PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – As Jonathon Lillis struggled with the kind of pain that can hijack a life, he clung to what he’d lost and what he loved, and it carried him out of the darkness, all the way to the Olympics.
Wearing the blue snowsuit his 17-year-old brother Mikey wore in aerial competitions until he just didn’t wake up one morning last October, Lillis used his grief to fuel his dream as he competed in the most difficult aerial final in Olympic history.
“You have to use the good moments in your life to inspire you and prove you can do your best, and you have to use the lowest moments of your life to push you even harder and do the best that you can,” said Lillis, who qualified for Sunday night’s final with the top score of Saturday's qualifying rounds, but quickly realized he’d have to pull out all the stops to compete with the other 11 men vying for Olympic gold.
“I think that’s something that really was going on a lot during this Olympic Games for me," he said. "That’s what I set out to do here. I think if you asked anyone at the end of October what they thought my year was going to be like, they might say that I was going to have a downward spiral, and that I would be too sad to go out and do this. And the fact that I came out here, and I gave it my all is something that I can go home and be really proud of.”
Lillis officially finished in eighth place, as he was forced to change his strategy on his first jump after watching other athletes throw down some of the toughest tricks in the sport and land them with quality scores.
“My score didn’t surprise me at all,” he said of not making it to the second round of finals. “It wasn’t the jump I was capable of, and I’ve done better, absolutely. But what was a surprise was the absolute level of competition. …If you were someone who likes to look back at results and you went back over the last 20 years of aerial competitions, this was insane.”
Oleksandr Abramenko won Ukraine’s first gold medal of the 2018 Olympic Games — and third in the country’s history — with a score of 128.51. China’s Zongyang Jia earned silver with a score of 128.05, which made it the closest margin of victory in the sport’s Olympic history (1994). The difference was a fraction of a point, which Abramenko earned on a slightly better landing, according to the judges' scores.
Ilia Burov, Russia, earned bronze, with a 122.17. Two competitors attempted two different quad flips with five twists but neither landed the rarely utilized tricks. For a first-time Olympian, it was energizing.
“Just coming out and jumping, as an athlete, you always admire and respect the great jumps out of everyone,” Lillis said of being part of competition. “To come out here and prove you’re one of them, and you can jump at such a high level, it is just very inspiring.”
If there is one person who would have loved it, he said, it would have been his youngest brother, Mikey, who died in his sleep at 17 in October.
“He would have thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Lillis said smiling slightly. “I know he would have been down in the cheering section freaking out, like the mad football fan that he is.”
All three of the Lillis brothers – Jon, Chris and Mikey – are aerial skiers who found the sport through a camp in Lake Placid. After making the team, Jonathan and Chris moved to Park City to train alongside the rest of the U.S. aerial skiers.
Lillis, a veteran at six years and the reigning world champion, said that much of the past few months has been spent finding ways to hold onto the little brother he hoped would be joining "Team Lillis" on the World Cup circuit next year.
“My life the last three months has really been finding ways to keep him close to me,” Lillis said. “And whether it’s wearing his shoes every day, which I do, or thinking about him everyday, or wearing the pendant (that contains some of his ashes) in the opening ceremonies, I think that being a professional athlete and traveling the world, and being all over the place the way I have been for the last six years, you obviously wish there was more time spent with him.
"So pretty much everything I’ve done over the last few years has been trying to keep him close to me.”
He’d hoped the three of them would have been able to compete together in four more years, and he would have cheered just as loud and proud as he imagines Mikey cheering for him.
"But this is the chance we go,” he said. “And these are the cards we were dealt.”
Lillis said that while the last three months have been unimaginably difficult, it’s his passion for the sport he and his brothers share that has been his lifeline.
“I think I’ve learned how short life is,” he said. “I think that you have to learn to make the most out of every day, and sometimes life sucks. A lot. But even when you’re down, and at the lowest you can get, there are always things that you’re passionate about that you can use as a ladder to pull yourself out of those dark moments. And that’s really what’s important.
“And that’s really what I would say to anybody in any situation. If you’re in the bottom of yourself and the worst time in your life, just find that thing — and aerials is that for me — that you can use to pull yourself out.”
And if one can do that, then the joy won’t come from a score or a medal.
“Being here in the Olympics, and just wearing the rings, and wearing the U.S. uniform, and the flag, and everything that has just been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember,” he said. “That’s about as big of a win as you can ask for. Gold medals are what you always hope for, but not everyone can win one.”