Call Jon Lillis or Chris Lillis and chances are you’ll find them together, most likely doing the same thing.
We reach Chris, 18, just as he and his 22-year-old brother are rebuilding water ramps at the freestyle pool at Utah Olympic Park, the Park City training facility where U.S. Ski Team’s aerials squad is perfecting new moves for the upcoming Olympic season.
“Honestly, we do pretty much everything together,” Chris, the FIS aerials rookie of the year last season, said. “Usually, it’s based around training. We room together, we hang out together, we travel together.”
He patches in his big brother, who in March beat out China’s two-time world champion Qi Guangpu to win world championships gold in Sierra Nevada, Spain. That day, it was hard to say who was happier: Jon, or Chris.
“Becoming world champion, I attribute it to being with my brother and having that bond,” Jon said.
There are differences. Jon, a sushi fan, has rap and hip-hop on his iPod; Chris, who favors steak and potatoes, likes ’80s rock. Jon rides motorcycles, while Chris plays golf “six out of seven” days of the week. Jon’s dream job is a professional poker player; Chris would hit the PGA circuit if he could. But right now, they’re flying high as two of Team USA’s top aerials hopefuls for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
With May 24 being Brother’s Day, here’s a primer on the sibling duo.
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1) It’s Not Jon Lillis And Chris Lillis; It’s #TeamLillis
Even with prompting, it’s tough to get Jon or Chris to talk about their individual accomplishments. Ask Chris to reflect on his 2016-17 season, and he glosses over his award.
“My highlight? Just being on the team with Jon, traveling on the world cup tour with him, going to all the stops and watching him progress over the course of the season,” he said. “Seeing Jon win the world championships, and me becoming rookie of the year, those were probably the biggest things.”
Jon ranks his younger brother’s award equal to his own world title.
“Being world champion is going to be the highlight of anybody’s career; it’s the next thing to an Olympic gold medal,” he said. “At the same time, watching Chris win rookie of the year, traveling and rooming with him, and being able to push each other was the highlight of the season, because it’s a driving factor of a lot of my success.”
2) They Never Compete Against Each Other, Even When They Do
Whenever they’re entered in the same event, the brothers consider their medal prospects doubled.
“We are so close, it’s almost like we get two chances to do well, because when the other person does well, you live vicariously through him,” Jon said.
Those sentiments were put to test during the 2015-16 season. At the Moscow World Cup, Jon’s second jump knocked Chris out of sixth place and a spot in the super final. Jon ended up with a silver medal, his first world cup podium finish.
“When you end up seventh, one spot away from that super final, usually it stinks, but not when your brother makes his first world cup podium,” Chris said. “We both celebrated. We called our parents.”
The next week in Minsk, Belarus, Chris turned the tables, pushing Jon out of the top six and becoming, at age 17, the youngest athlete ever to win a world cup aerials event. An ecstatic Jon carried his younger brother to the podium.
“It’s not a terrible thing when your brother knocks you out of finals,” Jon said. “Anybody else, it really sucks.”
3) Jon Led By Example
Growing up in Pittsford, New York, near the Bristol Mountain ski resort, Jon took to the slopes at age 5 and tried his hand at aerial skiing a few years later. Chris followed at age 3.
“We both joined the freestyle team (Bristol Mountain Snowsports Club) at our local mountain, Jon about a year before I did,” Chris said. “I joined it when I was younger than he was. Our parents saw we liked jumping off of stuff, so it was a way to do something we liked already.”
At age 14, Jon was named to the Elite Aerial Development Program (EADP) and moved to Lake Placid, New York, to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. In 2011, he was named to the national team.
“I saw how you had to train, what was necessary to get on to the U.S. team,” Chris said. “Jon was one of the youngest athletes ever to make the team. His path inspired me and showed me what could be done with hard work and dedication, because I watched my older brother do it from close up.”
4) Chris Is Intense; Jon Is Mellow
Vaulting off a ramp at 30 miles per hour and doing back flips and body twists 50 feet in the air doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. Preparation is key.
“I think Chris and I are kind of yin and yang, in that respect,” Jon said. “Chris gets really quiet, and he kind of gets within himself. He thinks about what he’s doing a lot, he has a meditation routine, he visualizes jumps. He tries to get himself in the most prepared state of mind possible.”
“I’m always the one who is kind of goofing around,” he added. “I let things roll off my back. If I’m in a bad mood, I’m probably not jumping that well. If I’m laughing and dancing around, it’s been a good day.”
5) Their Jumping Styles Are Different
In aerials, judges assign scores based on jump takeoff (20 percent), jump form (50 percent) and landing (30 percent), with a degree of difficulty factored in for a total score. Style counts, and while Jon and Chris share the same coaches and technique, they don’t look too much alike in the air.
“Aerials is judged off the straightest body line you can have and the best landing,” Chris said. “I’m about 5 feet 9 inches tall, coming up on 5 foot 10, and Jon is about 5 foot 6, so he’s a little shorter with a stockier build, more like our father. I have a lankier build, and the different body types make us jump differently.
“For example, when we’re on the in-run going into the jump, Jon starts very low and I start very high, because I don’t carry my speed as well. Wind affects me a lot more than it affects Jon.”
6) They’re Known For Different Tricks
Not only are their styles different, but the brothers favor different maneuvers.
“Usually every aerial skier performs every trick; it’s which you can perform most consistently and to the best quality, that it comes down to,” Jon said.
“Chris does a really good double-full-full-full, where you do the fast twist — the double twist — on the first flip, and I’ve made my specialty through the years a full-full-double-full, with the fast twist and the double spin on the last flip. So we are polar opposite with the jumps at the top of our arsenals right now.”
Once again, though, they are fundamentally alike.
“The (danger) factor has never stopped either of us from doing what we needed to do,” Jon said. “If we need to get something done, it doesn’t really matter how much training we have or how ready we feel. Neither one of us really steps down or takes the safer road.”
“I would say that’s a quality of #TeamLillis that separates our family, and this includes our younger brother as well,” Chris said. “I’d say our family breeds a little bit crazier, more daredevil-ish skiers.”
7) They Expect A Third Lillis Will Join Them On The World Cup Circuit
The brother act may soon be a trio: Michael (“Mikey”) Lillis, who turns 17 on June 4, is a member of the EADP in Lake Placid.
“He’s just a cool little dude,” Jon said. “I think he could be better than both of us, not too long from now.”
“I benefitted so much watching Jon, all of the experience he had,” Chris said. “(Mikey) has two brothers to learn from. What more could you want?”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.