Parkite Chris Lillis had his comeback season last year, but now moves forward with bigger goals in mind
Anybody with knowledge of sports understands what a “comeback” means.
By definition, a comeback is “a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful.”
Sports legends have gained that status through comeback seasons or moments. But a question that’s rarely asked is, what happens after the comeback?
Chris Lillis is about to find out.
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“I finally feel as if I’m back,” the Park City-based ski jumper said. “I’m trying to switch from being a young guy on a team to trying to take the next steps and truly be one of the best jumpers in the world. The journey to get to this upcoming season has been something different, but now that I’m here, what do I do about it?”
It’s safe to say that 2017 was a tough year for Lillis.
Despite being one of the top aerial skiers in the world at that time, the ending of the calendar year was one that Lillis reflects on with such emotion that he’ll never forget how it’s come to help shape his future.
Lillis’ younger brother Mikey, who was a rising star in aerials skiing in his own right, died in his sleep in October of that year due to an irregular heartbeat.
“On his last day, Michael did exactly what he wanted to do. He went to dinner with his family and watched the Yankees with his grandma. At 11:30 p.m. he wished me goodnight, and then he just didn’t wake up,” said Bernie Lillis, Chris’ father, following the passing of Mikey. “It didn’t make sense. We were out watching baseball and he went to bed like he did every other day for 17 years.”
Two months later on Dec. 16, 2017, Lillis was in China preparing for a World Cup qualifying event when 10 minutes before his first run, he blew out his knee — torn ACL and a fracture in his femur bone where it connects to his knee cap. That ended his dream of making the 2018 Olympic team in honor of his brother, while also ending another dream of representing team USA with his other brother, Jon, who did make the team.
“I’ll never forget the date. … It was Dec. 16, 2017 when I crashed and everything changed,” Lillis said. “I really wanted to make that Olympic team, to travel and be with my brother (Jon) after everything we’d just gone through,” he said. “But I got to travel with my brother on the Olympic team and live that dream with him, helping fuel my comeback.”
Lillis came back the next season to finish eighth-ranked in the world, though, and won the U.S. national championship. But he is quick to admit that despite the success, it wasn’t the success he wanted and wasn’t thrilled with how he got it.
“I’ve always prided myself on being overly prepared for everything that I do, and that was never able to happen last year,” Lillis said. “I spent most of last season playing catch up more than anything, and even though I had good results, it was hard to accept. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with where I ended up, but I learned so much more about the mental aspect of the sport and I think that’s where most of my success came from.”
Lillis remembers fondly when, six months after surgery, he was back training and going off the ramps and into the pools at Utah’s Olympic Park. While he’s quick to credit his community around him, the athletes and trainers who he spent most of his time, he really credits his other community for helping spark that turnaround.
“I believe that for me, I have two communities, but the community that has all of the people I’ve known my whole life, both on and off the snow, is what really helped get me through,” Lillis said.
Included in that community apart from John and his family was longtime friend Morgan Schild, a moguls skier who knows what the rehab process can be like after sustaining injuries of her own.
““I hate to say it but she has a lot of experience of blowing out her knees, so I leaned on her a lot throughout that time,” Lillis said. “She really opened my eyes to the mental side of things, how I had to change things up about the way I not only rehabbed, but how I trained from that point on.”
Lillis wasn’t sure how he was going to respond in his first true competition back from the injury, but gives credit to his brother Jon for getting him ready up to that point. Attempting his first triple backflip since the injury, Lillis suffered a gruesome and devastating looking crash, but walked away with nothing more than some body soreness.
“I had just taken 10 months off from jumping on snow, so trying to get back into it with the same fearlessness as before was difficult,” Lillis said. “That crash really shot me down, but then I talked to my brother and he sort of set me straight. He sat me down and told me ‘you’re going to go again because it’s who you are,’ and that really helped me move forward from that point on.”
But now with his comeback season complete, and him once being mentioned among some of the best in the sport, the pressure is really back for Lillis.
This offseason really allowed him to better himself and work ahead. He took a huge step forward with being able to physically train his body to compete at the highest level, but now he must go out and do that. “Physically I’ve never felt better but now it’s about switching my mindset form playing catch up to now just getting better and wanting to be the best in the world,” Lillis said. “It’s easy to doubt yourself when you’ve been injured, but going through everything I have with my brother, doing this is in my blood. I fully believe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be at in life.”
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It’s going to be at least another month before Summit County’s high school athletes have any chance of getting onto the field again.