Thursday, August 16, 2018

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An Olympic stretch: Eau Claire native Ben Loomis will reach for glory at Pyeongchang, even without the guidance of his older brother, who helped make Ben’s dream come true

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    Ben Loomis holds his ski jumping and cross-country skis in January 2016 at the Mount Washington Nordic Ski Center in Eau Claire. The city native who now lives in Park City, Utah, competes this month in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

    Staff file photo by Steve Kinderman

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    Ben Loomis reaches for the sky in a jump.

    Contributed photo

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    Loomis, then 12 years old, climbs to the top of Silver Mine Hill near Eau Claire for a practice jump in January 2011.

    Staff file photo

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    As a 13-year-old, Ben Loomis sails during a jump at the Silver Mine Invitational ski jumping tournament just west of Eau Claire.

    Staff file photo

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    Ben Loomis will participate in a 10-kilometer cross-country race as part of the Nordic Combined events in the Winter Olympics.

    Contributed photo

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    Ben Loomis was a medal winner at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

    Contributed photo

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    Adam Loomis

    Contributed photo

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    Paul Loomis

    Contributed photo

Adam and Ben Loomis — Eau Claire’s Nordic Combined ski stars born six years apart — live together in a family condo in Park City, Utah.

That happens to be the headquarters of the U.S. Ski Team.

So how did they get there?

“We started them and sister Samantha (three years older) when they were little kids mostly doing alpine just for fun,” father Paul Loomis said. “It was a good activity and healthy to be outdoors.”

In a trip to the Lutsen Mountains ski resort in northern Minnesota, they skied down a long, gradual hill, having fun and goofing off.

“We tried to keep it fun, and Adam, in particular, took to the cross-country part of it,” Paul Loomis said. “And he loved competition.”

Then a strange thing happened.

“Adam watched the 2002 (Salt Lake City) Olympic Games and found out there was a sport where cross-country was combined with jumping. He wanted to try that.”

So they took him down to the Mount Washington Nordic Ski Center in Eau Claire, and he joined the Flying Eagles.

As they say, the rest is history.

Adam became an accomplished jumper, winning the 2008 Junior Nationals at Ishpeming, Mich., and was even a stronger cross-country skier.

After graduation from Memorial High School, he moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., and trained, becoming good enough to qualify for a lower level of Team USA in Nordic Combined.

“Adam was very mature, and this was a great opportunity for him to go out there and put it all on the line,” Paul said. “Steamboat was super welcoming, so we didn’t have to worry.”

Adam did one more thing — he led the way for his little brother.

Ben, six years younger, was a ski jumping natural from the start, soaring great distances and winning national championships before he became a teenager.

And then he started ski racing following in the footsteps of his big brother. Since then, he has won four junior national ski jumping titles and taken part in five world junior championships, the most recent last week in Switzerland, taking a bronze medal for the U.S.

•  •  •

The big show is just ahead. He is a member of the U.S. Nordic Combined team that will compete in the Pyeongchang, South Korea, Olympics beginning Friday.

Nordic Combined, a combination of ski jumping and cross-country racing, was a part of the original Olympic Winter Games in France in 1924 and has increased in popularity ever since. At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the jumping will be combined with a 10-kilometer race.

Ben’s journey to Pyeongchang came with a lot of help from Eau Claire’s Flying Eagles ski club and his older brother.

“Ben would not be where he is today without Adam,” Paul said. “He blazed the path, he was his coach.”

And that’s the difficult part of the Loomis family’s story.

Adam, who has skied in three world championships, placed a highly respectable 33rd last year in Finland and went on to cap his season with a stunning win in the Canadian national jumping champi-onship, was not selected to the five-man Olympic team.

“This is heartbreaking for me,” Ben said by phone last week from Switzerland. “I followed him from my first year of jumping, and he was very instrumental in my success.”

Ben said Adam did not have a good start to the season, and the team was chosen based on selection criteria.

“This has been bittersweet for us, there have been tears,” Paul said. “Of course we’re happy for Ben, but this has been an incredibly difficult week for us.

“We’d much rather see Adam go, he’s older. No one has worked harder than Adam. They went by basic criteria, but Adam didn’t have the opportunity some of the others did.”

Adam won’t be in South Korea for the Olympics, saying it would be too difficult to watch. He’ll be taking part in Continental Cup action in Japan and Austria.

