PARK CITY — The yell Bryan Fletcher managed as he crossed the finish line at Utah Olympic Park was all the celebration he could muster as he earned the one and only guaranteed spot on the 2018 Olympic team.
“I knew it was going to be a really hard finish no matter what,” said the 31-year-old, who made up a 1:24 head start by 19-year-old Ben Loomis in Saturday’s Nordic Combined Olympic Trials. “I’d say I gave it everything I had, and if the finish line was 10 feet further, I don’t know if I would have made it.”
Nordic Combined is unique in what it asks of athletes as it combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing. The jumping results determine time handicaps for athletes, and on Saturday, Bryan Fletcher had to overcome Loomis’ 1:24 head start as the fifth man out of the gate. His younger brother, Taylor, had an even more massive time challenge as he started 1:54 behind Loomis.
Neither man had much time to ruminate on the jumps they wish they’d had as the team’s only guaranteed spot was on the line in the cross-country race.
“I was really disappointed in my performance on the jump hill,” Bryan Fletcher said. “I knew I needed to have a good jump, and I didn’t have it. But I was also relieved it wasn’t worse. … I just had to ski smart and leave enough in the tank at the end so that I could finish strong.”
Bryan Fletcher managed to close the gap to about 30 seconds after just one lap, and he caught Ben Loomis, who was skiing with his older brother, Adam Loomis, who finished second in the jumping (starting the race 56 seconds behind his brother), on a hill on the third lap.
“I needed to go really hard from the beginning of the race in order to make up that time on Ben and Adam,” said Bryan after receiving congratulations from his wife Nikki and 5-month-old daughter Ellery in front of about 3,000 fans. “I knew I needed to either catch them with enough time that I could recover, or leave them out there long enough that I could kind of pace myself and leave enough for the sprint.”
As it turned out, he skied with the Loomis brothers for most of two laps, and then tried to shake them on the final climb.
He managed to create about a 10-second gap, and that was enough for the win as he crossed the finish line in 26:30.08, with Adam Loomis in second, 12.8 seconds behind him.
Ben Loomis finished third 29.6 seconds back, and Taylor Fletcher finished fourth with 1:07.7 behind his older brother.
Adam Loomis said he knew it would take an extraordinary effort to hold off either of the Fletchers, especially on such a difficult course. He said once Bryan caught him and Ben, he just tried to stay with the veteran.
“It was all I could do to ski with him for as long as I possibly could,” Adam said.
Ben Loomis said he was “comfortable” with the lead he got from laying down the top jump of the day.
“I just went out and tried to ski my own race,” he said. “Tried to stay smooth and relaxed as long as I could, and tried to hold them off as long as I possibly could.”
Ben said he didn’t feel great during the cross-country race, so after a couple of laps he expected the Fletchers to catch him.
“I just tried to stay with them as long as possible,” said Ben, who was competing in his first Olympic Trials.
Just a few feet from where Bryan collapsed, and then got up to pat his brother’s back as he crossed the finish line, their mom, Penny Fletcher watched in tears.
“I’m still trying to catch my breath,” she said as the group of friends surrounding her laughed. “To watch the strength of those athletes today was amazing, and to see Bryan pull himself forward the way he did, and to see the amount of time Taylor made up was incredible. One more lap and Taylor would have had them.”
She said the scoreboard showed her sons in a much better position than fifth and sixth place, but wind adjustments may have accounted for some of the shifting of athletes.
“When I came back and saw they were in fifth and sixth place, my heart kind of dropped,” Penny said. “But I also know the tenacity that my boys have, and the strength they have in their skiing skills. They were hungry and they wanted it. I’m so proud of Bryan like there’s no tomorrow. This is fabulous.”
She congratulated the Loomis brothers, and said she already has her ticket to Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I’m a little disappointed that I have to sleep on the floor,” she said smiling. “That’s all I could find was Korean lodging, but I’ll get through.”