|Laura Peel (C) of Australia celebrates victory with silver medallist Kiley McKinnon (L) during the medal ceremony for the women's aerials final of the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships on Jan. 15, 2015 in Kreischberg, Austria.
Kiley McKinnon has not been involved in freestyle aerials skiing very long. But her learning curve has been as steep as the jumps that send her 50-plus feet into the air.
The 19-year-old bespectacled blonde, with purple hair, will compete in her final world cup of the season on Sunday, March 1 — in Minsk, Belarus — wearing the overall world cup leader’s yellow bib. It’s an honor that she’s earned after finishing four of this season’s six world cups on the podium.
McKinnon is the first U.S. woman to lead the overall aerials standings since Nikki Stone in 1998.
She also has a 2015 world championships silver medal to show for her efforts.
“It’s been a great season, I wasn’t expecting to do this well,” said McKinnon after her latest world cup podium finish — a third in Moscow on February 21. “Every competition has been amazing, and I’m just hoping that I can continue through this last world cup in Minsk and finish out the season well.”
McKinnon’s rapid climb in the sport began during the summer of 2010. Mac Bohonnon, an aerials skier who grew up with McKinnon in Madison, Connecticut (she still has her first grade class photo with Bohonnon in it), convinced her to travel to Lake Placid, New York, and give aerials a try. (Bohonnon won the Moscow World Cup for the men last weekend.)
A recreational skier and a gymnast, competing regionally until age 12, McKinnon easily took to aerials skiing, with its high-flying flips and twists. She trained for three weeks in Lake Placid on trampolines and water ramps, then did simple jumps that winter.
The following year (2011-12), she joined the Elite Aerial Development Program and moved first to Lake Placid, then Park City, Utah, where she recently finished high school at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association TEAM Academy.
As if shot from a cannon, McKinnon began her rapid ascent up results sheets, winning the second NorAm competition that she entered in December 2011, a bronze medal at the junior world championships, and she finished the season as the overall NorAm champion. This title earned her a world cup spot the following season.
Fast forward two years, and she had her eye on an Olympic berth in Sochi, Russia.
But a few weeks before Olympic team selection, she dislocated her elbow while training for the finals at the Val St. Come World Cup in Quebec. Her season was over.
Back in Lake Placid in February 2014, McKinnon found it hard to watch the Sochi Games.
“Getting hurt last season and not getting to compete in the Olympics definitely made me want to work harder to prove that I was someone who could compete in the sport,” she said recently.
At the Utah Olympic Park water ramps, she went to work last summer perfecting her jumps — a double full full and a full double full (two flips with three twists). She began throwing the tricks last season but realized that she did not have a solid technical foundation with either jump.
“This being her second year of doing those tricks, she’s got more experience with them now, everything is moving a lot slower for her in her mind when she’s upside down,” explained head aerials coach Todd Ossian, who describes McKinnon as an extremely hard worker. “When you get to that, it’s like being in the zone.”
In this season’s first world cup — on scaffolding in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium — McKinnon landed on the podium for the first time, finishing third. She was stunned. Now she’s a podium regular and jokes that she has to keep her purple hair as a lucky charm.
Her strength, she said, is her consistent landings. After flipping and twisting in midair, landings are arguably the most difficult part of an aerials skier’s jump.
“The consistency that she brings to aerials is crazy,” said teammate, roommate and friend Ashley Caldwell, who’s stood on the podium with McKinnon twice this season. “She had never podiumed before. Our team is like, ‘Holy (cow), where did you come from? This is awesome.’ We all knew that she was a great jumper. But aerials is one of those sports that’s very inconsistent. The fact that she’s landing jumps and podiuming every week is incredible.”
“(Kiley’s) executing those tricks as good as anybody I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around the sport for a long time and coached a ton of people,” added Ossian. “Her full double full and double full full are on equal playing fields to any men that I’ve seen do those tricks.”
As for progressing to triple jumps — which Caldwell is trying to perfect — McKinnon is measured in her response. She will move in that direction in time, but only if the competition dictates it, especially as the 2018 Olympic Winter Games near.
“Right now, you don’t need triples (to land on the podium),” she said. “But in three years, you could need triples. I’m going to have to focus on what I need to do and pay attention to what everyone else is doing and do what I need to do in order to stay competitive in this sport.”
For the moment, McKinnon just wants to have fun with her sport and her teammates, especially Caldwell, who keeps her laughing.
“Both Kiley and Ashley have gotten everybody to notice what’s happening with (U.S. aerials) this season,” Ossian said. “That’s really special. Before, with both of them to some degree, people were watching them in the rearview mirror. Both Kiley and Ashley are clearly out in front now and are the athletes to beat.”
And one day soon, McKinnon might have to dye her hair red, white and blue.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.