When I interviewed aerial skiers Jon Lillis and Chris Lillis for TeamUSA.org five months ago, Jon had just captured gold at the FIS Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships. Chris, the FIS rookie of the year, was making his own mark on the circuit, winning a world cup event in Belarus and sometimes defeating his older brother.
They made it clear, though, that competition wasn’t an individual pursuit for them. It was #TeamLillis all the way, and Jon and Chris were only two-thirds of the story.
Younger brother Michael (“Mikey”) Lillis, at 17 a rising star in U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Elite Aerial Development Program (EADP) in Lake Placid, New York, was a big part of the equation – perhaps even the most gifted of them, his brothers thought.
“He’s just a cool little dude,” Jon said. “I think he could be better than both of us, not too long from now.”
Jon and Chris couldn’t wait for Mikey to graduate to the FIS world cup circuit, where the daring trio could test their twists and somersaults against the best in the world.
Sadly, that will never happen. On Saturday morning, Mikey was found unresponsive by his parents at the family home in East Rochester, New York, where he was staying on a break between pre-season training camps. He had died in his sleep.
Jon, 23, and Chris, 19, received the news at U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s pre-season aerials camp in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and immediately left for Zurich Airport to fly home and join their family in upstate New York.
“All we can do is make sure the boys (Jon and Chris) get home, and try to help the family,” said Tom Kelly, vice president, communications at U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “We’re reaching out to the coaches, and Mikey’s teammates, to make sure they’re OK.”
The youngest Lillis left Lake Placid a week ago and was scheduled to return for a second training camp there this week. Except for a few athletes who had already arrived in Lake Placid, that camp was cancelled, Kelly said.
The EADP grooms athletes for aerial success by offering gymnasts, often 11 or 12 years old, the opportunity to develop as skiers.
“We started it 10-12 years ago after seeing what China and other nations were doing in the developmental ranks, and it’s been really successful in fast-tracking (athletes),” Kelly said. “It’s a big reason why the U.S. is now the deepest nation (in aerials) in the world.”
Both Jon and Chris had preceded Mikey into the program, and expected their younger brother would duplicate their success.
“I benefitted so much watching Jon, all of the experience he had,” Chris said in May. “He (Mikey) has two brothers to learn from. What more could you want?”
The idea of Mikey joining his older brothers in world cup competition wasn’t a pipe dream. He had made three podiums on the NorAm developmental tour, and placed in the top 10 a dozen or so times.
“He loved what he was doing,” Kelly said. “His was truly a life well spent, albeit tragically cut short.”
(L-R) Brothers Jon, Chris and Mikey Lillis all represented the U.S. in aerials skiing.