PARK CITY, Utah — Every Olympiad, the International Olympic Committee adds new events, many of them mixed team competitions in what have traditionally been individual sports. At the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, the figure skating team event debuted. And now, at the 2022 Beijing Games, team aerials will be on the Olympic program.
The event made its first big splash tonight at the 2019 FIS Snowboard, Freestyle Ski and Freeski World Championships. Switzerland was the upset winner. Their score of 303.08 was enough to beat favorites China (297.82) and Russia (296.74) — the latter teams filled with world championship medalists and world cup leaders.
The U.S. aerials skiers did not have the night that they had hoped for, finishing sixth. But when former world champion Ashley Caldwell and world cup winner Chris Lillis fully recover from injuries, and Jon Lillis — also a former world champion — can find his form again, the skiers are hopeful that they can win medals in Beijing.
“It wasn’t the result we were looking for tonight, but we all dealt with a lot of adversity this week,” said Caldwell, referring to the windy, snowy weather that has wreaked havoc on the world championship schedule this week. “We came out here and pushed as hard as we can, and we’re super excited. We have a great team. We have the potential to win this event, and it just wasn’t our night tonight.”
So, What Is Team Aerials?
To enter mixed team aerials, each team must have three coed competitors — either two men and one woman, or two women and one man. Teams are also allowed one reserve skier, the gender of which is determined based on the makeup of the team. Each competitor jumps once, and the three scores are combined to determine the team’s overall score. The top four teams then move on to a super final.
At 2019 world championships, eight countries entered the team aerials event, with everyone except Kazakhstan and Australia entering two men and one woman. In Australia’s case, the team did not have enough competitors, so David Morris, the team’s coach, came out of retirement for one night only. An Olympic silver medalist and world championship bronze medalist in 2017, Morris threw a clean double and helped Australia finish seventh.
But entering two women can be a strategy.
“If you are looking for consistency, the girls doing doubles are very very consistent,” explained Caldwell. “The triple (jump), you don’t have that risk-reward ratio. But that’s not necessarily beneficial in the team event.”
Is There A Strategy?
Yes and no.
The main goal is to have all three of a team’s aerials skiers land their most difficult jumps without falling. A fall means almost certain elimination for a team (as was the case tonight for the Americans, when Chris Lillis fell after throwing one of the most difficult jumps). Some team members might decide to do an easier jump because the chances of landing it are higher.
But the judges handsomely reward jumps with higher degrees of difficulty, so the risk can be worth it.
“Aerials is a sport where it’s guns out, 100 percent,” said Jon Lillis. “There’s not really too much besides going for it.”
“If I go out there and am doing nice full full fulls which have that degree of difficulty,” she explained, “that gives us a huge advantage over a lot of the other teams.”
After a tough week (actually, more like a tough year), Caldwell backed down from her usual triple jump and instead did a double. Her score of 77.49 put the team in fourth place after her jump, then fell to sixth after Chris Lillis’ fall.
What Does The U.S. Have To Do To Win An Olympic Medal?
It’s been a tough year for the U.S. freestyle aerials team. Well, more like a rough 17 months.
Chris Lillis tore his ACL five minutes before the first Olympic qualifier last season (in December 2017). He has spent the past year literally getting his feet back under him.
Then at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Caldwell dislocated her acromioclavicular joint, essentially separating her collarbone from her shoulder. She had surgery in June and had only jumped singles this fall, not her trademark triples. She pushed hard to compete at a world championships in her home town and admitted that she was not as ready to perform at her best.
And in the toughest blow of all, Jon and Chris Lillis’ younger brother, Michael (known as Mikey and also an aspiring aerials skier), died in his sleep in October 2017. The family was devastated. Since then Chris and Jon have jumped for their brother, and they relished competing in the team event together — hanging loose and getting each other fired up at the top of the jumps.
To win in Beijing, “we just need to do what we’re capable of doing,” said Jon. “I won a world championship, my brother’s won a world cup. Ashley has won multiple events and that’s really what we are capable of doing, so we want to do that.”
“It didn’t work out for us tonight,” added Caldwell. “But we have it in us.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.