Moguls Talent Knows No Age
At 18 years old, Tess Johnson (Vail, Colo.) is the youngest American freestyle athlete to medal at a World Championships after upsetting Kazakhstan's Yulia Galysheva to clinch the bronze medal at the 2019 Dual Moguls World Championships at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. Nominated to the U.S. Ski Team when she was only 14, Johnson has never let age be the number that defines her, she leaves that to her results.
In her four years on the team, she’s skied three full FIS Freestyle World Cup tours; earned three World Cup podiums, including one win; skied for Team USA at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, and earned a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships. “It doesn’t matter how old you are because really what matters is what you can do on your skis,” she says.
Her parents taught her to ski at two years old. By age eight, she loved jumping and trying new tricks, and wanted to compete in slopestyle. Ironically, Tess Johnson, the athlete to set the precedent for nominating young athletes to the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, was too young to join Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s slopestyle program and ended up in “Bumps and Jumps” instead. She began competing that same year and under the wings of coaches Riley Campbell and John Dowling, proved a real talent on the mogul field.
Several veteran moguls athletes retired from the U.S. Ski Team in 2015, including Hannah Kearney, Eliza Outtrim and Heather McPhie, providing an opportunity for new talent to join. “I remember getting the call from Matt [Gnoza, Head Moguls Coach for U.S. Ski & Snowboard] and just being so shocked,” she said. “I had done well that year and my timing was just really good because of those retirements. There was a spot open and I was next in line. Matt really believes in developing young athletes and giving them opportunities on the World Cup and national stage, which I think is amazing. I’m really grateful that he believed in me from the start without even really knowing me at that point.”
The moguls World Cup tour is condensed into four short months and spans over three continents. Learning the courses and adjusting to cultural differences is key. The more experience a skier has on the tour, the greater their athletic potential becomes. This was her third full tour and was her best season yet, finishing fifth overall.
“My breakthrough as an athlete followed competing in the Olympics. Competing in the Olympics gave me a lot of confidence and helped me realize I am capable of winning. So I did just that in the next World Cup [following the Olympics] in Japan, I earned my first win and podium. I carried that momentum into the 18-19 prep period and by the time Ruka [Finland, the first 18-19 World Cup] came around, I was ready to strike.”
The 18-19 season was one for the books for Johnson, starting out on the podium in Ruka, earning another podium in Lake Placid, N.Y., and medaling at her first World Championship appearance. She is driven by her passion for moguls skiing and her competitive nature, an attitude that serves her well on the road. “In the heart of winter, when we’re competing and traveling, that’s my favorite time of the year. It’s very intense but it’s also fun.”
Although being one of the youngest members of her team, she has grown into one of its leaders. She serves as the athlete liaison for moguls to the organization, a role she earned by a team vote. As athlete liaison, she meets periodically with members of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s leadership team to discuss the athlete experience, ideas, and improvements. “I kind of wasn't expecting to get it because of my age,” she said. “But I think that just validates that age doesn’t automatically preclude you from having a voice.”
This past winter she partnered with a program based in Vail, Colo., called Girl PowHER, an organization that empowers young girls ages 10-12 physically, mentally and socially through group activities and sports. During the small break between competition and prep season, she worked with some of the girls directly, sharing her experiences being an elite athlete while balancing graduating high school. Johnson hopes in sharing her story that she empowers more young girls to pursue their dream, no matter what obstacles they believe stand in their way.
“The program aligns with our teams values that we’ve created this past season, especially the women’s team. We are role models for each other, lifting each other up and pushing each other to be the best versions of ourselves. They've helped me recognize the importance of teamwork and camaraderie while building my character. I think I can take what I’ve learned from my teammates and take it to these girls. Every girl has something great to offer the world, sometimes it just takes another girl to help her realize that.”
Tess may not have had the typical teenage experience, she became an Olympian before a high school graduate, but in following her passion she also found her platform as a role model. “I think that getting on the team at such a young age helped me gain this confidence that I have right now to use my voice.”
Follow Tess Johnson’s journey via Instagram @_tessjohnson