The inspiring story behind aerial skier Jon Lillis and his special Olympic uniform

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Mikey’s initials are still inside the collar of the suit. When Jon Lillis’ mom shipped it to him, the equipment handlers stripped away the patches, the sponsor labels, all the trimmings of an aerial jumper’s uniform. Everything except the initials.

When it comes to Mikey, nothing is too trivial. Jon wears his shoes every day. He wore a pendant with his ashes to the Opening Ceremonies of the PyeongChang Games. And at the Olympic aerials competition Sunday night, he donned the suit that Mikey Lillis, his little brother, wore last year before he died in his sleep at 17, the cause still unknown.

“Pretty much everything I have done the last few months,” Lillis said, “is just trying to keep him close to me.”

It would be trite to say that Lillis was jumping for Mikey, because he was jumping for so much more: for his family, for Upstate New York, for his country, for himself. And yet when Lillis found out the U.S. team would be wearing the color hyper blue in the Olympics, the first thing he thought about was the Columbia suit he’d given Mikey as a hand-me-down and how cool it would be to wear it at Phoenix Snow Park as he tried to win Olympic gold.

That didn’t happen. Despite qualifying with the best jump, Lillis botched his second-round effort and finished eighth. Which was fine, of course, because this was the Olympics, and he was here, and that was enough.

“If you asked anyone at the end of October what they thought my year was going to be like, they might say I would have a downward spiral, and I wouldn’t be here, and I would have been too sad to go out and do this,” Lillis said. “I think that the fact I just came out here and I gave it my all is something I can go home and be really proud of.”

Aerials is a fickle sport, as elite jumpers slide down a 50-foot in-run, launch off a ramp 60 feet into the air, flip three times, twist four and sometimes five times, and attempt to land cleanly on a hill below. Tiny drafts of wind wreak havoc. Crashes shred ligaments and splinter bones. At the bottom of the hill Sunday stood Chris Lillis, Jon’s other little brother, still recovering from a torn ACL.

The three Lillis brothers were aerial marvels, always judging one another’s jumps, even as Jon traveled the globe on the World Cup tour. He had pared back his daring instinct in recent years, focusing more on technique, honing his jumps enough that at 23 years old, he placed first at last year’s aerials world championship.

Before Chris blew out his knee, the plan was for him and Jon to participate in PyeongChang, then for Mikey to join them in Beijing four years from now. Then came Oct. 21. Mikey never woke up. Jon and Chris were training in Switzerland and rushed home. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t.

“Sometimes life really sucks. A lot,” Lillis said. “But even when you’re down at the lowest you can get, there’s always things that you’re passionate about that you can use as a ladder to kind of pull yourself out of those dark moments. And that’s what’s really important. That’s what I’d 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.”

Jon Lillis in his special uniform. (Getty)
Jon Lillis in his special uniform. (Getty)

The level of aerials Sunday enthralled Lillis. He loves watching jumps, understanding their aerodynamic eminence. Because he qualified with the best jump the day before, he went last in the first round – and with nine competitors sticking their jumps and only nine advancing to the second round, he couldn’t play safe, so he went with his back full-double full-full: a flip and a twist followed by a flip with two twists punctuated by a flip and a twist.

He nailed the jump, made the first cut and readied for an even harder jump, switching the last two elements and ending with the double twist. His speed down the hill lagged. His launch was iffy. His knees bent in the air, an absolute no-no, and his legs split. Even though he landed cleanly, judges docked him significantly. His score of 95.47 lagged more than 30 points behind his best qualifying jump. He didn’t get a third jump.

Which is a shame, because Lillis was going to try a quint – five twists in one jump. He never had hit one before. So why try it? It’s the Olympics, he said.

Mikey would’ve loved it here. He was a huge Buffalo Bills fan and acted like one, which is to say he’d have been the loudest and proudest at the bottom of the hill. Small pieces of him were there – in the pendants his family members wore, in the suit Lillis wore, in the hearts and minds of those for whom a day doesn’t go by without them missing him.

He’ll continue to be with them as Chris’ ACL heals, as Jon perfects those quadruple-twisting jumps and adds the quint to his repertoire, as Beijing beckons and the United States looks to one family for its first aerials medal since 2010.

“Team Lillis will keep going,” Lillis said, “and four years from now, it’ll be a whole different story, and we’ll be out here trying to kick some ass.”

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