World Champions Article in the New York Times
MADISON, Conn. — Mac Bohonnon, then 15, was on Facebook catching up with his longtime friend Kiley McKinnon.
Since kindergarten they had been classmates in this shoreline Connecticut town, until the eighth grade, when Bohonnon abruptly left home and moved to the Olympic training complex in Lake Placid, N.Y.
His dream was to become a Winter Olympian in freestyle aerials, and suddenly he was spending 40 hours a week learning to ski up an inverted ramp that flung him 50 feet in the air so he could perform flips and twists above the snow.
On Facebook that day, Bohonnon explained the tricks he was perfecting.
“I told Kiley that she wouldn’t understand the names of the flips — a full-full and all that,” Bohonnon said recently.
McKinnon had replied: “I know what they are. I was a gymnast for nine years.”
Bohonnon could not type his response fast enough: “Come to Lake Placid, my coach is looking for girls with gymnastics backgrounds.”
Flash-forward to four years later and the World Cup aerial event on March 1, in Minsk, Belarus, where Bohonnon and McKinnon stood side-by-side on a podium holding aloft the crystal globes awarded to the season title winners in the men’s and women’s World Cup.
Two 19-year-olds from the town of Madison — an upscale beach community — had become the first American skiers to simultaneously hold the male and female World Cup aerial titles in 20 years.
“It makes as little sense to us as it does to everyone else,” Bohonnon said last week, seated on a couch with McKinnon in her family home. “As I landed my last jump in Belarus I knew I had won the title and Kiley, who had already won her globe, was standing right behind the fence when I came to a stop in front of her.
“We just looked at each other and it was like, How did two people from Madison, Connecticut, end up in Belarus as World Cup champions?”
It is a good question. The answer has something to do with the perseverance of Bohonnon and McKinnon, but it is also the byproduct of a seven-year-old decision by United States ski officials to overhaul their strategy for recruiting freestyle aerialists.
For years, the Americans had largely tried to convert moguls skiers or other athletes with skiing résumés into aerialists, whose biggest challenge is doing somersaults and twists in a few intense seconds before landing upright on their skis. That method worked for several years as the United States became an aerials powerhouse from 1995 to 2005. But in the last 15 years, other nations, notably China, began to dominate the event by reversing the recruiting formula. They found gymnasts just below the Olympic level who were already comfortable flipping through the air and taught them to ski.
In 2008, with the United States aerial team down to just a few athletes and struggling, the sport’s brain trust overhauled its thinking, dedicating time and money to develop aerialists from wherever they might find them — like a Connecticut shoreline town.
Contacts were made in what is called the acrobatic community: gymnasts and athletes competing in the sports of trampoline and power tumbling. Using social media, word of mouth and two large tryout camps annually, aerial coaches cast a wide net. This year, while half the current American freestyle aerial team is still made up of athletes who were skiers first, the other half came to the sport with acrobatic backgrounds.
“We’ve kept Olympic dreams alive,” said Todd Ossian, the head aerials coach for the United States team. “For a lot of elite gymnasts, a career can come to an end at 18 years old. In aerials, careers are much longer. We’ve given them another chance at a dream.”
There is a significant learning curve for budding aerialists. Performing flips and twists above a tumbling mat is far different from doing them high above a hard, slick snowy slope with skis attached to ski boots.
Aerialists progress from small jumps to more advanced maneuvers slowly, often taking years. The bulk of the tutoring takes place across six months in the spring, summer and fall, when the tricks are practiced in simulated conditions above a large pool. The aerialists ski up a plastic ramp that mimics snow conditions and are launched above the water. With skis on, they practice the flips and twists and land in the pool. Skintight suits like scuba gear keep them somewhat warm, and life vests help the aerialists float so they can swim to the pool edge with their skis dragging behind them.
In the off-season, a freestyle aerialist training five days a week and eight hours a day might make 5,000 practice jumps into a pool.
“I don’t even think about how high I’m going anymore,” said McKinnon, whose ascent to the top echelon of the sport has been meteoric. “I’m not thinking about being inverted or turned around. I know where every body part is and I’m focused on every little maneuver.
