Jon Lillis competes in men's aerials finals at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 18, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Jon Lillis was not alone in the sky Sunday night.
As he flipped and twisted above the aerials jumps at Phoenix Snow Park, Lillis carried his brothers with him: Chris, an Olympic aerials hopeful who had torn his ACL while competing in China this season, and their youngest brother Mikey.
In October, Mikey Lillis, also an aspiring freestyle skier, died in his sleep at age 17. An autopsy was inconclusive, but it was possibly a heart arrhythmia, reported some sources.
The three brothers came up through the U.S. Ski Team’s Elite Aerial Development Program and had all hoped to compete in the Olympic Games together one day. Now Jon was competing at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 for all three of them.
And he was wearing Mikey’s “hyper blue” suit.
“It still has his initials in the back,” said Lillis. “That’s about as close as it gets.”
To the Opening Ceremony, he wore a red, white and blue glass pendant fused with his brother’s ashes. But he could not jump with it tonight — given that it’s glass.
Lillis was the top qualifier Saturday night, scoring 127.44 — higher even than he scored when he won world championships last March. Mac Bohonnon and Eric Loughran also competed in PyeongChang but did not qualify for the final, finishing 17th and 25th respectively.
"Hopefully I can come out tomorrow and just throw it down," Lillis said after the qualifier.
But in the final, the 23-year-old American aerials skier could not carry the momentum from the qualifier. With a score of 95.47 in the second final of three, he finished in eighth place.
Ukraine’s Oleksandr Abramenko won the final with a score of 128.51, with China’s Jia Zongyang very close behind with 128.05 added a silver medal to his 2014 Olympic bronze medal. Ilia Burov, an Olympic Athlete from Russia, took the bronze with a 122.17.
The level of jumping surprised Lillis. At the 2014 Sochi Games, a score of 134.50 won the gold. But Jia’s 95.06 was good enough for bronze.
“If you are someone who likes to look at results, and you went back and looked at the last 20 years of aerials competition, this was insane,” Lillis said.
To even reach the second final (round of nine), Lillis had to forget using an easier jump and instead pull out a more difficult one.
“I had no choice but to skip that jump,” he said. “And if I had been in the last round, I would have had to do a trick that I’d never done before.”
The Americans last won an Olympic medal in aerials in 2010, when the late Jeret “Speedy” Peterson earned silver after throwing his famous “Hurricane” jump.
For the Lillis family — with Chris and parents Bernie and Jamie watching in person on Sunday night — Jon’s qualifying performance on Saturday night was a badly needed bright spot, a reason to celebrate.
Even though he did not win an Olympic medal, Lillis considered his performance in the finals as another bright spot.
“If you asked anyone at the end of October what they thought my year was going to be like, they might say that I would have a downward spiral and I wouldn’t be here, and I would be too sad to go out and do this,” he said. “I think the fact that I came out here and gave it my all is something I can go home and be really proud of.”
Lillis plans to make it back to an Olympic Games in four years. Hopefully with his brother Chris, who became the youngest freestyle aerials skier ever to win a world cup competition. It was February 2016, and Chris was 17 years old.
“Team Lillis will keep going, and four years from now, it will be a whole different story,” predicted Jon Lillis. “We’ll be out here trying to kick some [butt].”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.