By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics, 2021

Evan Nichols’ perspective was turned upside down in Lahti, Finland last February. Or at least sideways. 

The 17-year old Lyme resident was in Scandinavia with the U.S. junior national Nordic combined team. The Americans were competing in a sport that combines ski jumping and cross-country (or Nordic) skiing. 

Forty-eight hours before the start, however, Nichols was worried he might not even participate. A training drill a day earlier had resulted in a badly sprained ankle and he was flat on his back, a chair on his bed and his left leg angled atop pillows placed on the seat. The Hanover High junior applied ice bags to his ankle at regular intervals and had an alarm set on this phone to remind him to attempt walking each hour.

“It was to the point where I didn’t even think I’d be able to go off the ski jump,” the 6-foot-1, 160-pound Nichols said, noting that nordic combined program’s only certified athletic trainer was away at the senior worlds that week. “I just tried to eat healthy and I watched TV on the two English channels they had.”

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Nichols hadn’t initially worried when he leapt off a bench and, despite his drop being broken by waiting coach, suffered a spasm of ankle pain. In fact, Nichols had skied intervals on the cross-country course and although the ankle kept aching, remembered how he’d tweaked various joints and muscles in the past.

The next morning, however, the ankle had ballooned, Nichols’ foot no longer fit in his boot and he stretched a compression socks over it and began popping Advil. The anti-inflammatory regimen got the teenager to warmups on competition day, his ankle tightly wrapped and swaddled in plastic bags of snow during breaks.

Jumpers use wedges inside their boots and under their heels to aid in the forward lean necessary for better distance. Nichols wedged his a little further back, soared off the lip on his trial jump and… OUCH.

“Oh, my gosh, that hurt a lot,” Nichols thought. But he endured two more jumps for the books, consoling himself with the thought that any further injury would have months to mend. His distance was only good enough to place him 23rd, at least five positions back from where he’d hoped to finish if healthy.

A top-15 result after the jumping and Nordic times were combined would earn Nichols a promotion to the senior national team, a group from which the Olympic squad is selected. With two hours to rest and recover between events, he returned to his state of the previous few days, lying down in the changing shack, his ankle up on a chair.

A 29th place finish the year before had left Nichols ecstatic, but he had higher hopes this time, despite his injury. He’d gone for a slow-paced ski the day before but that was before the impact of three consecutive jumps.

“Mentally, I had to decide how I was going to do this,” Nichols said of the 10-kilometer race, which is broken down into four laps. “I decided I was going to get into 20th place (overall) and retain that place and see what happened.”

Early on, an opponent flew past Nichols and the American scrambled to stay on his foe’s tail. 

“I attach a mental rope to the person in front of me and I can’t let myself fall off the end,” Nichols said. He was in 18th place after one lap and in 16th entering the final lap, when he hunted down and passed two more skiers, finishing an astounding 14th on practically one leg.

The time difference between Finland and the U.S. meant Nichols’ parents, Scott and Heidi, were watching via an online streaming feed early in the morning at their workplaces. Evan had texted a photo of his ankle to them earlier and the couple had initially thought their son was coming home early.

Instead, they tried to follow somewhat confusing camera work and were startled to see Evan climbing his way through the pack.

“We thought just finishing would be great and then he passed up nine or 10 guys,” Scott Nichols said. “We were in disbelief.”

Evan Nichols said overtaking competitors gave him repeated, exhilarating bursts of energy.

“I almost forgot about my ankle, because you get constant gratification,” said Nichols, who’s injured that that joint half a dozen times in his career. “I didn’t think about the ankle until several hours after, but I’m still trying to recover now.

“I’m back to training but I have to go easy on it. The doctor said it wasn’t bad enough to have surgery.”

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Nichols is currently training in Park City, Utah, just east of Salt Lake City. He’s one of eight members of the senior national team, whose oldest member, at 32, is nearly twice his age. Five will be brought to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Milan, Italy, and Nichols knows he’s a long shot.

“It will be a super-big stretch because I’m the second-youngest on the team,” he said. “I’m the rookie, so no one’s looking at me to make the Olympics, but it’s in my periphery.”

Nichols spent most of the spring home in Lyme, where his father, Scott, is the president and owner of a wood-fueled heating equipment company and a former Hanover High basketball player. His mother, Heidi Weider Nichols, is an elementary school teacher in West Fairlee and a former standout soccer player and skier for the Marauders. Both graduated in 1989.

Evan Nichols began his junior year last autumn with a quiet, star turn as a fullback for Hanover’s varsity soccer team. Fast, strong and tenacious, his jumping ability, courage and superb timing made him a devastating weapon on restarts. 

“Evan has the recovery speed and technique to chase down a striker without fouling,” said Rob Grabill, Hanover’s longtime coach and a pastor at the Nichols’ Hanover church. “I’ve never seen anybody put his head on the ball like he can, offensively or defensively.

“Those high punts that 9 out of 10 kids don’t want to put their mush on? Bang, he was up there.”

Nichols was part of a talented group of soccer players emerging from Lyme, where one of his coaches was Grabill and another was former Hanover High All-American and Dartmouth player Tommy Clark. He’s sad to end his soccer career a year early, but Grabill knew that was the case as soon as news about Nichols’ February performance reached him.

“I’m on record as calling this when he was 12,” the coach said. “I knew he was going to be prodigious. When I saw the results from Finland, it was a real feeling of joy for him, but I knew he was done with us.”

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Nichols will graduate from Hanover High next spring having taken most of his junior- and senior-year courses online. He’s completed some over the summers to lessen his winter load and plans on taking a gap year before tackling college, perhaps at the nearby University of Utah.

“My schedule is super hectic but I prioritize school,” Nichols said. He’s in Europe until Sept. 7 and is slated to spend the fall in Utah and then the early winter on a nordic combined circuit. Most likely that will be the second-tier Continental Cup in Europe, where the U.S. has six entry slots. 

The hope is Nichols performs well enough to move up to World Cup events and can qualify for the Winter Olympics in February. Home for now is an apartment at the Utah Olympic Park residences, only 200 meters from the jumping site.

“The Olympic roster is going to be decided pretty last-second,” Nichols said.

What’s already certain is that pursuing this dream is not cheap. Nichols’ immediate and extended family members help cover his expenses, which include jumping skis, bindings, boots and heel wedges. Some of his equipment costs are covered, and Nichols has a sponsorship that brings him poles, goggles and helmets.

“Ours is not a well-known or well-funded sport,” he said. “We’re trying to grow the sport in the U.S., but that happens through (good) results and results are hard to have without funding.”

Scott Nichols said it’s clear his son understands the costs, both financial and social, that come with being a world-class athlete. They’re enormously proud of Evan but as much so for his dedication as his results, the father said.

“We’re impressed that he does it on his own and does well in school,” Scott Nichols said. “He buckles down and travels and gets everything done without complaint.”

“To us the most important thing is that there’s not mental pressure to perform or keep doing it or that he have worries at this point. He’s not an adult and we want him to enjoy the experience as part of his education.”

Evan Nichols is currently tackling an online academic course in photography and another in English that focuses on myth and folklore. He spends his time on either ski training or overall conditioning and fitness and his social media posts of late have shown hiking exploits in Utah.

It’s a Spartan pursuit but one the young man relishes.

“I pinch myself,” he said. “I’ve found a way to do what I love every single day and that’s insane. I get on the phone with friends or family and they’re talking about how work or school is rough and I’m just skiing in Utah.”

To donate to Evan Nichols’ fundraising, use this link: https://tinyurl.com/24e36tmw