PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When Jonathon Lillis earned the highest score of the Olympic aerial qualification round on Saturday night, his reward was more than an opportunity to earn the first freestyle ski medal for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team.
It was the knowledge that he could give his parents a brief reprieve from grief for another night.
Lillis lost his youngest brother, Mikey, in October, when the 17-year-old just didn’t wake up one morning. Since then, life has been a mix of finding his way through blinding grief and pursuing a goal all three Lillis brothers shared — chasing Olympic dreams.
Saturday night, the 23-year-old Rochester native, who lives and trains in Park City, did something that’s tough to do these days — made his parents happy. He said there isn’t a moment his brother isn’t with him.
“All the time,” he said, after earning a 127.44 to advance to Sunday’s final at the Phoenix Freestyle Park. “When something like that happens, you don’t really have anything to lose. You’re just out here trying to make everyone proud. For me, it’s about coming out here and trying to give my parents something to smile about. I’m happy to have done that tonight.”
The men’s aerial competition mirrored the women’s qualification rounds, where scores were extremely high. The top 12 in two rounds of jumping advanced to Sunday’s final, and Lillis, the reigning world champion, will be the lone U.S. skier competing.
Defending Olympic gold medalist Anton Kushnir, Belarus, will not compete in the finals after missing the cut by a single skier. The last two Olympic aerial champions have been Belarusian, and on Friday night, Hanna Huskova made it back-to-back women’s aerial gold medals for Belarus.
Lillis has a history of delivering in high-pressure situations, even if it's unexpected.
“Last year I had a rough year, and I thought, ‘Alright, I need to go do well at worlds,’” he said. “And I went and won worlds.”
He said before coming to Pyeongchang, he’d be competing with his little brother in his heart. A Pittsburgh artist made the family small necklaces that contain some of Mikey Lillis ashes to wear throughout the Games.
Lillis said competing to honor someone is much different from navigating the monotonies of life without that same person.
“I think I said it pretty well earlier,” he said Saturday night. “It’s about catching lightning in a bottle. If you can really use those types of things to motivate or push you, that’s extra wind in your sails.
"At night when you go home, it can take away from sleep and stuff like that, but when you’re out here and you need to perform, that’s when it really pushes you harder (rather) than holding you back.”