Love at the Olympics no easy trick to land for Nordic combined’s Fletcher and freestyle skiing’s McKinnon
February 16, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nordic combined is difficult, Taylor Fletcher insists. The mental battles of timing a jump just right and of squeezing every last drop of energy out of the body during a cross-country ski race are intense.
He wasn't working out at all Thursday night, wasn't jumping and wasn't racing, but was standing comfortably bundled up against the South Korean cold on the slopes of Phoenix Snow Park.
Above, his girlfriend of two years, Kiley McKinnon, was preparing for one of the biggest jumps of her career, one she had to have to move on to the women's aerials finals at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
His heart raced. His nerves frayed.
It was way more difficult than competing himself.
"I hate it," he said. "There's just something about watching the girl you love going 30 feet up in the air, flipping and twisting and coming crashing back down to the landing hill to stick it, it's a little nerve-wracking."
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Love at the Olympics isn't always easy.
Certainly, dating an Olympian has presented its challenges for McKinnon and Fletcher.
McKinnon is a World Cup season champion and World Championship silver medal aerialist from Madison, Connecticut. Fletcher grew up ski jumping and cross-country skiing in Steamboat Springs.
The pair first truly met more than two years ago at a Ski Ball U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team fundraising event in New York City.
"I'd always seen her in the gym and obviously I've always known she's a beautiful, awesome girl," Fletcher said.
They started spending time together after that event and soon found out that as professional athletes they both have a lot in common, and seemingly have very little in common.
They're both familiar with the early morning wake-up calls for training and with long months spent away from friends and family while in Europe for training or competitions.
Their respective sports, however, were a mystery.
McKinnon knew next to nothing about Nordic combined.
"I've learned so much," she said.
Fletcher, meanwhile, has learned to slow down the whirling, cyclonic blur that is an elite aerials jump, often with two or three flips and two or three spins included before skis meet snow.
Still, actually getting to watch one another compete is more difficult than it would seem. They're both typically traveling around the world on competitive circuits that very rarely match up.
Fletcher happened to be in Park City, Utah last February where they both live and train, for a World Cup at Deer Valley Resort, and he was there to see her land on the podium, placing second.
The only other time he's seen her actually compete in person, where he's had to stand bundled up in the snow and endure the nervous sweat of watching a loved one's performance, was Thursday night as she made her Olympic debut in the women's aerials qualification round, and again Friday.
McKinnon, meanwhile, has made the trip to Steamboat Springs several times in the summer for the annual Fourth of July Nordic combined event and seen Fletcher race on Lincoln Avenue, but didn't see him on snow until December in Park City when he participated in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
She was tied up with training for her own event during the first 2018 Olympic Nordic combined event but figures to be there in the stand handling nerves of her own when he competes in the next two Nordic combined competitions in the next week.
It's not just finding time to watch each other compete that's an issue. It's finding time together at all given their global itineraries.
They frequently are left to spend four, six, even eight weeks apart and they do whatever they can to compensate.
That means lots of phone calls and FaceTime sessions. It means finding TV shows they can binge together and talk about.
He said they share NBC's This is Us, mentioning he's a fan of The Walking Dead but makes a point to watch that when she's not around.
She said she got him into ABC's Pretty Little Liars and he doesn't handle it well when she gets an episode or two ahead of him.
"Taylor Fletcher likes Pretty Little Liars," she said with a grin. "He's totally hooked."
This fall their quest to spend time together meant stretching their schedules.
Fletcher and the rest of the Nordic combined team landed at Salt Lake International Airport after U.S. National Championships in Lake Placid, New York. They got in just a few hours before McKinnon was to leave with the aerials team for a long training camp in Switzerland, so she made a point to check in early, he made a point to hang around after his teammates left and they were able to snag a few precious moments together over airport terminal Asian food.
"We both have goals we want to accomplish this year," Fletcher said. "She's willing to work toward hers and I'm doing the same. We know we can make it through."
It's the easiest in the spring and summer, when both are mostly focused on training in and around Park City.
They go to the gym together, though for vastly different workouts, and they've adopted some of each other's hobbies.
"He got me into road biking. He's very proud of that," McKinnon said. "He takes me on hikes all the time. I've definitely increased my cardio because of that.
"We both like being outdoors. We love going paddle boarding together and we went to Costa Rica in March. We love traveling and are hoping after the Olympic season we can travel some more."
The hardest times?
It seems like they should be those long stretches when they're away from one another.
Maybe they are.
Standing at the bottom of the aerials jump watching the woman you love try to land a big jump and achieve her dreams is no easy day either, however.
She landed Thursday night, then had to wait through 16 other jumpers to see if her score would hold up. When it finally did, she hugged her mom and her dad and her brother, and Fletcher was right there, as well, nearly as relieved and excited as she was.