It might have been negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit out on the Yaroslavl aerials site, but that didn’t stop the Americans from bringing the heat. The U.S. Aerials Freestyle Ski Team competed in two events Sunday with an individual World Cup before the Mixed Team event.
Megan Nick stomped it out in the individual event with a high-scoring full double full to land her on top of the podium. This marks Nick’s first World Cup win (and was the first time she performed the trick in competition), and the first win for a female American aerials skier since Kiley McKinnon did so in Moscow in January of 2018. Kaila Kuhn joined Nick on the podium in third place, earning her first career top-three finish after performing a beautiful full full. Belarus’ Alla Tsuper took second.
“My goal this season was to bring the double-out to snow and compete it,” said Nick. “Vlad and I have been working on getting higher quality DD (degree of difficulty) jumps and that’s what I have been working on since the beginning of the season and summer. It was nice to put down that jump today.”
On being the woman to break the U.S. women’s win drought Nick said, “It’s definitely meaningful. I was just really excited. I had never competed with the jump I did today, so I just focused on putting it to my feet and doing it how I’ve been training it.”
“It feels pretty unreal [to have landed on the podium],” said Kuhn. “I came into this competition knowing that all of the women were going to put down their best and so I knew I had to do the best I could to get on the podium. This definitely motivates me to do better in every future competition but I don’t plan to determine my future from my past successes. I want to do my best at each one and just take it from there.”
The American women had a strong showing, with five in the top 10. Ashley Caldwell, coming off of a second-place from the night before, placed fifth; Megan Smallhouse came in sixth, a career-best result; and Dani Loeb finished with her first career top 10, finishing 10th. Winter Vinecki was 18th.
“I’m really excited about my top ten today because I’ve been training hard, and it’s starting to pay off,” said Loeb. “It’s exciting to compete at the World Cup level with all of these amazing athletes, and being around them has pushed me even more to do my best. This top ten has given me some confidence, and I’m looking forward to these next competitions.”
Russia’s Maxim Burov won his second event in as many days and teammate Stanislav Nikitin took second. Canada’s Lewis Irving took third. Three men represented the U.S. with Eric Loughran finishing 12th, Quinn Dehlinger in 13th and Justin Schoenefeld in 14th.
Although having competed in one World Cup already, the Aerials Team’s evening continued with the first Mixed Team World Cup of the season. Mixed Team Aerials requires at least one athlete per gender per team of three. Each athlete performs one jump in the first round of finals and scores are added to determine the four teams to compete in the second round of finals.
“This team event is high pressure,” said Loughran. “It puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on you because you’re jumping for two other people. If you thought aerials was a lot of pressure having only 8 or 10 seconds to do your trick, this makes it a whole lot trickier. You don't want to let your team down.”
Caldwell, Loughran and Schoenefeld represented the United States. Schoenfeld clinched the first finals round with a high-scoring double full full full and the U.S. qualified to the second final round with Switzerland, Russia 1 and Russia 2. Caldwell bested herself in the second finals, improving her full double full by almost two points to give the Americans an immediate edge. Loughran pulled out the stops with his final full double full full. Combined, the American’s scored enough points to edge out Russia 2 for third, less than four points from the second-place spot. Russia 1 won the event and Switzerland came in second.
Sharing the podium together in a traditionally individual sport creates a deeper sense of team for the aerials skiers. Loughran and Caldwell have a long history together as members of the U.S. Ski Team, this season marks their eighth together. And Caldwell and Schoenefeld are the first U.S. Ski & Snowboard couple to podium at a World Cup together.
“Ashley is one of the last on the team I originally grew up jumping with,” said Loughran. “She gives me a sense of home up there. But it also puts a lot of pressure on me. I watched her stomp three Millers, she was on fire. It definitely felt good knowing what she could do and vice versa.”
“Justin and I jump really well together too. We usually try to see each other between each jump and ask each other if we’re having fun, because that's why we do it. Justin pulled it in for us on the last jump in the first round. Second round, we all landed and all skied it away for that third-place finish.”
"The team event is considerably different than the individual," added Caldwell. "The vibe of the entire site is more fun and filled with camaraderie and playful competition between nations. Your teammates are depending on you and that heightens the stress and the motivation. I’ve know Eric since I started this sport. And I have been dating Justin for a few years now. Being on their team was extremely fun."
"Today was my first time being a part of the team competition and I’m extremely happy to be a part of the first U.S team event podium!" said Schoenefeld. "It is extremely fun competing with your own teammates. Counting on each other and being able to make up for each other when it counts is what makes this competition different than the others."
It’s another two weeks on the road for this crew and team is doing its best to manage the stress of travel during a global pandemic on top of competing at an elite level.
“We’re taking it day by day, focusing on the jumping and what we can control is the best way to manage the challenges,” said Nick. On being far from home and the familiar, “I could really go for a big salad,” she added.
“We have two days off before the next event in Moscow,” said Kuhn. “I plan to get A LOT of sleep and stay super hydrated. Hopefully we have an easy travel day to Moscow tomorrow and we can rest up for the rest of the week.”
The U.S. Aerials Freestyle Team will look to get some much needed rest (and leafy greens) after three competitions over two days before competing in the Moscow city event Jan. 23.
Mixed Team Aerials