecture internship.
After first deferring his acceptance to Montana State, he went back and took the offer. He’s now a junior at the school and has been helping coach young skiers for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club during his summer break. Last week, he even broke out his old jumping skis and, for the first time in three and a half years, flew from Howelsen Hill.
He actually wasn’t very rusty, posting competitive jumps in the Fourth of July event and even outflying some of the athletes still competing for spots on the Olympic team.
That didn’t do much to change his mind or make him wonder, “What if?”
He credits his two post-high school years of competition for helping him mature and take college more seriously when he did commit to it. Plus, he got to see the world along the way.
“No regrets,” he said. “It’s a great way to grow up. I just kind of grew out of it.”
The rest of the dozen have similarly gone on with their lives, pursuing college degrees and summer internships.
There’s no ignoring the Olympics for those on the verge, even if they wanted to. Well-meaning friends and family won’t let that happen.
“Everyone asks you, ‘Oh, are you going to the Olympics?,’” Good said. “I say, ‘That’s the goal,’ but at this point I try not to feel the pressure too much. I try and stay focused on what I’m doing.”
What they’re doing is building a fitness base for the season.
They’ll head to Europe for a month-long training camp in mid-August then return to the states to start their final phase of training before the first World Cup events of the season.
The race for the Olympics will begin before that first competition date. The U.S. will start the season with just three World Cup spots, meaning there will likely be just one available to the six non-Fletchers on the team.
All will get a chance to show their Olympic potential at some point and on some level, whether it’s World Cup or Continental Cup. It’ll come down to who takes advantage of that chance.
“I don’t want to close the door on anybody,” U.S. coach Martin Bayer said.
Loomis has the most career World Cup starts of the bunch with 35. Berend has 28 and Good nine, but Ben Loomis, with eight career World Cup starts, is coming off a very strong season on the Continental Cup, and Schumann, with two World Cup starts, also posted strong results, especially considering his young age. Then Andrews, the newest addition to the squad, made his mark a year ago by earning Continental Cup points in one of his first international events.
There’s seemingly no way feelings won’t be hurt. Of the four most experienced athletes vying for the two spots, Berend and Good grew up around the corner from each other and have been best friends for most of their lives.
The other two, Adam and Ben Loomis, are brothers.
“It’ll be intense,” Adam Loomis said. “It’s always a different kind of battle when it’s your younger brother. It’d be tough if he made it, and I didn’t, but I’d be really supportive of him.”
The Olympics are within reach, close enough for optimistic parents to start making sure their passports are up to date and to at least check on the availability of tickets, even if their children refuse to let them buy quite yet.
Bryan Fletcher, 31
Fletcher’s been the leader of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team for the last several years and enters this Olympic season with the best credentials on the squad. He’s shown a knack for showing up in big races and, if all goes well, should be a lock this winter to make his second Olympics.
Taylor Fletcher, 27
Fletcher, already a two-time Olympian, may be the one athlete on the team with a truly elite skill, his cross-country skiing. He’s proven he can make up large time gaps and be a threat to place well even from back in the pack. The problem has been there are almost always those time gaps. His jumping has been a constant source of frustration. He’s dedicated a great deal of focus to it, however, and if he can get it to come together even a little in February, he has the tools needed to strike for a medal.
Adam Loomis, 25
Loomis freely admits he’s never been the very most gifted athlete aiming to make the U.S. Olympic team. But, in a sport where everyone works hard he’s still managed to stand out and that’s helped give the Wisconsin native a very strong shot at qualifying for the U.S. team.
He just missed the cut for the 2014 Olympics, but has an even stronger case heading into this winter. With 35 World Cup starts, he’s the most experienced of those athletes seeking their first Olympics.
Ben Berend, 22
Berend has been in top form in recent seasons and coaches have noticed, giving him plenty of World Cup starts as well as starts in the 2015 and 2017 World Championships.
His jumping has helped him to those accomplishments as he’s proven himself one of the best on the team. He leapt to second place in one World Cup competition last winter. His cross-country skiing and race strategy wasn’t up to the same level, but he’s hoping a year of hard work will make the difference there, and if it has, he’s got a great chance to make the Olympic roster.
Jasper Good, 21
Whereas some of his teammates have clear strengths on one side of the jumping/cross-country skiing divide or the other, Good’s always had a strong grasp on both. He hasn’t had a breakthrough on the World Cup level and doesn’t have as many starts there as some of his teammates, but he’s consistently produced points at Continental Cup events, including six consecutive top-20 results there to finish the 2016-17 season.
If he can keep that momentum rolling into the 2017-18 season, he’ll have a very strong case to make the Olympic team.
Grant Andrews, 20
Andrews’ international competition experience may be less than any of his teammates, but he made the most of those opportunities thanks to a 27th-place finish in a March Continental Cup race in Russia. That put Andrews into the international rankings and helped secure his spot on the U.S. team. He’s closed the gap some last season on Ben Loomis and Stephen Schumann, both of whom made the team before he did. Closing it any further would put him in the discussion for an Olympic spot even if he looks like a dark horse this summer.
Ben Loomis, 19
Loomis hasn’t had a big result on the World Cup, though he has gotten those starts and even got a World Championship start. He’s certainly proven he can ski with the elite on the Continental Cup, where he’s posted four top-10 finishes. He was very balanced in those performances, with strong jumps and races. World Junior Championships will loom big on his schedule this season, but he’s got as solid a shot as anyone to make the Olympic team. He missed most of the training camp in Steamboat Springs after a mountain bike accident, but that shouldn’t slow him long.
Stephen Schumann, 17
Schumann’s the only U.S. team skier who still needs to worry about high school homework, but that hasn’t stopped him from a meteoric rise at a young age. He got his first two World Cup starts last spring, recorded strong results in the Junior World Ski Championships and scored points on the Continental Cup. He’ll certainly be a factor for the United States at the 2022 and, if he wants to be, 2026 Olympics. There’s no good reason he can be a factor in 2018, as well.