“He’s very mature about it,” Paul said. “He’s smart and resilient, I know in the long run he’ll be successful.”

•  •  •

Another Eau Claire ski jumping family know how difficult it will be to watch the Olympics.

Nick Mattoon was a contender for this year’s Olympics after jumping on close terms with the four current team members a couple of years ago.

Mattoon won’t be in South Korea either. He took part in the tryouts as an alternate, the final two spots out of the top four. He struggled and battled but couldn’t regain his magic of recent years.

“He’s disappointed but has a very good attitude,” said mother Lisa Mattoon. “There’s still a lot of season left, and he may have the opportunity to ski fly before it’s over.

“As parents, we obviously feel bad for him. He’s had a couple injuries — shins and ankle — that set him back, and he hasn’t been able to make up the ground. But we’re proud of the way he’s battled.”

Like the Mattoons, Ben Loomis is grateful for the support he’s had on his long trip.

Besides Adam, Ben credits his parents for the opportunity and success he’s had.

“They were definitely my No. 1 supporters,” he said. “They always put me first and sacrificed a lot.”

Ben spent his first two years of high school at Eau Claire Memorial, then moved to Park City to ski and attend Winter Sports School, from which he graduated.

“He was 15 and couldn’t even drive yet,” mother Karyl said. “I didn’t want Adam to have the responsibility of raising Ben. It moved him closer to the team training facilities. It was entirely Ben’s decision.”

Although his mother was there to help for a while, Ben said it was a difficult first year, having to make all new friends and living in strange quarters.

“Adam was a big help, and I never regretted it,” Ben said. “I wanted to take the sport seriously.”

The Loomises have sold their home in Eau Claire and bought a condo in Park City, where the boys can live and the family visit. They rent out half of it. Paul, a family physician, will continue his practice here.

They will tell you the journey following their two son athletes is not all glory.

“It’s not as glamorous as people think,” Karyl said. “There were so many training hours in the rain and cold, driving all over. It hasn’t been easy.”

But they wouldn’t trade the experience, considering the way things have turned out. The Loomis brothers don’t have to be hauled around anymore as they train in the team program.

“Our normal training is two sessions a day, six days a week,” Ben said. “At the end of the season, we take two to four weeks off from team training but still stay active. It’s a year-round thing.”

And when you land under the five colored rings of the Olympic flag, it’s worth it.

•  •  •

Ben will not be the only Eau Claire representative at the Games.

Dan Mattoon has been selected as a landing hill worker at the ski jump on the basis of his experience at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and overall respect in the international jumping community.

“There are five Canadians and myself working along with 200 people,” Mattoon said last week from Korea.

Mattoon said he feels bad for his son Nick, who worked so hard to achieve his goal only to fall short. Nick will be jumping in Continental Cup action next weekend at Iron Mountain, Mich. Nick’s younger brother Nate, another contender, won the junior class in the U.S. Cup at Minneapolis last week.

Meanwhile, as Adam Loomis continues in World Cup Nordic Combined over the weekend, Ben was on his way to Pyeongchang, the destination of all Olympic winter sport hopefuls.

“This is awesome that he finally gets his chance to live out his dream,” said Eau Claire native and former Olympian Reed Zuehlke from Florida. “It’s both a relief and a little pressure. You need to prove yourself and keep up the momentum.”

Zuehlke knows. He jumped in the 1980 Lake Placid Games and at Sarejevo in 1984.

“In 1980 I wasn’t out to beat the world, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Ben just has to relax and let it happen. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and will do well, make Eau Claire proud.”

Ben knows it is a mighty challenge to take on the world’s best at his age and experience, and has already said this one is for the experience and the future, not the numbers.

Zuehlke, who travels the world as ski jumping judge and official, feels Ben has a rosy future.

“He was always a good jumper, but jumping and cross-country skiing don’t always match,” he said. “But he is a good jumper and racer with the ability to switch gears.”

Dan Mattoon has seen and helped Ben Loomis come through the ranks as a youngster.

“It’s really exciting to see him make it as a Flying Eagle,” Mattoon said “We feel about as bad about Adam as we feel about Nick.

“Now we’ll be waiting for other Flying Eagles to make it in the future.”

Ben may have opened the door to a new generation of Olympic hopefuls from Eau Claire.

Contact: 715-830-5834, sports@ecpc.com


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