Freestyle Fires From Finland
The U.S. Freestyle Ski Team is set to launch their FIS World Cup season from Ruka, Finland, Friday and Saturday for back-to-back World Cup openers with aerials flying Friday and moguls on deck for Saturday. While Ruka is familiar territory for the moguls' crew to begin their World Cup tour, this event marks the first time in 17 years that Ruka has hosted an aerials World Cup. Both the moguls and aerials teams have been training on snow in Scandinavia since November, and everyone is excited to get back in the competition groove.
Aerials kick off the weekend and Head Coach Vladimir (Vlad) Lebedev reports that the training has been productive. “Due to warm weather in early November we lost a few training days, but you’re always looking for more training days,” he said. “The site is super prepped and skiing well. The resort did an amazing job making snow and ensuring we have a good course. The team is happy to be back on snow doing what they love.”
The team is looking strong as athletes get their jump legs back under them, with many making significant progressions. During official training on Wednesday, Eric Loughran landed his new quad, a full full double full, for the first time. Chris Lillis also marked a first when he landed his quint, a double full full double full, and became the first American to land a quint on snow since Jeret “Speedy” Peterson. Megan Nick tried her first full double fulls and Ashley Caldwell is back on the triple after almost two years off. Dani Loeb will make her U.S. Ski Team World Cup debut.
In a sport marked by mental stamina, the added stress of navigating a competitive season during a worldwide pandemic has not been easy.
“Our team is fortunate to have such an incredible medical staff and protocols to keep us safe,” said Ashley Caldwell. “We are accustomed to uncertainty competing in such a risky sport, but this is obviously a whole new level that affects our training as well as our personal lives. We are diligent in our protocols and have remained COVID-free in our bubble of athletes and staff. As a team, I can see that this has increased stress in some areas but also increased our focus on what we are here to do and how grateful we are to still be allowed to do what we love.”
The moguls team has taken full advantage of being on-site in Ruka early. “For our team, due to lack of on-snow opportunities this prep season, that was huge,” said Head Coach Matt Gnoza. The moguls team has been chasing bumps since arriving in Scandinavia in early November. Athletes got their ski legs under them in Ruka before heading to Idre Fjäll, Sweden, to ski the only mogul course in the world that was open at that time.
“Being able to get to Scandinavia was good for our training, we condensed our usual program into a six week period of time and are ending with three World Cup stops,” he said. “It isn’t ideal, but working right now.”
The team is excited to get back to skiing at the World Cup level again. The men’s team will benefit from each athlete having prior experience on the Ruka course. Brad Wilson will kick off his 10th season with the U.S. Ski Team, marking the 10th anniversary of his first World Cup start in Ruka in 2011, and will draw on his vast experience as he gets in the start gates once again.
The women of the moguls team, also known as the #PowHerHouse, will look to make their mark, led by a veteran group of skiers including Jaelin Kauf, Tess Johnson, and Hannah Soar. Rookie members Sabrina Cass, Kai Owens, and Maddie Hogg, who earned her starts as 2020’s NorAm Champion, will cut their teeth for the first time on the Ruka course.
Matt reflects that the year has been a lesson in flexibility and thanked his athletes and staff for their patience and understanding. “For a bunch of athletes and staff that like to have plans and know where they are going in the future, we have had to become very reactionary. Everything has worked, but it’s definitely been a challenge. I’m thankful that moguls have been able to find a way to operate within our new COVID-19 reality.”
“I wasn’t certain this summer that we would even have a season so I’m really excited heading into the first World Cup and can’t wait to compete again and get the season started!” said Jaelin. “I feel really good with where my skiing and jumping is at right now and excited to bring it all to competition.”
Don’t miss all of the Freestyle fun this Friday and Saturday as the teams make 2020-21 official.
HOW TO WATCH
All times EST
Friday, Dec. 4
12 p.m. - Men’s and Women’s aerials, Ruka, FIN - Peacock Premium
Saturday, Dec. 5
9 a.m. - Men’s and Women’s moguls, Ruka, FIN - Peacock Premium
1 p.m. - Men’s and Women’s moguls, Ruka FIN - Olympic Channel