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Who is Will Rhoads: Park City ski jumper conquered fear to realize his Olympic dreams

Park City High graduate qualified for Saturday's final on Thursday night.

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

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For David Rhoads, it wasn’t his only son’s commitment to long, cold training sessions.

It wasn’t his willingness, even as a small boy, to overcome fear every time he graduated to larger, more terrifying ski jumps.

The father of three distinctly remembers the moment he realized his son, Will Rhoads, might have the kind of dedication required to achieve an Olympic-sized dream in a sport most Americans ignore.

“To me the first real indication was when he got hurt,” said David Rhoads, as family members gathered around him in their Seoul hotel room. “He snapped his femur in a competition in Michigan when he was 12 years old. Luckily, Christine (his mom) was with him, and I went to pick them up at the airport.

"Will is in a wheelchair, his leg is in a long cast, and I told myself, I’m not going to mention ski jumping. … I’m not going to try to persuade him to stick with it. The first thing out of his mouth is, ‘I’m going to have this cast off in six weeks, and then I am going to be jumping’ and on and on. He just always kind of pursued it with that sort of vigor and commitment.”

Will Rhoads, who has won the U.S. National Ski Jump Championship three consecutive years, admits that if his hometown of Park City hadn’t hosted several Olympic events in 2002, he might have remained one of those Americans unaware of ski jumping’s majestic beauty and mental challenge.

“I remember seeing it on TV,” he said from his apartment in Slovenia where the team spent nearly seven months training. “I was kind of blown away that they weren’t doing any tricks. I’d grown up on Warren Miller movies, but these guys were going huge and not doing tricks. … I quickly learned there was more to it.”

Rhoads and his two sisters, Brittany, 28, and Allison, 20, took up ski jumping at Utah Olympic Park thanks to developmental programs that were created in the wake of the 2002 Games.

“I was kind of in awe of the sport,” said Rhoads, who played soccer and T-ball before trying ski jumping as a 6-year-old. “Right after the Games ended, they built some small hills, and I was really excited about the whole thing.”

He started with the free “Learn to Fly” program on Fridays and then moved to jumping several nights a week.

While their children learned the intricacies of ski jumping, Chris and David Rhoads gathered around a fire built in a customized metal drum made by another parent and made lifelong friends.

“As a family, we spent a lot of time up at the Utah Olympic Park,” Chris said. “When they were little, it was always really cold, and it was after school so it was dark. We’d stand there freezing.”

After one of the dads made the portable fire pit, the waiting got more comfortable.

“We made a lot of friends,” David said.

Both parents acknowledge that Will’s commitment to a sport where most important competitions take place in Europe has meant a lot of sacrifices for the entire family. Instead of yearly treks to Disneyland, ski jumping parents like the Rhoadses make lots of excursions to cold-weather cities with hard-to-pronounce names.

Even before Will made the team, they bought their tickets to South Korea, and they were in the crowd when he qualified for Saturday’s ski jumping final, finishing 45th in the qualifying competition late Thursday night. His teammate, Kevin Bickner, was the top U.S. qualifier, finishing 25th. All four U.S. men qualified for the final, which takes place at 10:35 p.m. Saturday night.

Earning a spot on the 2018 Olympic team required significant sacrifices, from both Will and his family. But standing at the top of the hill in the Alpensia Ski Jump Center made it all worth it.

“Obviously, it’s kind of a unique sport,” Will said. “I’ve never been able to emulate that same feeling you get when you’re jumping.”

Ski jumping demands a unique mix of mental toughness with technical skill for a very brief amount of time. His sister Brittany said it is easy to overthink things, and that is always a mistake.

“I struggled with fear for sure,” she said. “But Will doesn’t seem to at all. He feels very safe on the hill. There is only one vital moment, at the takeoff, really. You just put a lot of pressure on that one moment.”

David Rhoads doesn’t see fear as a jumper’s enemy.

“There was one time, very early on in his career, where he was graduating from the 3-meter jump to the 5-meter jump,” he said. “And the coach told Will to go, and he wouldn’t go. Obviously, he was scared, and I thought, ‘That’s a good thing. He’s got a brain.’”

Will said there is fear with jumping, but that’s part of the draw.

“It’s kind of that it does scare me a bit,” he said. “When you move up to each hill, you get scared and nervous. It’s that feeling of doing something that you’re scared of, facing that fear, and pushing through it, of conquering fear, that’s it.”

He said he remembers the most dramatic step up to the 60-meter jump.

“I was definitely nervous,” he said, noting he was about 10 years old. “I loved it right away. After I did that first one, we (his family) went and had lunch somewhere and celebrated. … I was hooked.”

Will said there is a moment for most ski jumpers where the sport transforms from a challenge to a yearning.

“When I was about 13 or 14, I was making some pretty huge progress,” he recalled. “There is that one day in every jumper's life when they go from, well, when something sparks, something changes, and you get that confidence. You just kind of figure out, like almost in one day, and from that point, I made a really big jump in ability.”

Rhoads was so committed that he spent his junior year in a Lake Placid high school, trading ordinary high school milestones for ski jumping opportunities. But when it came time for his senior year, he returned to the hometown his family adopted when he was a toddler.

“I came home and graduated from Park City High,” Will said. “That was kind of the big decision I had to make — going to the Winter Sports School or finishing at Park City High. Luckily my travel wasn’t too crazy at that point, and the school worked with me.”

Like many Olympians, Rhoads has made tremendous sacrifices to chase the dream of representing the U.S. in an Olympic Games. While learning that he’d made the U.S. team was a bit anti-climatic (he saw himself tagged in a U.S. Ski team Instagram photo) everything after that has been surreal and profound.

“This is the dream,” he said. “This is the dream come true. I’m going to remain in the moment as much as possible, not think too much about, ‘Oh, this is such a big stage.’ And I think everything else will sort itself out in my favor.”

For his family, they will do what they’ve always done — stand at the bottom of the hill and support him no matter the result.

This is, in a lot of ways, their journey too.

“We’ve seen this coming for a really long time,” said Chris Rhoads. “I kind of feel like a kid again, myself. Just the joy of being here, the excitement of having the whole world around us, competing together. And we’re here with him.”