The footsteps were getting louder. Even on the snow. Nations such as China were joining the increasingly competitive international competition in freestyle aerials skiing.
Officials at the U.S. Ski Association, which governs the sport in this country, had enjoyed success having their athletes fly through the air, and decided they wanted to keep it that way.
To that end, or beginning, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (renamed in 1997) started the Elite Aerials Development Program in 2008, recruiting gymnasts and athletes from other acrobatic sports to live and train together in Lake Placid, New York. If athletes could flip and twist and land on a mat, trampoline or in a pool, and had the stomach to soar 50 feet in the air, maybe they could stick a landing on the snow.
It was a good idea.
This season, two of those recruits, Mac Bohonnon and Kiley McKinnon, both 19, accomplished a most remarkable feat, winning the overall world cup titles for both the men and women in the same season, the first time that’s happened for the United States in 20 years.
“We are like the first wave of the program,” said Bohonnon, who joined the program when he was 13 and was the only U.S. men’s aerialist at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. “It started formally right after the (2010) Vancouver Olympics, and I think a lot of people doubted it for awhile because it took a few years.”
It’s difficult enough to medal in one world cup event, much more to reach the podium and score high through five competitions to finish best in the world. Yet another program recruit, 2014 Olympian Ashley Caldwell, finished second to McKinnon in the women’s overall world cup standings. And another, Alex Bowen, won the Men’s Rookie of the Year award.
Overall, the U.S. team won the Nations Cup, given to the country that scores the most points in world cup competition. The majority of the team came up through the development program.
“Winning the Nations Cup shows obviously that EADP is a good program, or I don’t think we would have done so well,” McKinnon said.
It has been 17 years since Nikki Stone won the last overall world cup title for the U.S. women, and 10 years since Jeret “Speedy” Peterson won for the men. Trace Worthington and Stone were the last man and woman to win the title in the same year, in 1995.
“When I started aerials and made the national team, I was the youngest by a solid eight years,” said Caldwell, 21, who was the program’s first recruit, joining at 15. “I went to the 2010 Olympics when I was 16, and I think the next youngest person on the team was 24 or maybe older. So there was this huge lack of development that U.S. Ski saw — I’m not sure when it started — but maybe like in 2002 to 2006, when there was no push for development. There were no young kids coming through the pipeline.
“There is this huge gap between the age range of our team now — we are all 19-21 years old — and the ages of the team of even two years ago, when the older group was 25 and up.”
At first, Caldwell was the program’s only recruit.
“I was the only athlete who was technically in the Elite Aerial program for a few years,” said Caldwell, who had been a gymnast for nine years. “There were other people training, but this program was really only supposed to involve gymnasts or trampolinists that were super young. So the (USSA) started focusing on recruiting just those type of young athletes and now the program is full of them.”
Bohonnon competed in freestyle aerials skiing and moguls before he joined the program. He moved into the training facility in Lake Placid when he was in eighth grade and took online high-school classes while training for six to eight hours each day.
A couple years later, he talked McKinnon into giving aerials a try. They are from the same hometown, Madison, Connecticut, and had known each other since first grade. McKinnon had spent nine years as a gymnast and was a recreational skier. She moved to Lake Placid during her sophomore year in high school.
This season, she and Bohonnon were successful from the start. At their first world cup event in Beijing, they both reached the podium, with McKinnon medaling twice. McKinnon also won a silver medal at the world championships.
Both credit the development program and their coaches, of whom Todd Ossian is the head coach, for their success. Last season, Bohonnon finished 14th in the world cup rankings; McKinnon finished 15th.
“I was in shock, I really wasn’t expecting a podium in the first event of the season, especially since I didn’t do so well last year,” McKinnon said. “I trained a lot this summer and my coaches really helped me progress and taught me a lot of what I needed to do to be more competitive in the sport. I owe it all to them.”
Said Bohonnon: “It’s really rewarding for us, but also for our coaches, because they put so much into it and really haven’t gotten any results up until this point, and this shows that they are the best coaches in the world and have created a really good program that will just get better.”
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.