PARK CITY — The worst week of Jonathon Lillis’ season ended with the best result of his ski career.
“It feels great,” said the 19-year-old after earning fourth place in the FIS Freestyle World Cup at Deer Valley, which is the best finish for a member of the U.S. men’s aerial team this season. “It’s just a big step up from everything this season. To be honest, it was the worst week of the season for me. I had a really bad cold, was like skipping training. I couldn’t go, super sick, and then Monday night right before training I had food poisoning.”
Instead of practicing the tough jumps necessary to beat the world’s best aerial skiers, the Rochester, N.Y., native was puking. He couldn’t sleep, let alone practice the toughest tricks he knows he needs not just to win on the World Cup circuit but also to qualify for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team.
“I got four training jumps on the triple before the contest, which is half of what we normally get," he said. "I had nothing to lose really. It’s the Olympic year, a hometown crowd, just show what you have. I find when I go bigger and push harder the results are better than if I try to play it safe.”
According to his coach, Lillis actually does better the bigger the crowd.
“Jon loves the big crowd and Deer Valley is an amazing place,” said head U.S. aerial coach Todd Ossian. “The crowd was behind him tonight. Nothing like a big crowd for Jon to feed off of.”
It was one of the biggest crowds in Deer Valley history with more than 8,000 people at the free event.
“If Jon’s able to compete in the Olympics, big crowd, that’s where he performs his best.”
A former mogul skier, Lillis said he wasn’t really rattled by crashes, including two by his teammates — Ashley Caldwell in qualifying and Dylan Ferguson in the semifinal.
“God didn’t make me fit or really tall or ever muscular,” he said. “I can’t run very far, but he made me pretty durable. I’ve crashed harder than almost anyone on a pretty consistent basis. I don’t tend to worry.”
Despite being sick all week, Lillis said his game plan never changed. The only difference was that he couldn’t throw his toughest trick because he couldn’t train it this week.
In order to earn his fourth-place finish, Lillis had to land four jumps. He qualified in sixth place, and then he qualified for the semifinal with the same jump that won the Olympic Gold medal in 2010, earning him the top spot heading into the four-man final.
The final saw the toughest tricks any athlete is capable of landing from three of the four finalists. Anton Kushnir of Belarus scored 127.15 points to win gold, while China’s Guangpu Qi earned silver with 114 points and defending Olympic champion Alexei Grishin (Belarus) finished third with 112.18 points.
Lillis had to put a hand down on his landing to score 82.21 points on his final jump, which wasn’t as difficult as the semifinal jump that earned him 123.98 points.
“There is a lot of strategy that goes into this format,” said Ossian. “Super proud of him. We weren’t going to put him in a position where he could potentially injure himself just to sort of go for it. We were conservative with him, but also smart. We have two more competitions in the next seven days. We have the Olympics to think about.”
Lillis said just making the finals will give him confidence as the team heads to Canada and then Lake Placid, N.Y., for the next two World Cups.
“It’s a big confidence booster, and it just helps because ... the season was rough,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m that much closer to winning the next time I get to the final.”
The women’s final was a Chinese sweep with Shuang Cheng winning with 91.65 points. Her teammates Xin Zhang and Mengtao Xu earned silver and bronze, respectively.
The victories mean Kushnir and Zhang take over the top of the World Cup standings. The World Cup competition continues Saturday with a second mogul competition. The event is free to the public.