Jon Lillis stomped a NorAm competition
The U.S. aerials national team kicked off its season with two North American Cup competitions at the Utah Olympic Park on Saturday and Sunday.
One twist: They included World Champions Ashley Caldwell and Jon Lillis, plus B- and C-team U.S. athletes, some of whom were getting some early season competition before the start of the World Cup series.
Usually, Caldwell and Lillis would stick to the World Cup series, which occupy a tier above the NorAm series, but they saw it as a chance to prepare.
They might have just been brushing off the proverbial snow, but Lillis asserted his position in the pecking order with a 20-point victory over his nearest competitor, U.S. athlete Nick Novak, in a sport where fractions of a point often decide a contest.
Lillis said he and Caldwell were there to get into a competitive mindset, but also to help train the next generation of A-team athletes, citing the importance of good competition to test themselves against.
“We want them to see the big jumps and feel like a part of it, and feel like they are competing against us, instead of just competing to compete with us,” he said.
But the decision to sit out Sunday’s competition was an easy one for Lillis and Caldwell.
“For me, knowing that I already have the tricks and the degree of difficulty I need to win, it’s more about keeping my body and my mind in the right spot,” Lillis said.
U.S. teammate Madison Varmette (who jumped on Sunday) said it was hard to judge the speed with which athletes would enter the jump, and how far the wind would take them.
“It got rough because there’s an aggressive tailwind, but then the snow was still coming down to make it slow in the track of the jump,” she said. “It was definitely hit or miss.”
Instead of competing, Lillis helped some of the younger athletes plan their jumps and deal with the conditions.
“Snowstorms like we had today, they only really happen on a jumping day once a winter, so you don’t get a lot of time to train,” he said. “So helping those kids deal with that was really fun, and I was really encouraged to see the way a lot of athletes dealt with it today.”
On Saturday, Olga Polyuk of Ukraine took first in the women’s competition (82.84), followed by Caldwell (81.58) and PCSS athlete Kaila Kuhn (77.72).
Former PCSS athlete Winter Vinecki finished fourth (76.72).
Lillis finished first in Saturday’s men’s competition (107.73), followed by his teammates Nick Novak (86.67) and Patrick O’Flynn (85.45).
Lillis’ brother, Chris, competed for the first time since injuring his ACL in China early last season. He finished fifth (67.23), and was followed by last season’s NorAm winner, U.S. athlete Justin Schoenefeld (66.88).
The Sunday competition was shortened because of wind and heavy snow, which was also reason enough for the World Champions to decide to sit out.
Varmette, who grew up in Stafford, Virginia, and competes for the U.S. C team, took first (73.95), edging out Polyuk (73.71).
Vinecki finished third (67.57).
Varmette placed sixth at the Deer Valley World Cup last season and was awarded the World Cup Rookie of the Year title at the end of last season. She said her award from last year made it feel like she had big shoes to fill coming into the competition.
“So I think the first day I was like, ‘you have to be perfect, you have to do it really well,’ so it wasn’t my best day,” she said.
Then, the second day’s weather made performing each jump a much more challenging prospect, but Varmette stuck lay full jump.
She is hoping to stand on a World Cup podium this season, and compete in the World Championships when they come to Deer Valley next month.
Chris Lillis led Sunday’s men’s competition (97.99). He was followed by U.S. athlete Alex Bowen (92.70), then Schoenefeld (86.36).
Lillis said that, after a full year off from aerials, he was ready to compete again.
“I landed all my jumps (this weekend), and today I won, so I’m just trying to build off that going into the World Cup season,” he said. “I’m definitely trying to get back on the (World Cup) podium. I won my last World Cup three years ago now, so it’s been a minute. I’m just looking to share a podium with my brother this season.”
The U.S. World Cup team will travel to Lake Placid for the opening competition of the season on Jan. 18-19.
The World Championships will be held at Deer Valley on Feb. 6 and 7.
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