On the eve of the 2020-21 season and a pandemic still gripping the world, every day offers new changes and challenges. USA Nordic ski jumpers Nina Lussi of Lake Placid, N.Y. and Andrew Urlaub from the Flying Eagles Ski Club in Eau Claire, Wis. experienced that firsthand this fall, competing in Europe at COVID-shortened FIS Ski Jumping Grand Prix events.
Ski jumping commentator Peter Graves caught up with the two ski jumpers with an insightful conversation for Ticket to Fly, the USA Nordic podcast Competing in a COVID World. The episode takes a look at life training and traveling in Europe and experiences learned that could foreshadow the season ahead.
CHATTING WITH NINA AND ANDREW
Veteran ski jumper Nina Lussi (Lake Placid, N.Y.) and rising young star Andrew Urlaub (Eau Claire, Wis.) took a break from fall training to speak with commentator Peter Graves in Vermont on a fall day with the season looming ahead. Lussi was online from her pre-season training base in Courchevel, France, home of the 1992 Olympic ski jumping complex. Urlaub took a break from the beach on the gulf coast of Florida.
The two came from very different backgrounds with Lussi steeped in family Olympic sport tradition and Urlaub discovering a niche sport in a Wisconsin town with a deep culture for ski jumping.
Nina, you really had quite a family tradition.
Growing up in Lake Placid, I guess originally I kind of took it all for granted it was part of life to just experiment with all of the different sports and coming from a pretty athletic family. I did basically everything growing up, and it wasn’t until much later that I was able to appreciate what my family had given me and also the legacy that my great grandfather, Gus, left behind, and that was in figure skating. I’m not very involved in that world at all. But, yeah, it was cool growing up. I ski raced, I learned how to figure skate, played soccer and track – cross country running a little cross-country skiing. Growing up in the Adirondacks is really, really special to have everything so close.
You are part of the ‘next generation’ of women ski jumpers. Who were your role models?
What’s really special about my position is those pioneering women are friends, role models and people that I got to know. I remember when I was in elementary school and I printed out pictures of Lindsey Van, Jessica Jerome, Anette Sagen. They were so cool to me. Then about 10 years later, I was competing with them and friendly with them. And it’s really cool to see that they got to see all of their work pay off. And now the Olympics and World Cup is really competitive for women. And it’s just great.
Andrew, you may not have the same Olympic tradition in Eau Claire as in Lake Placid. How did you get into ski jumping in western Wisconsin.
I’m actually the opposite of Nina. My family had zero background in skiing and there were actually a lot of wrestlers in my family. So you could say a similar body type. But I think the rich culture and the background of Eau Claire in ski jumping that just made it all the better to be a ski jumper.
You’re still a very young ski jumper but starting to have some success. Was this something you expected?
No, and looking back on it, I did not expect this at all. But I think the time that I grew up was a great time in the Flying Eagles history books. We had many people on the US team competing in Europe, and so they were great role models to look up to, such as the Mattoons, the Loomis’, the Andersons. When I was growing up, I got to look up to them and see what they were doing and that’s what I wanted, wanted to do.
Do you feel like you’re kind of carrying the torch at the international level for for the club?
No, Ben Loomis is still going strong. I have not seen Ben recently. I hope he’s doing well. Right now it’s myself and Ben Loomis and we’re carrying the torch and we’re representing the Flying Eagles.
You were the lone U.S. man competing in the Grand Prix this fall in Wisla, Poland. How was your experience there?
As a team, we had a pretty late start to the summer. We normally start jumping in early June. We didn’t get our first jumps until about the middle of July. So it was a quick turnaround to be competing internationally that soon. So the consistency wasn’t there. I think the jumps were close, but just not enough repetitions on the hill yet in the summer to have the consistency up. It was a good building block. Looking back on it, I’m very glad we went and. It was a good cornerstone for the summer and looking into the winter.
Nina, you’ve been training this summer and fall on the Olympic jumps in Courchevel. How have you managed with the pandemic?
