Chris Lillis: It’s only the next jump that counts
March 9, 2016
Freestyle aerials skiing is an intricate sport. Athletes speed down a steep, icy pitch at 68 kilometers per hour with 160 centimeter skis firmly attached to their feet, vaulting off a 14-foot-high kicker and soaring 65 feet into the air. If that’s not enough, they then flip and twist their bodies with no semblance of perspective before sticking a landing on a steep, chopped up snowfield — hang time of 3.5 seconds, one of the longest in any acrobatic sport.
At 17, most aspiring aerialists are polishing their double flips — not the case with Chris Lillis. A product of western New York’s Bristol Mountain, Chris and brother Jonathon came up through the U.S. Ski Team’s Elite Aerials Development Program (EADP). Last year, Chris graduated from the USSA’s TEAM Academy. He mastered triples over the last few summers in the Spence Eccles Olympic Freestyle Pool at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City. This winter, he put them onto snow with a focus on being the best he could possibly be.
Earlier this month, Lillis took his bag of tricks on the road to Moscow and then Minsk in Belarus, where he became the youngest aerialist ever to win an International Ski Federation World Cup.
Chris got started in the sport a lot like many other ski athletes. Mom and dad brought the boys to Bristol at an early age. He started skiing at three and a few years later was in the club program under USSA Coach of the Year Johnny Kroetz. "We did everything — slopestyle, moguls, aerials. It really bred a love for all the sports," said Lillis.
In the summer, the kids went to Lake Placid for camp. Soon, it was time for a coach. "When I started coaching, Chris was my very first athlete," reminisced Joe Davies, now a U.S. Ski Team coach. "There he was, little 12-year-old Chris Lillis in all hand-me-down gear."
Chris is the kind of kid you want to coach — absorbing every word and setting his own focus and goals. "He has amazing enthusiasm for the sport — he’s not jaded, he really loves to jump," said Davies. "There are people who love to compete and love to win. Chris genuinely loves to jump."
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Lillis woke that morning in Minsk and headed out to the FreeStyle Sports Complex. A week earlier on the scaffold in downtown Moscow, he had been seventh. Brother Jonathon nailed a 116.37 for his first podium. Teammate Mac Bohonnon hit 124.43 to win.
Conditions at the Minsk jump were rugged — an icy, bumpy pitch heading into the kicker. You had to be on your game. In qualifying, Chris put down a 113.57 — a career best — to stand second. Brother Jonathon was right behind at 112.99. They were in the show!
"I had made finals twice before but had qualified 11th both times," said Chris. "To do such a nice jump and qualify high gave me a sense of confidence." A dozen athletes made finals, but only six would make the one-jump superfinal to determine the winner.
As he prepared for his first finals jump, Lillis had a quiet moment with Davies at the top of the inrun. "How did I do coach?" asked Lillis. "That was a personal best!" he added proudly. Davies looked at him calmly, not showing the emotion that was in his heart. "Well, that was OK Chris," the coach said stoically. "But it’s only the next one that counts."
Lillis put on his game face and pointed his skis down the bumpy track. He hit the kicker and vaulted into a full, double full, full — three flips mixed with four twists. Then, bam, he stuck the landing. Suddenly, he was in the superfinal against the best five aerials skiers in the world.
With fifth-best score, Lillis jumped second. At the top, he turned to his coach who told him, "No matter what happens today, I couldn’t be more proud of you!" They hugged it out and Lillis hop-turned and headed down the jump.
It was silent around him as he pushed down the inrun for his final jump. The sound of his skis on the frozen ice led up to a huge "swoosh" as he hit the kicker.
"In the air I had these fixed points in my mind," recalled Lillis. "For me it was getting my vision down the hill and getting my view on the landing. You’re not thinking about the competition, it’s about that very moment in time. You’re never more focused."
Bang, he landed it. His coaches — Joe, Todd and Matt — pumped their fists in the air. They knew his 111.78 was good, but how good? Could it stand up for a podium?
"When I landed it, I knew I had done the very best jump I could have," Lillis said. "Now it was just watching the other competitors."
The 17-year-old had now forced the hands of the remaining four jumpers. This kid from America had just thrown down the gauntlet. And one by one, they faltered. Suddenly, it all came down to World Cup leader Oleksandr Abramenko of the Ukraine. Knowing what was on the line, Abramenko went with a higher degree of difficulty, a double full, full full — two twists on the very first flip. He hit the jump, soaring high into the air. Then, in an instant, it was over as he crashed on landing.
Chris Lillis had won. His teammates threw him on their shoulders for the walk to the podium.
"Oleksandr came up to me and congratulated me," said Lillis. "He’s the guy I really look up to — he’s the best in the world. I never quite saw myself in that position. To be on that same level as him was a huge moment in my career."
There were plenty of tears. Chris Lillis was right where he belonged.
Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the team.