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Watching friends win medals in Sochi 'fueled the fire' for freestyle skier McRae Williams

Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the 13th in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Watching his childhood friends wearing Olympic gold medals in Russia was an inspiring but gut-wrenching experience for Park City freestyle skier McRae Williams.

“I remember just waking up in the morning, and hearing the news, you know, even that Sage Kotzenburg (snowboard slopestyle gold medalist), and then Joss (Christensen, ski slopestyle gold medalist) won, and I just couldn’t believe it,” said McRae, who’d narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic team with them in 2014. “It was a little bittersweet personally just growing up with these guys and seeing them over there standing on top of the Olympic podium, and I’m home watching it. It was a little bit tough, but I guess it kind of inspired me, and fueled the fire for this time around.”

McRae and Christensen were best friends, even sharing rides to resorts and participating in after-school or freestyle recruitment camps together.

“We went to the same middle school, Treasure Mountain,” said Williams, who will compete in his first Olympics Sunday in South Korea in the Slopestyle Ski competition at Phoenix Freestyle Park. “It’s a small town, and we were both passionate about skiing so we became really good friends at a really young age. … It seems like we were (two) of the few to really blossom and take it all the way. It’s so cool to have someone like that traveling on the team with me. … I think about it all the time. It’s just crazy. How many people make it to this level, and yet, he’s my best friend and we’re rooming together all over the world.”

Despite watching the 2002 Olympics as kids, and training on the facilities meant to support the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team, Williams said, they didn’t really grow up with gold-medal goals. That’s because their sport wasn’t even an Olympic sport until the IOC sanctioned slopestyle for both snowboarding and skiing for the 2014 Olympics.

“It was just pure passion,” Williams said of what drove him in pursuing the sport. “That’s what was cool about it.”

He said the “Olympic spirit” that permeated Park City during the 2002 Games was inspiring, but not necessarily in making him believe the Olympics were a realistic goal for him.

“The Olympics just wasn’t something that really stood out to me,” he said. “When I set out doing this at a young age, just seeing I had a shot at this, I wanted to win an X Games medal. In fact, just being in the X Games was a huge goal of mine.”

But when the Olympics became an option, his goals evolved.

“I’ve achieved my dreams and much more,” said Williams, who won the 2017 World Championships and earned the 2017 FIS World Cup slopestyle Championship. “So to go over there (South Korea) and cap it off with what’s been an insane career at this point, would be an honor.”

Williams said he owes an immeasurable debt to his mother, who raised him and his sister alone after his father died when he was 10. The family lived in Park City, where his mom and sister, who attends Highland High, still live.

“My dad had a liver disease, and he just got really sick and it was one thing after another, and compounded, and he didn’t pull through, unfortunately,” Williams said. “I was 10, and my sister was just born. It was rough — very, very rough, especially for my mom trying to raise both of us and keep me in Park City taking advantage of everything up here.”

He became a father figure to his little sister, while his mother did everything she could to support — and promote — her son’s budding ski career.

He laughs and then recounts the time she approached a local businessman and “told him he should sponsor me. I was livid,” Williams said, laughing. The man never sponsored the skier, but McRae said that’s indicative of the lengths his mother would go to try to help him pursue his passion.

“She’s always been so supportive of me and gone out of her way to make sure I have gotten the opportunities and attention I needed,” he said. “My dad was kind of the spark of all of this. He saw the potential of growing up in an Olympic city like Park City, and he signed me up for a recruitment camp, which kind of helped push that motivation from the start.”

While the success of his boyhood friends inspired him to chase Olympic glory, he said he’s approaching the pursuit with a different mindset than he had in 2014.

“I’ve got a whole new mindset going into it,” Williams said that Olympic Media Summit in September, months before he knew if he’d make the 2018 team. “This time I just want to enjoy the ride, enjoy the journey, and not put so much pressure on myself and not think about the disappointment if I don’t make it.”

Interestingly, Williams made the Olympic team, but Christensen did not. Still, he said, what matters most won’t change with or without hardware in Pyeongchang. “It’s been an amazing career,” he said. “This is just icing on the cake, the cherry on top, so it should be a little bit more enjoyable this go round.”