Bryan Fletcher Overcame Leukemia as a Child and Is Now Chasing Olympic Gold
Bryan Fletcher always wanted the chemotherapy treatments to be done as soon as possible. Not just because, at four years old and suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, having to sit through round after round of medicine was an unpleasant way to spend his days. It’s because Fletcher knew once the doctors he saw in Denver were done with him, he and his family could return to their hometown of Steamboat Springs, some three hours away, and he could get back to his newfound love: ski jumping.
“I was like, I’ll go down and do everything the doctors ask and do it as quickly as I can, and then maybe they’ll let me come home a day early and let me get back at ski jumping faster, because I hated missing out on the training sessions,” he says. “It was the perfect motivator.”
For two long years, Fletcher underwent intensive chemotherapy as his body battled ALL, the most common type of childhood cancer and one that strikes around one million people every year worldwide. Diagnosed at three, Fletcher’s prognosis was good—as of 2015, the survival rate for children with ALL was around 90%—but the days were still grueling and painful. Hoping to give him a break from treatment, his parents, Tim and Penny, looked to skiing. Fletcher took to the sport thanks to his father, who was part of a ski patrol in Steamboat Springs. After his first jump, though, he was hooked on his new hobby.
“Once my parents saw the smile on my face, they were like, holy cow, we’re going to have to keep him in this,” he says. “The doctors were definitely hesitant. But my parents were like, you’ve just got to let him do it. It became my perfect distraction from everything around me.”
As the cancer went into remission, Fletcher continued to take to the sky in his skis, eventually gravitating toward one of the more difficult winter sports, Nordic combined, which marries jumping with cross-country skiing. Now he’s in PyeongChang for his second Olympics, hoping to earn his first medal in the sport that helped him get through those long and lonely months of chemo, even if the odds are stacked against him.
“The ultimate goal is a medal, and I think in the Olympics, anything can happen,” Fletcher says. “Sometimes it can be the best guys choke a little bit or the underdogs step up. This year, it’s possible for anybody out there to do well.”
In what shouldn’t be a surprise, Nordic combined—which was created in the 19th century and consists of two separate individual events and one team event—is usually dominated by Norway; it’s right there in the name, after all. Since the event was added to the Games in 1924, Norwegians have earned 30 of its medals, over twice as many as second-place Finland. The United States, meanwhile, sits toward the bottom of the pack with just four podium finishes, including one gold medal, all coming at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. It’s easy to understand why Americans haven’t had much success in Nordic combined: a simultaneous test of endurance and explosiveness, it requires mastery of two completely different disciplines that don’t have much exposure in the U.S.
It’s an odd sport for any American to take up, and not one that Fletcher, at six years old, even meant to get into. “I didn’t really know what it was, but my friends were doing it, so I was going to do it,” he says. “So when they handed me a pair of cross-country skis, I was kind of surprised, like, oh no, what is this? But it turns out I had a talent for it.”
Fletcher not only survived his cancer, as well as a stroke suffered amid his treatment, but also thrived at his new sport. He took part in his first international competition in 2003 at age 16, and since then he’s raced at the World Championships six times, earning a bronze medal in ‘13 in the team race (a four-person combo where each athlete jumps once, then takes part in a five-kilometer race); his top individual finish in the ’17 tournament was 14th. In 2014, he got to check off the event every skier dreams of: the Olympics, qualifying to compete in Sochi for Team USA. There, he helped the men’s team—including his younger brother, Taylor—finish sixth in its race while also coming in 22nd and 26th in the two individual events.
“We’re really lucky that Nordic combined is a sport that has a lot of brother pairs,” Fletcher says. “That community, once one person gets in, the other usually follows in his footsteps. It’s really special to be able to share a team with him.”
The two Fletchers will once again suit up for Team USA in PyeongChang—Taylor’s third Games, Bryan’s second—with the hopes of medaling. “It’s always been a dream of ours, and it would be even more amazing if we could stand on the podium together.” But that won’t be easy. Along with the usual complement of star Norwegians, the Fletchers must also contend with Japanese Olympic silver medalist Akito Watabe, who has won five World Cup races this season; German Olympic gold medalist Eric Frenzel; and fellow German Johannes Rydzek, who owns two Olympic medals from Sochi and is a three-time individual world champion. And those are just the favorites in a crowded field featuring dozens of athletes from all over Europe and North America.
Nonetheless, Fletcher isn’t fazed. He’s focused on having a good race. “If I can go out there and put together my best jump and race and that’s good enough for a medal, great,” he says. “If not, then I can’t be disappointed.”
Besides, Fletcher is used to taking bad situations and turning them to his advantage. Early on in his cancer treatment, he was faced with the daunting prospect of attending pre-school having lost all his hair—a common side effect of chemotherapy. Worried about the reaction of other kids, he landed upon an ingenious solution: He painted his head green and came to class wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume. “All the kids thought it was hilarious,” he says. “Instead of being like, he’s a sick kid, they were like, he’s dressed up as a Ninja Turtle, that’s sweet. It was kind of a cool and unique way to open their eyes to my situation.”
Now, as an Olympian, Fletcher aims to inspire other children suffering from cancer through his skiing and his charity, ccThrive, which highlights the stories of adults who successfully defeated the illness in their youth and went on to lead full, rewarding lives. “There’s just not a lot out there for kids who are going through it to aspire or look up to,” he says. “I wanted to inspire them to reach their potential and not use cancer as a crutch.”
As a kid, Fletcher used skiing to bring himself out of despair as he fought through his sickness. With some skill and maybe a little luck, perhaps his exploits in PyeongChang will be the inspiration for another child to find their way to a ski jump and take their mind off any struggles, if only for a day.