“You become so in tune with your technique. Even before your skis have completely left the ramp, you know what you’ve done right and done wrong and what adjustments you have to make right away.”
Although becoming an aerialist was not the goal at the time, Bohonnon and McKinnon grew up skiing. Like many in Madison, their families regularly trekked to Vermont on winter weekends. Both had tried and rejected Alpine racing. Bohonnon chose to be a freestyle moguls skier like his older brother, Cody. McKinnon, who like Bohonnon is the youngest of three children, continued to ski as she pursued her gymnastics career and played soccer competitively.
Familiar with the freestyle community, Bohonnon ended up in a weeklong freestyle camp with his brother in Lake Placid when he was 13.
“Mac calls one day from Lake Placid so excited he could barely talk,” said Libby Bohonnon, Mac’s mother. “He says, ‘Dmitriy wants me to join the developmental team and come up here to train full time.’
“I said, ‘Slow down, who’s Dmitriy?’ ”
Dmitriy Kavunov was then the United States aerials coach, and he called the Bohonnon household the next night. Soon, Bohonnon was living in Lake Placid, taking online classes, splashing into the pool in the summer and landing on snow in the winter at Olympic jumping complexes in Lake Placid and Park City, Utah.
Bohonnon became a member of the newly formed Elite Aerial Development Program within the United States Ski and Snowboard Association team and was on the World Cup circuit by 2012. Last June, he graduated from U.S.S.A.’s team academy in Park City, a boarding high school for Olympic-level athletes. A few months earlier, he finished a surprising fifth at the Sochi Winter Games.
“The Olympic experience filled Mac with so much confidence,” Ossian said. “He hasn’t looked back.”
This season, Bohonnon won two World Cup competitions and was on the podium five times.
In 2011, when McKinnon read Bohonnon’s Facebook plea about trying the aerials, she walked into the family living room to tell her parents about Bohonnon’s missive and promptly asked them if they would take her to Lake Placid.
“I remember thinking that we watched the aerial competition on TV during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics,” said Kiley’s mother, Allison McKinnon. “I remember that we said, ‘Who in their right mind would do that?’ ”
But the McKinnons drove to Lake Placid the next weekend anyway.
“We watched the athletes flinging themselves in the air and my husband and I looked at each other, shook our heads and said, ‘Ah, no,’ ” Allison McKinnon said. “But Kiley kind of had a smile on her face and she said, ‘I could do that.’ ”
After a few weekend camps, McKinnon moved to Lake Placid the next summer.
“Before I knew it, Kiley was doing the jumps like the rest of them,” Allison McKinnon said. “It was crazy.”
Back in Madison, home to the biggest public beach in Connecticut, the school district had now lost two students to the United States ski team.
“I’d run into someone in town and they’d say: ‘Where did Mac go? And what’s he doing again?’ ” Libby Bohonnon said.
Allison McKinnon said: “People kept asking me if Kiley was trying to beat Lindsey Vonn.”
McKinnon was the bronze medalist at the world junior championships in 2012, then rose through the ranks on the World Cup in the last two years, although a dislocated elbow from a crash thwarted her 2014 Olympic hopes. She also graduated from the ski team academy. This season, with a purple streak dyed in her blond hair, McKinnon was second in the world championships. She consistently racked up World Cup points, finishing on the podium in five of seven events.
In Madison, the townspeople are better versed in what happened to Bohonnon and McKinnon since they suddenly left public school. Local television crews have flocked to interview the newly crowned World Cup champions. The pair were the special guests during a visit to their former junior high school last week.
“People are saying, ‘This is pretty cool what you decided to do,’ ” McKinnon said.
It does not hurt that she travels around town with a large, expensive crystal globe, a trophy that comes with a protective travel case and white gloves for handling the prized cargo.
“It’s kind of surreal,” McKinnon said. “Like a dream.”
But Bohonnon and McKinnon insist that it is only a beginning.
“We’re 19, and the rest of the aerials team is young, too,” Bohonnon said. “This is just the first phase. We feel like we’re starting another era of glory days for American aerials.”