The bond that exists between A.J. Brown and Kevin Bickner can appear a bit odd – at least from the outside.
Brown and Bickner are teammates, having grown up honing their ski jumping abilities at Fox River Grove’s Norge Ski Club. They are friends – or as one characterizes the close relationship with the other, more like brothers. But Brown and Bickner also are friendly combatants who managed to grab two of four open spots with the American contingent that will compete later this month in the Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in Trentino, Italy.
Considering the ties to the world stage that creates for a Norge club that also produced Sochi Olympic hopeful Mike Glasder, it makes Brown and Bickner’s feat even more impressive.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Bickner, a 17-year-old Wauconda native, said Monday night. “Having two from our club really shows that we have a strong program going and that everybody is really improving.”
American ski jumpers competing on the national level tend to be a close group. But for Bickner, a member of the U.S. national development team, and Brown, an 18-year-old Fox River Grove native, continuing their training together in Park City, Utah, has helped ease the transition into elite level competition.
Following Glasder’s lead, Brown and Bickner hope to be part of the future of their sport. Both will leave Monday for Italy, where they will continue preparations for their respective world championships debut.
Brown and Bickner both remain dedicated to each chasing after a world championship among the 78 ski jumpers who will compete in Trentino. Despite sharing the same aspirations to reach the top of their sport, though, they won’t step on one another on their way to the desired destination.
“It’s not like a competitive, at each other’s throat, relationship,” Brown said. “It’s a friendly, push each other, [relationship]. We’re happy for each other.”
Each admits he will be more relaxed heading into the world championships than he was going into the recent qualifying competition in Park City. Brown and Bickner both feel like they are well prepared for the biggest event they’ve participated in, again building off one another along the way.
It’s part of what makes their friendship unique in a competitive environment in which only a small number of opportunities to compete against the world’s best exist. Brown and Bickner both train with the same coaches and train with the same teammates and work toward the same goal of improving the reputation of U.S. ski jumping on the international stage.
“There’s nothing really to hide as a jumper,” Brown said. “We all know what we’re all working on. It’s all about what happens on the jump. It’s such a mental sport, and so there really aren’t any tricks we can pull out.”
Bickner’s world championship debut carries special meaning after he failed to qualify for the event last year. Like Brown, he will carry a worry-free approach into the competition, having spent the past year training to improve his performance. Although the pressure is off to be counted among the world’s best junior ski jumpers, Bickner has heightened his expectations now that he has advanced past the qualifying stage.
Now, he said, it’s about making a dent in how American jumpers are perceived by their international competition.
“We feel like we’re getting better, and so we want to go over there and show, as a country, that we are improving and stepping it up in the world,” Bickner said. “I’d love to be one of those guys who really makes a difference in the sport. To be one of those guys who is suddenly winning all these competitions and is the first (from the U.S.) to do it, that would be awesome.”