By Maggie Hendricks | Jan. 30, 2019, 3:12 p.m. (ET)

Casey Larson makes a jump at Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 10, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.

 

When Casey Larson took to the ski jump in PyeongChang earlier this year, he instantly became the answer to a trivia question. Who was the 100,000th male Olympian?

Larson found this interesting, but what meant more to the 19-year-old was how he turned in a memorable performance at his first Olympics. He finished in 39th place in the normal hill, 53rd in the large hill. 

“I was more proud because I went into the Olympics kind of struggling a little bit,” said Larson, who had posted top-10 results at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 and 2017 junior world championships.

“I was happy to have some OK jumps and learn a lot I can carry forward. It was about getting this experience in the Olympics early on, because now I know kind of what it takes and I know what I can do in the future to make sure me being satisfied with 39th place means in four years maybe I'm satisfied with a top 10, top five.” 

To make sure he can meet that goal, Larson, 20, trains in Park City, Utah. There, he can take advantage of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Center of Excellence and prepare himself for competitions in Europe. 

“The high altitude makes jumping a little bit harder,” said Larson, who finished eighth at the 2017 junior world championships in Park City. “When I train in Park City, I can go over to Europe and feel confident at a lower elevation, and bigger jumps.” 

Park City offers another advantage. Larson can hike and take his bike on challenging rides, offering a different kind of cross-training.

“You can be in the gym as much as possible, and I guarantee I’m in the gym every day,” he said. “My whole life, I’ve always enjoyed riding bikes and taking hikes. There's no reason to not do that. It makes me a better ski jumper, and it's just a blast to go bike riding as much as I possibly can. I think of it as fun first, training second, when I'm out on a bike or taking a cool run.”

Larson has finished 40th and 44th at a world cup in Sapporo, Japan, and has achieved results ranging from 26th to 59th at Continental Cups in Austria, Germany and Japan. Part of the joy of ski jumping is competing all over the world. He said he loves to jump in Norway and Poland, where ski jumping attracts Super Bowl-sized crowds, but still loves to come home to compete. 

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“You show up to a competition in Chicago, and you have 6,000 people there. People are freaking out,” he said. “You earn respect for what this sport has become; even in the U.S. people are starting to figure it out. It’s not the biggest sport out there, but I like the way this sport is going in the U.S. Sometimes jumping in Chicago, or Wisconsin, or Park City, is some of the most fun I've ever had, too.”

Larson grew up outside Chicago and learned to ski jump at the Norge Ski Club, a hill so close to his home in Barrington, Illinois, that he could ride his bike there. He trained alongside Olympic teammates Kevin Bickner and Michael Glasder at Norge. The competition between them not only pushed the trio to be Olympians but has also raised the Midwest’s profile in ski jumping. 

“When it happened, it was pretty cool to realize that we're these three kids from Chicago who were going to the Olympics,” Larson said. “I think people think of it as a Park City sport, or an Eastern sport. Those are the hubs, but we've made the Midwest a hub.” 

Along with Will Rhoads, Larson, Bickner and Glasder were all first-time Olympians at PyeongChang. The four of them learned together about what the Olympics are like, and what they need to do to get back, while finishing ninth together in the large hill team competition.

“Learning everything with Kevin, Will and Mike was fun, and that was my favorite part,” said Larson. “Going through this experience, gaining a lot of knowledge about my sport, and every other winter sport, too.”

The latter proved to be a particular highlight for Larson. The ski jumping community will spend time with Nordic combined athletes, but they don’t get many chances to mingle with other winter athletes.

“To go and see a bobsledder who is 6-foot-4, 280 pounds of pure muscle is a little different than seeing a 5-foot-7 ski jumper who weighs 125 pounds,” Larson said. “That was cool. It gave me a lot of respect for the different sports."

Don’t expect him to try another one of those sports any time soon, though. He has given Nordic combined a try, but found the sport that involves both ski jumping and cross-country skiing wasn’t a good fit. To Larson, the cross-country part was OK, but there’s nothing quite like being in the air after a good jump. 

“When I'm on the in-run and then the take-off, if I do those well, I don't have to worry about much else,” he said. “I know how to fly. I know what to do. It is really peaceful. You're in your element when you're in the air.”

Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.