Aerialist Jon Lillis prepares to defend World Championship title at Deer Valley Resort |

Aerialist Jon Lillis prepares to defend World Championship title at Deer Valley Resort

Jon Lillis holds up a number one after landing his jump successfully during the first round of finals at the Visa FIS Freestyle World Cup Aerials event at Deer Valley Resort Friday evening, January 12, 2018. (Tanzi Propst/Park Record)
Tanzi Propst

Next winter is going to be a big season for the U.S. aerials team, especially for Jon Lillis and Ashley Caldwell.

Both will be defending the World Champion titles they earned in Spain in 2017, and both are hungry after being knocked out of the Pyeongchang Winter Games before the third finals rounds. What’s more, the World Championships will be on home turf, in front of the Park City crowd at Deer Valley Resort for the third time since the 2002 Winter Games. Though the competition isn’t until February, Lillis has already returned to work.

On Wednesday, he was poolside at the Utah Olympic Park, dressed in Team USA shorts and a hoodie after spending the morning going off the ramps.

It was his second week back after spending two and a half months doing the least amount of work necessary.

“I napped a lot,” he said, adding that he left Park City an estimated one time, which was for the team’s celebratory trip to Washington, D.C.

“I think after so many years of so much traveling, it was really relaxing just to have two and a half months to sit and relax — to not have to be anywhere or go anywhere, or wake up on time. That was important to get back to training, for sure.”

He said he also spent that time re-motivating himself to continue into the next Olympic cycle after competing for the last 10 years. In that department, he said he is likely doing better than most, which was one reason why he was the only A-team athlete on deck that day.

His teammate Mac Bohonnon is taking a year off, and Madison Olsen, a Park City native, retired from the team and has moved to Logan to attend Utah State University, Lillis said.

Caldwell, Lillis’ World Championship counterpart, was a different story. Todd Ossian, head aerials coach, said a shoulder injury, rather than time off, was keeping her out of the pool.

“She is chomping at the bit to get going,” he said.

The rest of the returning A- and B-team members will likely be back in full force by July.

But even if Caldwell was at the pool, she would likely be taking it pretty easy, as Lillis was doing, per the coaching staff’s recommendations.

Athletes start the season by making sure their bodies are ready to handle the tricks they did last season, Lillis said. Then they start looking for errors and bad habits they’ve developed in their jumps.

“I was working on positioning of where I was dropping my arms on a certain variation of the triple twisting double flip,” he said of Wednesday’s morning practice. “Which in the grand scheme of things is a pretty easy trick for us to be doing.”

With Lillis dressed in probably the most comfortable official clothing the national team offers, and soothing pop music oozing from the overhead speakers out into the sunny afternoon, it’s easy to assume that summer training is a luxury. But Ossian said it’s the building block of every aerialist’s season.

“It’s a very technical sport, and very difficult to learn anything new on snow,” he said, adding that the pool is much safer than the alternative. “One little arm movement, you can land backwards or sideways — you can have too much rotation and go past the flip.”

So for the most part, the winter sport is developed during summer.

Which is why from June until October the athletes will jump between 15 and 30 times, depending on the height of the jump and degree of difficulty, each weekday over two practices. That’s in addition to strength and conditioning workouts at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence.

Because the practices can be intense, pacing is critical. Ossian and C-team coach Emily Cook said it’s important to start the athletes slow so they don’t get burned out when the training intensifies in midsummer. Then, by fall, most of the training is done.

“Even by mid-September, the athletes know what tricks they’re going to be competing with,” Ossian said. “You’re done trying new tricks and new things; you’re just really trying to clean everything up right at the end and focus on the landings.”

The goal is to be ready for Feb. 1, when the World Championships return.

In addition to competing in the same town as the team trains, the Americans will have an additional advantage in being able to send 10 athletes to the aerials competition instead of the usual eight because Caldwell and Lillis earn free spots as the previous year’s champions.

In Pyeongchang, Jon placed first in the initial qualifying round, but placed eighth in the second finals due to his form in the execution of a back full-full-double full. Caldwell was eliminated in the second qualifying round after she didn’t land a lay full full cleanly,

“I think there’s been very big highs and very big lows, and everything in between,” Lillis said when asked about Korea. “And I think every athlete will tell you that.”

He said at 23 years old, all of his accomplishments so far have been at an age when aerialists are still considered to be developing toward their peak, meaning the years leading up to the Beijing Winter Games in 2022 should be his best, most refined performances.

“I’m one of the veterans on my team age wise, but I still feel like I have a lot to learn and do better,” he said.

And he said now, in the summer, is the best time to do it — with the pressure of competition still months away,

“It’s super normal,” he said of being back by the pool. “This is what I do, so on the one hand it’s like we’re back to the beginning of a four-year cycle, but at the same time this is what I do with my life. I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t here.”

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