Fletcher kisses his final shot at the Olympics in Nordic combined

Taylor Fletcher of the United States soars through the air during a ski jumping practice in the Gundersen Normal Track Nordic Combined event at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Monday, 7 February 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.  (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Taylor Fletcher of the United States soars through the air during a ski jumping practice in the Gundersen Normal Track Nordic Combined event at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Monday, 7 February 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

PA

Taylor Fletcher nearly ended her Nordic combined career shortly after her third trip to the Olympics in 2018.

Fletcher’s father died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, his stepfather had a near-death experience in a bicycle accident, and he broke up with a longtime girlfriend.

“It was a very difficult time for me,” he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was thinking of retiring.”

Fletcher, however, bounced back mentally and kept himself physically fit to earn another appearance on the world stage at the Beijing Games.

“Knowing that this will probably be my last Olympics, it’s crazy to look back on the journey I’ve done from the first Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver until now,” the 31-year-old said Monday after a coaching. “It feels like it’s come full circle. When I joined this team in 2010, I was the youngest. Now, 12 years later, I’m the oldest guy in the team and it’s This is my fourth appearance.

“I am very grateful to almost everyone who has supported me throughout my Olympic journey and I am ready to give my best.”

Fletcher said one such person is sports psychologist Nicole Detling, who has helped him with his mental health. He also found ways to find peace in solitude.

“I will rely on meditation,” he said. “It’s a huge part for me. It’s something I do three, four, five times a week before competition to calm my mind. I worked with a sports psychologist, who helped me solve problems in my personal life.”

When the first of three Nordic combined medal events begins on the normal hill on Wednesday, Fletcher’s potential path to the podium has been cleared a bit. Four of the top seven athletes, including Norway’s second-ranked Jarl Magnus Riiber, have recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“These top guys are strong, strong jumpers,” Fletcher said. “Riiber was one of the best jumpers. Although we wish they were in the competition, we have done our due diligence and taken every precaution to ensure that this does not happen.”

Riiber and the three other stars of the Nordic combined may be able to compete in the large hill on February 15 and the team competition on February 17.

Nordic combined, which has been part of the Winter Olympics since the first ones in 1924, is popular in Europe and a foreign concept to most Americans. It is also the only Olympic sport without gender equity as women have been excluded so far.

The first phase of the competition is ski jumping. The athlete who jumps the farthest and impresses the judges with the most style to earn the most points starts the 10k cross country race with a lead.

The rest of the peloton follows, in order of arrival in ski jumping.

Fletcher is No. 41 in the World Cup standings in a sport that’s increasingly filled with excellent ski jumpers, which isn’t his forte. Cross-country skiing, however, is a strength. At the previous three Olympics, he has ranked as high as 20th.

“Taylor is an animal when it comes to cross-country skiing,” said American teammate Jasper Good. “He is one of the fastest in the world.”

Fletcher’s former teammate, Billy Demong, was also excellent on skis, which saw him jump from sixth place and 46 seconds from first to win gold at the 2010 Olympics.

Now, Demong leads the American Nordic organization that helps develop Nordic combined athletes and ski jumpers, from young children to Olympians.

“I’m proud to have been many things at different times in Taylor Fletcher’s career,” Demong said. “I’ve been his mentor, roommate and boss of his coaches. He’s touched success on many occasions and on the eve of one of his last Olympic appearances he has a solid chance of accomplishing something that seemed unattainable just a few months ago: winning a medal in an individual event.

“He did all the hard work. He is in top form both on the springboard and on the cross-country course. And with the madness of COVID, he’s in a good position to show the world what he’s made of.”

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Follow Larry Lage at https://twitter.com/larrylage

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Naomi C. Amerson