Jake Pates and Chloe Kim pose with their gold medals at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 on Feb. 19, 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway.
There’s nothing quite like the Olympic Games.
But the Youth Olympic Games come pretty close.
As the 244 members of Team USA begin competition at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, a record 16 of them do so as veterans of a Winter Youth Olympic Games.
So what is the Youth Olympic Games, exactly?
Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Established by the International Olympic Committee in 2007, the Youth Olympic Games is a multi-sport competition for athletes ages 14-17. While competing in many of the traditional Olympic sports, athletes also take part in mixed team events and other activities intended to build camaraderie and understanding amongst one another.
And while the events aren’t necessarily synonymous with a junior world championship, most come pretty close. So when you put it all together, it’s an experience as close to the Olympic Games as there is.
“We went through the same security, we had the same badges, we had the same transportation, we had the same pretty much everything,” luger Tucker West said, noting they also participated in opening and closing ceremonies. “The only thing we were lacking was a big crowd.”
West competed at the first Winter Youth Olympic Games, in 2012 in Innsbruck, Austria. Coming on the heels of the first Youth Olympic Games two years prior in Singapore, the Winter Games were still mostly an unknown quantity even for the athletes.
Freeskier Aaron Blunck said he didn’t even know he was eligible for the Youth Olympic Games when he competed at the preceding U.S. championships, but when he got the invite to compete in Innsbruck, he jumped on the opportunity.
In Innsbruck, he won a bronze medal in halfpipe skiing, and two years later he made his full Olympic debut in Sochi, where he finished seventh in the event. Last year, he won X Games.
The Youth Olympic Games, he said, was a uniquely valuable experience.
“We got that full experience, just with a little bit younger athletes,” he said, noting that staying in an athletes’ village, in particular, was an enlightening experience.
“It felt exactly like the Olympics did in 2014,” added West, who also will compete in his second Olympics in PyeongChang. “You got the feeling of competing under stress, what your body does during that time. You got to understand security and all that. All these curve balls that if it’s your first time at the Olympics you just don't expect. It throws some athletes off, but since we had done it at the Youth Olympics, I kind of knew what to expect.”
Team USA won eight medals in Innsbruck, including two gold medals.
Among those medalists are six athletes who will be competing this month in PyeongChang. In addition to West and Blunck, they included snowboarders Ben Ferguson and Arielle Gold, as well as luger Summer Britcher and biathlete Sean Doherty.
Bobsledder Codie Bascue, cross-country skier Patrick Caldwell, short track speedskater Thomas Hong and ski jumper Will Rhoads are other 2012 Youth Olympians on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
With one Winter Youth Olympic Games in the books, Team USA came out flying at the second edition, which took place in 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway. This time Americans took home 16 medals and tied South Korea for the most gold medals with 10.
Four of those gold medals came from snowboarders Chloe Kim and Jake Pates, each of whom swept their respective halfpipe and slopestyle competitions. Both will be competing in halfpipe in PyeongChang, with Kim in particular considered to be one of Team USA’s top medal favorites.
“I literally had so much fun here,” Kim told TeamUSA.org at the time. “I didn’t expect any of this, and I didn’t know it would be that much fun. Once I was here I just had so much fun. I met so many people right off the bat and it was awesome.”
Freeskier Alex Hall and Nordic combined skier Ben Loomis both parlayed medals in Lillehammer to spots on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. They’ll be joined in Korea by 2016 Youth Olympic teammates Hailey Langland, a snowboarder, and ski jumper Casey Larson.
Competing at the Youth Olympics is great, and winning a medal is even better. But the Youth Olympics also offer unique opportunities that separate the Games from a single-sport junior world championship.
Among them is the opportunity to compete in mixed-country events, such as a figure skating team event. In 2012, Team USA’s Jordan Bauth won a gold medal in that event while competing with the Belarusian ice dance team of Eugenia Tkachenka and Yuri Hulitski, and Shoma Uno of Japan. The latter went on to win a silver medal at last year’s world championships and is a medal favorite in PyeongChang.
The Youth Olympics also provide opportunities for athletes to participate in a test run for disciplines ahead of their Olympic debuts. That was the case for Blunck, who medaled in the halfpipe skiing event before it was an Olympic event in Sochi. Britcher and West, too, won Youth Olympic gold in the luge team relay two years before athletes competed for the Olympic gold medal in the event in 2014.
“That was the first time it debuted in an Olympic event really, so we had no idea what to expect and we ended up winning it,” West said. “It was absolutely awesome.”
With the next Winter Youth Olympic Games scheduled for 2020 in Lausanne, Switzerland, this year’s crop of veterans will have aged out of the competition. However, there are opportunities for veterans to go back and serve as athlete role models. For many athletes in both 2012 and 2016, including Blunck, meeting alpine skiing gold medalist and athlete ambassador Lindsey Vonn was one of the highlights.
If he has that opportunity, Blunck said, he’d love to follow Vonn’s example.
“It was cool to see how stoked kids were, and that inspires them to get to the next level,” Blunck said. “It was a really cool opportunity, and if I could go back as an athlete mentor I’d love to do it.”