It’s really a blessing to be up in the mountains. We are pretty secluded. And the team that I’m training with is the French national team. There are five girls, myself included, and then two coaches that are with us all the time. It’s an interesting setup they have because a lot of the girls aren’t from Courchevel. But they move here to train in the summer. So we’re basically a very closed group. All of the sessions on the hill have been structured so that there is an overlap. We need to wear masks on the funicular and when we’re waiting to get on. We need to set distance from each other. And if you’re feeling sick at all, you’re advised not to come to training. Luckily, tests are pretty accessible here. So you make a scheduled COVID test then go down to one of the nearest cities, which is either an hour or two hours away, and get your test. They usually get the results about a day later. And so that way we’ve been able to to keep ourselves clean in a way. Which has been really great. We actually did have one positive test, which was pretty alarming. We were on the edge of having to shut things down for a couple of weeks. But we all got tested and it was a lone case. So that member was then removed from the group for two weeks until they’re better and then they can rejoin.
It’s one thing to be based in the mountain village of Courchevel, but you also traveled to the Grand Prix at Frenštát in the Czech Republic.
It was a risk going to the Grand Prix, but they did a really good job of having rules and distancing. Just being conscious and getting tested regularly is how it’s going to be in the winter. So it’s great, great practice.
Were there spectators in Frenštát?
I believe the rules were no spectators, but, it’s a famous jumping hill and there isn’t much going on in this region. So there were a few people that gathered, but it was enforced that they stayed distanced. There were probably 20-30 people watching there’s plenty of room and it’s summer. So people were spread out. It wasn’t that hard to manage. For the athletes, yeah, we all had our own changing areas and it was fenced off. So within the fence you could warm up without a mask on because getting sweaty in the mask is not really that great. But outside of the mask, you are distancing and or outside of the fence you are distancing and wearing the masks.
Andrew, overall, how has COVID impacted your training?
At the beginning, it was very tough because for us – we travel a lot. Around April and May, when we were trying to make plans for the summer, it was – I almost want to say – impossible. The next day, there are different rules, regulations, travel bans. It started out where we were pretty clueless to what our summer was going to look like. And then around June, it started taking shape. But then we were already seeing our international counterparts, our competitors, they were already taking their first jumps at the end of May, early June. So that was tough to see where we were kind of waiting.
How was your Grand Prix competition in Wisla?
The competitions went off very well. We probably had a little under 50 competitors at the Grand Prix. And as far as my knowledge, we had zero positive cases from the event. There were even 999 fans allowed. They were also socially distant. It’s getting me excited for the winter and I’m very optimistic that we will definitely be having events and hopefully that closely resemble a normal winter.
Nina, the USA Nordic team has trained a lot in Slovenia and you’ve lived there. What is the dynamic like in France?
I would say that the the culture here is a bit different. I would prefer this because I was on my own a lot in Slovenia and here part of the group and also the club dynamic. The the French men’s team is here training with us. They are a young team as well. They are now my friends and they’ve been really open. And that’s pretty nice. One guy, Jonte Leroy, his parents are from England. So I knew that I knew they’d have at least one English speaker. And they’ve been so nice to me this summer. We’ll have barbecues at their house and just take a break and be able to speak English and sit outside and enjoy the mountains.
Andrew, are you ready to roll with the changes this year?
I am a pretty flexible person, and I do normally roll with the punches, but I will be very devastated If things do start to really kind of collapse and a lot of cancellations. But I can roll with the punches. Mabe they have to make accommodations, like a bubble, staying in one country for two weeks, competing there at different hills, and then going back to Slovenia for two weeks and do some sort of quarantine and then move on to the next country or. Even if they have a normal schedule with zero fans, that would be disappointing, but I’m doing what I love, so I don’t think that would affect me too much. So, rolling with the punches, that’s the world we live in right now.
Listen in on the entire Ticket to Fly podcast with Nina Lussi and Andrew Urlaub for more depth and insight. Andrew speaks about the growth of the next generation of U.S. ski jumpers coming up since the 2018 Olympics. Nina explores the heartbreak of her injury in the Olympic Trials leading up to PyeongChang.
As we head into the season, watch for Nina Lussi and Andrew Urlaub as they represent USA Nordic on the international tour amidst a challenging time.You can find Ticket to Fly on your favorite podcast channel including Apple, Google, Spotify and more.