By Karen Rosen | Feb. 16, 2018, 9:47 a.m. (ET)
Madison Olsen reacts during the freestyle skiing women's aerials final at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 16, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.

 

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – You could call it a coincidence -- or maybe it was an omen.

Madison Olsen attended the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 when she was just 6 years old.

One of the events she saw was freestyle skiing aerials.

“I remember just really being inspired by the Olympics and wanting to be one of those athletes,” Olsen said.

Sixteen years later, she was competing under the lights at Phoenix Snow Park. 

On Friday night, the 22-year-old from Park City, Utah, had the highest Olympic finish in aerials by an American woman since Nikki Stone took home the gold in 1998.

Olsen placed sixth at the PyeongChang Games after becoming the last qualifier for the “super final.”

She went all out, throwing a new trick she had never attempted on snow -- only into water over the summer.

“I figured, ‘Why not do it in the super finals at the Olympics?’” said Olsen, a first-time Olympian.

Why not, indeed? And so she went for a back-full-double full, which has a degree of difficulty of 3.525, significantly higher than her previous two jumps.

That’s two back flips with a 360 rotation, or twist, on the first flip and a 720 rotation, or two twists, on the second.

Olsen nearly landed it, but took a header instead, face-planting into the snow which she said was “surprisingly soft” and losing both skis.

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Olsen bounced up, got a big ovation, and retrieved her skis. She then smiled and waved. 

“I was pretty close,” said Olsen, who was fifth at the 2017 world championships. “I could have had a little bit of a better takeoff. I got into my twist and when I came out to land, I just was a little bit under-rotated, so that made me fall forward. So, next time!” 

She scored only 47.23 points, well under the 85.36 she scored in the first final, which cut the field from 12 to nine, and the 83.23 she posted to qualify for the super final, which whittled the field down to six. 

Kiley McKinnon, the 2015 world championships silver medalist, admired her teammate's no-holds-barred attitude. 

“When you’re at this point in the competition,” McKinnon said, “and it’s the Olympics and you have a trick in the bag that you know you can do, it’s kind of just like a no-brainer that you want to pull it out and send it. Because I think if you don’t do it, you’ll regret it.”

McKinnon didn’t fare as well. She did not advance from the first final, placing 10th when she bent her knees considerably on the landing of a back-full-full that scored 80.95 points. 

“I’m actually really happy with my last jump,” McKinnon said. “In the air it was really good. It was just the landing that got me.”

Still, Team USA had two top-10 finishes in women’s aerials for the second time in a row. Emily Cook was eighth in Sochi and Ashley Caldwell placed 10th. 

Caldwell, a three-time Olympian and 2017 world champion who also placed 10th in 2010, attempts some of the hardest tricks in the sport and did not qualify for the final. 

Hanna Huskova of Belarus won the gold with a score of 94.14, followed by two Chinese athletes: Xin Zhang with 95.52 points and Fanyu Kong with 70.14.

Six-time Olympian Alla Tsuper, the 38-year-old defending champion from Belarus, fell on her landing and was fourth with 59.94 points.

Olsen started skiing at age 2, but initially concentrated on moguls at the urging of her late father, Thomas, who passed away from cancer in 2016.

She switched to aerials two years later.

“I was just really drawn to the aerials aspect of moguls,” Olsen said of the jumps part of the “bumps and jumps.” She watched the aerials team train in the summer at the Utah Olympic Park and decided she wanted to join them.

Olsen had her first world cup podium finish in 2016 when she was third, and her best world cup finish this season was fourth in Deer Valley, Utah, the 2002 Olympic site.

She said getting ready to compete in the preliminaries Thursday was “so overwhelming. I was standing at the top, and I couldn’t figure out if I was shaking because I was cold or nervous.”

The temperature was a brisk 26 degrees for the final, but Olsen was smiling as she waited her turn.

“I was really just enjoying the moment,” she said. “It was awesome out there. The adrenaline was just pumping through my body and I was just super excited to be out there jumping and having a good time.”

And Olsen could hear her family cheering at the bottom. At the top, Cook had some advice for her: “She was just trying to get me to breathe a little bit,” Olsen said.

She said competing in her first Olympic Games was “beyond anything I was expecting. It was really incredible. Each round I was so excited to make it through and see what I could do.”

There was plenty of suspense as some of the most experienced aerialists fell. The reigning Olympic silver medalist, Xu Mengtao of China, was eliminated in the second final.

Seeing others fall, Olsen said, “definitely your ears perk up a little bit, but I was just stoked to be out there.”

She even stood in the area reserved for potential medalists for a few jumps.

“It was pretty cool,” Olsen said. “It’s really inspirational. It makes me want to do better.” 

So is she eager to try that back-full-double full again soon? 

Olsen laughed. “We’ll see.”

For live video and highlights, head to the networks of NBC and NBCOlympics.com.