Parkites Justin Schoenefeld and Chris Lillis lead the American aerialists to back-to-back gold medals
It had been a rough start for the U.S. men’s aerials team to the 2020 world cup tour.
First, they missed the opening two events of the season, instead choosing to start at home in Deer Valley three weeks ago. That competition didn’t go as planned either with no American making the podium, as Eric Loughran’s fifth-place result was the best the home team could do.
Next, they traveled to Moscow the following week and struggled again, where no American placed in the top five. Chris Lillis was the top finisher, coming in sixth while Alex Bowen finished seventh.
“It’s been a really slow and rough start to the season for us, with nothing really going as planned or how we would’ve liked,” Lillis said. “We kind of overhauled our program at the beginning of last summer, then we missed our first two events, so we’ve been slow to start seeing the results we typically do. Usually we are hitting our stride around Deer Valley but obviously that wasn’t happening. … Until now.”
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According to Lillis, it was safe to say that when the team headed to Belarus for its third world cup event of the season two weeks ago, their mojo wasn’t at an all-time high.
So that’s what makes what happened all the more impressive — yet not completely surprising according to Lillis.
Justin Schoenefeld, in just his second season on the world cup tour, took home the gold medal with a final score of 124.89, narrowly edging his good friend in Canadian Lewis Irving. Lillis also finished on the podium, finishing with 122.17 points to bring home the bronze.
“It was incredible to be standing on top of my first podium. … Especially considering I was going into this season just trying to get on a podium but I ended up winning one,” Schoenefeld said. “It was awesome having two of my really good friends up there with me as well, definitely made it more special. I’ve known Lewis since we competed on the Nor-Am tour, and he was one of the first people I ever saw do aerials.”
The victory was far from a sure thing for Schoenefeld as his training leading up to the event wasn’t anything to brag or write home about.
“I maybe landed two jumps during the entire couple days we were there for training. … But somehow I landed all of my competition jumps,” Schoenefeld said. “I knew I had to do nothing else but land. … But it was a bit stressful because when we switch to the different sites, all of the landing hills are different. The faster you adjust, the better you are and I guess I figured it out right.”
Schoenefeld’s win was the first gold medal for the Americans since Lillis finished atop the podium four years ago at this exact event. But ever since then, Belarus has not been a kind stop to Lillis as he’s struggled without a top-five finish the past three seasons.
“I’ve always loved visiting Belarus. … Even though it’s kind of been a curse for me since I was 17 and won there,” Lillis said. “This year we were dealing with challenging weather and only got nine training jumps before competition, so that makes us even happier with our overall performance. You kind of have to go on instinct at that point and I’d say it definably helped for me when since it were a familiar place.”
Following his third-place finish, Lillis showed up the next week in Kazakhstan full of confidence — and it carried over through the air.
Lillis took home the gold medal, finishing with a score of 121.27, a dominating performance over the rest of the field. The gap between he and second-place finisher Pirmin Werner was greater than the gape between he and Schoenefeld the week prior.
“It was kind of surreal, just like the last time when I won four years ago,” Lillis said. “I had a plan and was able to execute it in its entirety, especially proud because it was the first time competing in Kazakhstan. I had to rely on all of my past training and past experience, and it worked out in the end.”
Both Schoenefeld and Lillis credit a lot of their success to first-year head coach Vlad Lebedev — a native of Uzbekistan who also served as a World Cup coach for Russia.
Lebedev has completely changed the mindset of the Americans, where they’re now showing up events expecting to win rather than hoping to win — not because of a arrogance but because of the intensity of their training sessions and the confidence that comes with knowing they’ve put in the work.
“Vlad talks about how he wants to create ‘winning machines’, where we are never satisfied and always wanting more,” Lillis said. “After my win in Kazakhstan, I was looking forward to celebrating a bit. … But no joke that 20 minutes after I won, he was already talking about this week’s event in Siberia and not letting up. We were critiquing my winning jump. … And it’s that sort of fight and fire that’s really spread throughout our team.”
The Americans return to competition this weekend in Siberia, the final stop of the World Cup tour.
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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.