Sara Gregory couldn’t have been any more nervous as she perched at a lookout area near the short aerial skiing ramp in Park City, Utah.
She had to keep reminding herself that it was her daughter who was a natural daredevil, and that her daughter, Tara Moser, could do what she set out to do after coming all the way from Bakersfield, California.
“My first video of Tara going down the ramp is very shaky,” Gregory said.
But Tara, only 13 and pretty darn new to skiing, couldn’t have been any more solid. The former elite-level gymnast thrived during a recent five-day camp at the Utah Olympic Park and was one of three participants to earn what amounts to the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team version of a full-ride scholarship. The invitation means she will spend nearly three-fourths of the next year living and training in Park City.
The 14 participants in Utah were tested on their strength, flexibility and trampoline skills at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence. Those who didn’t ski got a short lesson before they moved to ramps that led into swimming pools. They also partook in games and other activities, such as the zip line, at the Utah Olympic Park.
“It just looked like a lot of fun, and something I could be good at,” Tara Moser said. “I like to do a lot of things that are adventurous and new. I like to do flips and jumps. I like to fly.”
U.S. aerials coach Joe Davies is looking for youth just like Moser every day. Moser doesn’t have much of a skiing background at all, but many aerialists don’t. So Davies and other U.S. officials are constantly in search of athletes who can not only perform acrobatic tricks with skis on, but who also embrace the daredevil mindset and who understand the value of training, repetition and mental imagery.
Moser brought those attributes to the table.
So did Mac Bohonnon, who was discovered through a similar recruitment camp about five years ago and placed fifth at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in February in Sochi, Russia.
Bohonnon, 19, said he likes that there’s “no essential prerequisite to get into [the sport]. That’s what I think is really cool.”
The United States is going full-bore trying to build a program to rival the enviable depth of China, which didn’t fare well in the Sochi Games but is a juggernaut typically, taking three of six medals at the last world championships.
For Davies, a big part of that is recruiting. While he is careful to emphasize that he is not trying to poach talent from other sports, he said he is grateful for the support he gets from other national governing bodies to cross-promote his sport.
In particular, Davies has sought out gymnasts. The reason is obvious: They understand tumbling and body control. And there are a lot of elite athletes that may suffer burnout, injury or reach their ceiling before becoming Olympians. The elite career for a gymnast is short, and Davies believes he can extend a lot of ultra-competitive athletic careers.
Moser is herself a wild case study.
About two years ago, she dislocated and broke her elbow on the balance beam, requiring significant surgery. She continued to compete. But then the other elbow wore down as a result of overcompensation. She was done trying to copy her idol, Nastia Liukin.
Life threw Moser another major turn when her father passed away in April 2013 due to pancreatic cancer, not long after opening a gymnastics facility. She decided to give aerials a try after finding an ad for the aerials camp prominently displayed on a USA Gymnastics website.
Moser’s also done pole vaulting and competitive cheer, but nothing was like that first run at the Utah Olympic Park, barreling down the runway and trying to manage a 30-degree arc at speeds that she can’t yet drive a car.
“I tried putting her in dance,” Gregory said. “But she wanted to fly.”
Now comes the really crazy, fast part: Making it her life.
The Elite Aerial Development Program features training locales in Park City and Lake Placid, New York. Right now the New York post is ahead as far as support, especially concerning housing, but Davies believes the western spot will catch up.
Moser said she will spend about three of every four weeks living in Park City and will do schooling online. That’s not a terribly wild scenario for the family, considering the idea of her finding non-traditional education was always on the table as she climbed the gymnastics ranks.
Her mom pointed out that Tara, at age 8, went across the country to a gymnastics camp in Pennsylvania and didn’t flinch at being so far away from home.
There will be some Utah comforts, though. She has a couple of hockey-playing brothers who go to school at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, which is about an hour northwest of where she’ll be based. Her grandmother, who lives with her in California, will live with her the first couple of months in Utah.
“They seem excited to have me,” Tara, who turns 14 in August, said of the U.S. aerials group. “I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Davies is continually seeking out new recruits. He points out the ideal age to start is between 13-19, but that varies on athletic skill sets. He recruits by noting how long careers can become — two-time Olympian Emily Cook was 34 at the Sochi Games, and Bohonnon is already preparing for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, figuring he’ll be far more prepared after hardly imagining a chance to go to Russia, let alone nearly medal.
Bohonnon noted that the development program Moser is joining “continues to grow, and grow and grow — it’s so cool.”
Davies said he likes that the program is starting to develop “bottom pressure,” his term to describe depth and the lower tier starting to push the top group harder.
Moser’s in the mix now, excited even as she had a very early-morning July 9 flight to Colorado for a family wedding.
Mom was psyched, too, to talk about the future. It sure beat her own jittery past.
“I remember Tara finished her first jump. I was scared, but then I saw her eyes light up,” Gregory said. “That’s when I knew how much she loved it, right away. Now, we just need to get her in some ski lessons.”Jason Franchuk is a freelance reporter based in Albany, New York. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.