Tom Kelly: In the footsteps of his hero |

Tom Kelly: In the footsteps of his hero

Tom Kelly
Parkite Chris Lillis soars through the air in Kazakhstan. Lillis won a men’s aerials silver medal in the World Championships.
Lara Carlton/U.S. Ski & Snowboard

It was a cold and windy night at Deer Valley Resort as huge snowflakes glistened in the floodlights shining down on the aerials hill. Jan.11, 2007. Jeret “Speedy” Peterson already held the first round lead. He could have gone with a simpler trick in his final jump. But instead, he launched the Hurricane — a quintuple-twisting, triple somersault — with a mind-dazzling three twists on the second flip.

He made history.

Last week in the far away land of Kazakhstan, Park City skier Chris Lillis became a part of that history, throwing his own version of a quintuple-twisting triple to win silver at the World Championships in Almaty. It was the first time an American had landed a quint since Speedy’s 2010 Olympic silver medal.

Lillis, now 22, was just nine when Speedy threw those back-to-back Hurricanes over two nights. A young freestyle skier from Bristol Mountain in western New York, he was glued to the television.

“That was the craziest jump I’d ever seen, especially with it being in a snowstorm,” Lillis said from Almaty. “It’s probably one of the more famous jumps and one of the jumps I’ve watched more often throughout my career. Anytime anybody asks, ‘What’s the maximum score ever done on snow?’ Boom! Right there. There’s a video that you can go pull up. I’ve watched that hundreds of times throughout my career.”

Chris never met Speedy. But his older brother, Jon, had moved to Park City to train with the team and told young Chris about the legendary star. “He spoke the world of him,” recalled Chris. “It was impossible not to look up to a guy like Speedy.”

Park Record columnist Tom Kelly.

Sports like freestyle skiing are marked by their focus on progression. Ironically, Park City has played a pivotal role in the progression of aerials. At the 2002 Olympics, Czech Ales Valenta threw the first successful quint at the Olympics, coming from behind to take gold over hometown hero Joe Pack and defending champion Eric Bergoust. His jump completely changed the face of the competition that day.

Valenta’s quint featured double twists on the first two flips, and a single on the third. Lillis reversed that, with a single on the first then two doubles. Speedy’s legendary Hurricane featured a triple twist on the second flip, with singles on the other two. No one else has ever attempted Speedy’s version in competition.

Lillis, too, has not yet tried Speedy’s version with three twists on the middle flip. For now, he’s more comfortable doubling in, with two twists on his first flip, one in the middle and two coming out on the final flip.

Alongside Lillis, American Ashley Caldwell took silver in Almaty, as well — one of only two women who did a triple flip.

“I was pretty excited about medaling together with Ashley,” he said. “That was pretty sweet”

Caldwell has long prided herself in pushing her sport from double flips to triples, despite the painful consequences of pushing your body acrobatically to squeeze in more dynamic maneuvers in the tiny span of seconds you are in the air.

While the history of the progression from quadruple twists to quints is long, it hasn’t had a sweeping impact on the sport. Until, perhaps, now.

In the 2006 Olympics, Speedy threw it but touched a hand, dropping to seventh. Four years later in Vancouver, he landed it for Olympic silver. Quints took gold and bronze in Sochi but nothing in Pyeongchang. But in Almaty last week, five of the six finalists threw the difficult maneuver in the medals round.

“It’s just an emergence of an extremely high level of talent in the sport that’s making the comeback,” Lillis said. “I knew going into the season that to have a legitimate shot at a podium at the World Championships, you’re going to need a quint. And so I was working towards that.”

Thousands of Parkites packed Deer Valley for two nights of aerials in 2007, starting a love affair with Speedy and his signature Hurricane. This summer will mark the 10th anniversary of his death. He is remembered today by the Speedy Foundation, started by friends and his family to bring awareness to suicide prevention. He died in 2011.

Freestyle aerials skiing has long been hallmarked by a great diversity of countries from the far reaches of the world. Next year Lillis and his teammates will take their show to Beijing for the Olympic Winter Games. With the pandemic, the Chinese have not traveled to a single event this year. But you can be sure they’ve been training.

“At the Olympics, it’s going to be very similar,” he said. “I know about 15 guys that are ready to throw quints come next year. And that’s definitely what it’s going to take.”

Lillis and Speedy are two completely different personalities that share a common passion for pushing their sport to new levels. Lillis is, indeed, humbled with the comparisons.

“Any time people bring up a person like Speedy in the same sentence as me, it’s just a tremendous honor.

“It makes me feel like I’m on the right track. It makes me feel like I’m heading towards something great. Like he achieved.”

Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This is his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.

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