Destined for New Heights
By Christina Freeman
American racers Billy Demong, Taylor Fletcher and Bryan Fletcher. Photo courtesy Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski Team
By Suzi Mitchell
Ninteen-year-old Ben Berend sits on the couch in July, leg elevated and ice covering his ankle. He has just found out he’ll have to rest for four weeks, which means only one thing to him: four weeks away from his intense training schedule. Berend is a nationally ranked skier on the Nordic combined B team. Like his teammates, he can’t predict injury. But more worryingly, it’s hard to predict what lies ahead for the future of his sport.
Last April, Nordic combined was catapulted into a world of uncertainty. United States Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw announced that the organization would no longer support traditional team funding for Nordic combined, agreeing only to assist qualifying elite athletes. Shaw’s email announcing the cutoff cited reasons Nordic combined was deemed unworthy: a lack of potential for future elite success, lack of long term viability, lack of relevance to the public and a lack of long-term sustainability.
“Our job is to fund the elite teams, but for Nordic combined we’ve come to a bump in the road,” Shaw said. “Nordic combined is not at the success levels it used to be.” Funding was set to end July 31.
Basically the national team passed the buck to organizations like the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club: “The USSA has strong pipeline clubs in the sport, and I am confident that they will continue to provide aspiring Nordic combined athletes with opportunities,” Shaw said.
For 18 years, USSA’s vision statement has been “to make the United States of America the best in the world in Olympic skiing and snowboarding.” It is intended to drive its decision– making. But if this is true, the USSA failed to recognize that American Nordic combined skiers already reached “best in the world” in 2010, and there are serious contenders who are striving to regain that ranking today. In spite of a low operating budget, a relatively small pool of participating athletes compared to sports like Alpine and snowboarding, and huge international competition, the U.S. Nordic combined team reached the pinnacle of its sport at the Vancouver Olympics.
But instead of rewarding its success, USSA conveniently broadcast Nordic combined individual Olympic gold medalist Bill Demong as its poster child, then eradicated funding for his sport in favor of trendier, high-profile sports like slopestyle and halfpipe, many of which have minimal international competition.
Since April’s announcement, the USSA has revisited its decision twice.
In July, it agreed to provide funding for two of the elite Nordic combined team members, Steamboat locals Bryan Fletcher and Taylor Fletcher, plus longtime coach and past Olympian Dave Jarrett. Demong, the team’s longest competing member, was offered nothing. While he is drawing closer to the end of his career, it was a remarkable decision given Demong’s immense presence as a competitor and mentor.
The Nordic community did not take the initial news of funding cuts lying down. It set off on a mission to strengthen and restructure it organization, with Demong as a driving force. Nordic combined supporters turned to the U.S. Ski Jumping Association for inspiration. Having had its funding removed by the USSA seven years ago, ski jumping has evolved into a self-supporting entity. After much discussion, Nordic combined and ski jumping joined forces this summer to become USA Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined. The two sports will continue competing as separate disciplines, but will share the same clubs, coaches and athletes at the youth and development levels. They will be a united force in raising awareness and participation levels for their sports.
As the Nordic combined team proved in 2010 with a teamsilver won by Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane, Brett Camerota and Demong, plus Demong’s individual gold and Spillane’s two individual silver medals, winning takes patience and experience. What the general public may not realize is the incredible success garnered by this team happened during 15 years when funding was at a healthy, albeit lean, level.
Shouldn’t 70 World Cup podiums and four individual World Championship titles amount to greater recognition?
By August, the USSA took heed of Nordic combined’s entrepreneurial spirit. A late-breaking announcement renewed USSA’s commitment to support the elite team with $150,000 to fund additional coaching staff, travel expenses and other necessities. The team has the use of Park City’s Center of Excellence for training, plus limited administrative services by USSA staff. But as Demong understands it, “These monies are being given as a loan based on selling 15 gold pass memberships at $10,000 each to new donors.” All of the money raised goes to the team, but that means Nordic combined essentially still bears the responsibility for all its own fundraising.
“We, and I include myself in this, are working closely with Billy Demong and others to find donors for Nordic combined,” Shaw said, addressing USSA’s recent incentive and its about-face on funding. “We felt it was a great way to bridge the situation, since they were given such short notice on the decision this year.”
Severance spawns action
USA Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined is determined to raiseits national profile, make the sports more accessible and establish longevity. Forty transportable roller jumps have been built to introduce kids across the country to ski jumping. It also would like to see jumping return at a collegiate level, where it disappeared in 1978.
A 2013 census identified 586 active ski jumpers in the United States and the Winter Sports Club accounts for 111 of them. Steamboat has thelargest Nordic program in the country. Of the 88 Olympians produced by the Winter Sports Club, 80 percent, at one time or another, used Howelsen Hill’s jumping facilities.
