Bryan Fletcher earns first Nordic combined win in the sport that offered him a sanctuary from childhood cancer
Terje Bendiksby,Afp/Getty Images
OSLO, NORWAY — Penny Fletcher allowed her 4-year-old son take up ski jumping not because she thought he might someday compete with the world's best, maybe even beat the world's best.
She let him do something extraordinary because she knew that after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia the adventuresome little boy might never grow up to have any of life's ordinary experiences.
"She knew I loved the outdoors, and I loved doing that kind of thing," said Bryan Fletcher, who earned his first World Cup win in Nordic combined at Holmenkollen in Norway on Saturday. "It kind of kept my mind off the chemo, the doctors, the treatments."
And with just a 15 percent chance of survival, his mother wanted him to live his life as completely and joyously as possible.
"It wasn't even a question for her," said Bryan Fletcher, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo., but now lives and trains in Park City. "At that point, I didn't have a very great life expectancy, so she just figured, 'Let him do what he wants to do.' I loved to hit the jumps on the side of the trail, so she let me give it a try."
A bit of a rebel, Penny decided the risks of letting her cancer-stricken son fly through the air were worth it.
"She was ecstatic about giving me an opportunity," he said. "She knew there were certain risks, but she knew I needed a release. And the doctors supported it. It was pretty much my sanctuary."
While he fell in love with ski jumping — and later cross country skiing — his body won its six-year battle with the blood and bone cancer.
His younger brother followed him into the sport and both have had a lot of success in the event that combines ski jumping with cross country skiing.
"It was totally about enjoyment at first," said Fletcher. "It started as a hobby, but now it's a professional thing I do all the time."
Fletcher nearly made the 2010 Olympic team, but sprained his ankle right before the team was chosen. Instead of competing with the first U.S. team to win Olympic medals in Nordic combined, he watched his younger brother do so.
"I was excited for him, but at the same time I was bummed that I was not competing," said Fletcher, adding that watching the team make history was an emotional experience. "It was an unbelievable experience. I couldn't be happier for them. It brought tears to my eyes because those guys worked so hard, and to see their struggle first-hand, they definitely showed me the way."
After winning what is the equivalent of his sport's Super Bowl on Saturday, he was invited to meet with the King of Norway.
"That was a cool experience," he said laughing. "It was a little unreal."
The conditions were so sloppy officials limited athletes to one jump, instead of two, and they shortened the cross country race from 15 kilometers to 10 kilometers. Fletcher said he simply hoped to finish in the top 10 because it was their final World Cup of the season.
"The thought of winning didn't even enter my head until the last 20 meters," he said. "After the ski jumping, I thought I could get on the podium. But the snow was wet and it made (the skiing) very challenging. It was tough, probably the hardest course I've skied. It came down to the final meter."
Hometown favorite Mikko Kokslien, Norway, finished 2.3 seconds behind him, a remarkable comeback after finishing 17th in the skiing. Taihei Kato of Japan was first in the jumping and finished in third place.
Fletcher said he thought of nothing but his tempo and trying to keep pace with the leaders.
"To win here, in front of this crowd, is unbelievable," he said. "I am at a loss for words for it. It was unbelievable. It was the perfect way to end the season, a perfect first podium."
And it made his post-race phone call to his mother a very pleasant experience.
"She's a very proud mom," he said.
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