USSA relies on local ski clubs to nurture and develop the stars of the future. Jim Boyne, the Winter Sports Club’s director, is committed to maintaining a strong future for Nordic combined through the clubs’ own fundraising and junior- level training program. “We need to do what we can to support the pipeline, but we only have so much money,” he says. “Our challenge is knowing where the national team will pick up funding.”
For Steamboat, this also entails a community commitment to ongoing investments in Nordic combined’s key training venue, Howelsen Hill. The jumping hill is iconic to Steamboat. The Winter Sports Club’s record for producing Olympians has earned Steamboat the reputation as Ski Town USA. After the 2002 Nordic combined World Cup was held in Steamboat, the town’s primary interest for capital investment was Howelsen Hill. Within less than a decade Nordic combined was achieving international success like never before, and a developmental pipeline was in place.
As Jarrett says, “Steamboat is the epicenter for Nordic combined.” This is a sentiment, and a predicament, of which Steamboat’s City Council is keenly aware. Howelsen Hill operates at a loss each year. Pressure to devise a feasible master plan for Howelsen Hill and the ice arena is mounting. Discussing this year’s dramatic funding cuts, Council Member Walter Magill questions, “Are we just becoming an Olympic funding source?” with the caveat that, “Steamboat doesn’t want to let our jumpers and heritage down, for sure.”
A legacy of funding woes
How, in 2014, does a sport go from making Olympic history and producing the nation’s first-ever six-time Olympian to scrambling for recognition from skiing’s governing body?
This year’s funding crisis is not a new phenomenon for the sport’s stalwarts. Twenty years ago, they struggled with funding, even though the USSA had fewer disciplines to support than it does today. By 2002, Nordic combined funding was at an all-time high, but Jarrett sensed it would be short-lived: “It was an Olympic hosting year, so the money was much greater,” he says, noting that Salt Lake City’s Olympics were simply upping the ante for home-country athletes.
In subsequent years, the budget shrank. Jarrett says this may have been a blessing in disguise: “We are always at the mercy of the market in terms of generating sponsorship, and until now those opportunities were limited due to USSA stipulations, which are no longer a concern,” he says. Nordic combined can now seek its own outside sponsorships to narrow the funding gap.
Nordic combined athletes train among the hardest of any athletes on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team. In the run-up to competition season, they spend 30 to 40 hours a week on an intense endurance, plyometric and strength-based training schedule. It is expensive to stay competitive. In an Olympic year, the usual $70,000 needed to support a Nordic athlete ramps up to $140,000 for each elite team member. For skiers at the development level, the cost for a year of competitive Nordic combined is between $20,000 and $25,000.
Hosting a Continental or World Cup event takes significant investment from a venue. Discussing Steamboat as a possibility for the future, Magill says “everyone wants a guarantee regarding return on investment and that just isn’t possible.” Outreach and fundraising by USA Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined to bring these events home to Howelsen Hill has already begun. Until this year’s funding cuts, Nordic skiers would typicallymake three trips to Europe during the summer, enabling them to maintain contact with their competition, plus three or four overseas World Cup trips that would see them traveling for weeks at a time. Opportunities to compete in Europe, with the ability to earn prize money, are priceless. In Europe, a Nordic World Cup event often pulls in 20 million television viewers, a far cry from coverage inthe U.S. Because of the funding cuts, the door is now open for Nordic combined to tap in to new foreign investors. Demong sees opportunity. “We have the exciting challenge moving forward to strengthen the bond between the national association and our constituent stakeholder clubs,” he says. “That means finding ways to help make capital improvements and hosting high level events which draw elite international competitors, as well as offer elite development opportunity to our athletes, without having to travel to Europe.”
A strong Nordic spirit
Anyone doubting the importance of supporting the sport’s future should listen to up-and-coming Nordic combined skier Berend, who waxed poetic while he was hung up this summer: “This sport has given me everything. I learn more traveling through Europe competing against the best athletes in the world thanI ever learned in school. I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned the lesson of patience over and over again. It seems like every time I make a little progress there is always a setback. I’ve learned how to deal with these setbacks in a mature way and I’ve learned a lot aboutadversity. Through Nordiccombined I’ve learned that ifI put my mind to something,I can achieve it. I’ve learnedthat I could never accomplishanything without awesometeammates and coaches. My goal for the future is to see Nordic combined become relevant again. How can a sport that has given me so much and changed my life be so irrelevant to everyone else?”
Luckily for Berend, the Steamboat community shares his faith in Nordic combined. “In the long run, the health and wellness of the ski jumping disciplines in the United States is now in the hands of the greater community,” says Demong. “It is proving to be a much stronger platform, as the folks who truly care about and understand the needs of the sport are in the driver’s seat.”