Inside the Olympics: The building of a gold medal contender
PARK CITY, UTAH — The first real breakthrough awaited just days away, though of course, Jaelin Kauf didn’t know that.
The top freestyle moguls skiers from around the country were about to descend upon Winter Park Resort for the 2015 U.S. Freestyle Team Selections competition, the single most important competition on the calendar for an up-and-coming skier, and Kauf, an up-and-coming skier, was worried.
So much of what’s there today, of what makes Kauf one of the favorites to win a gold medal in women’s freestyle skiing moguls at the 2018 Winter Olympics, was already there days before the 2015 Freestyle Team Selections event.
Kauf had the genetics, a mother and father who were legends in her sport, and she had the streak of individuality that led her to take her own journey to moguls, not just to follow her parent’s path.
She had the easygoing attitude spiked by a fierce competitive streak still there today, and she had the relentless speed through the bumps that gives her a little bit of an edge against even the world’s very best every time she pushes out from the starting gate.
She hadn’t, however, had a good start to that season. Just two weeks before that selections event, before what would be her first big breakthrough, she crashed hard while attempting a jump on a training run at Howelsen Hill.
She hit her head on the snow and had to take the day and most of the week off. When she did compete again, at an event in Aspen, she didn’t crash but didn’t jump particularly well and didn’t win the competition.
So, days before it all came together for the first time in a big event, days before the first breakthrough, Jaelin Kauf piled into a car with her coach Kate Blamey, and the pair left Steamboat Springs, drove east over Rabbit Ears Pass and headed to Winter Park looking for answers.
Too much to handle
Today, Jaelin Kauf is on a tear and at exactly the right time to make her a serious part of any conversation about the women’s moguls gold medal at the Pyeongchang, South Korea, Olympics, which begin Feb. 9.
She’s won two of the seven World Cup moguls events so far this season and made the podium in two more. That surge has taken her from a good bet to make the U.S. Olympic team four months ago to one of perhaps six women who have a legitimate shot to stand atop the Olympic podium.
Kauf will actually be one of the very first to compete at the Olympics. The mens and womens moguls competitions begin Feb. 9 with the qualification rounds 10 hours before the Opening Ceremonies are to start 20 miles away.
The medal round will follow two days later.
Her journey to that opportunity wasn’t as direct as it may seem. She was slow to like moguls skiing at all, then patient when it came time to fully embrace the sport. And there were several pitstops, like the spur of the moment trip to Winter Park in December 2015, where the future was seemingly at hand but perilously close to slipping away at the same time.
Kauf hopped in the car with her coach that day because for all that comes so naturally to her in skiing, little about jumping does.
“Why not? I ask myself that all the time,” Kauf said.
There are two jumps on a moguls course, and the tricks and their landings from those jumps account for 20 percent of a run’s score, enough that it can’t be ignored, but not enough to make jumping rule the day.
When Kauf and Blamey arrived in Winter Park, they bore down on the lower jump, a back lay, or backflip with legs and arms extended straight out.
Kauf went off the jump, tried the trick, stopped when she hit snow again, then popped off her skis and hiked back up to try once more — again and again and again, sweating as she hoofed it up the hill and skied back down.
One of her problems with jumping extends back to what makes her such a standout skier in the first place.
Kauf skis too fast.
Roots in the sport
Kauf’s innate ability to ski fast comes with her comfort in the bumps, and her comfort in the bumps comes with the upbringing she and her older brother Skyler received as the children of two of the world’s top moguls skiers.
“We actually never planned on raising a couple of moguls skiers,” Jaelin’s dad Scott Kauf said.
Scott Kauf, a five-time champion on the World Pro Moguls Tour, got into the sport while growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Skiing moguls wasn’t an option then, he said, it was the inevitable outcome. The closest thing he saw to grooming at the time was when he was working at a nearby resort and all the staff was sent up the chairlift to boot pack an entire run.
He began competing early in his teenage years, jumping into the sport after its genesis but before the current structure was built into it.
Jaelin’s mom Patti Kauf-Melehes got into moguls skiing as an act of defiance. She was living in Steamboat Springs for a winter, serving beers and burgers at The Tugboat Saloon at the base of Steamboat Ski Area, when a friend mentioned a moguls contest at Loveland Ski Area.
Patti decided to take the trip but blew out her knee almost immediately in that competition.
“I was so mad I was determined to get good at them,” she said. “I probably have a little of that tenacity Jaelin has. I’m not going to let anything get the best of me.”
It was a different era, one with long skis and no helmets, wild jumps and plenty of crash landings.
When Scott and Patti first got into the sport, competitions didn’t even include a defined course. They certainly didn’t take place on manicured and prepared venues like Jaelin will see in Pyeongchang, where the distances are mandated and the bumps carefully crafted. Instead, skiers attacked natural fields of moguls and were responsible for picking a few on the way down to use to launch into the air for a trick.
It was a good life for those who were good at it. Freestyle skiing was one of the first forms of skiing to splinter off from the traditional view of the sport. Big mountain skiing, snowboarding, halfpipe, slopestyle and big air — most of which are now Olympic events — weren’t things yet.
Now, sponsorship money from name-brand companies is spread among them all. Then, moguls offered a unique and fresh glimpse of a lifestyle that companies were eager to align with.
“Everyone loved freestyle skiers,” Patti said. “It was this new exciting sport. You were outdoors, and it was before Americans really were outdoor enthusiasts as much as they are now. Advertisers loved it, whether it was for gum commercials, beer commercials or drink commercials, skiing just embodied outdoor activity and fun.”
Scott joined the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team in the early 1980s and was holding out hope he’d be able to compete in the Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, in 1984, where freestyle was whispered to be included as a demonstration sport.
Instead, it got bumped back four more years to 1988. In a different age of amateurism and the Olympics, he wasn’t willing to wait that long for a paycheck and turned pro the following season.
Patti came onto the scene later, in the early 1990s, but she turned pro quickly, as well, and even though moguls became a full Olympic sport in 1992, that was never an option.
There weren’t regrets, not with the success they enjoyed on the tour.
“I never looked back,” Scott said.
They were two of the most successful competitors on the circuit and even the start of their family didn’t slow them down.
Patti skied in a competition while six months pregnant with her oldest Skyler.
That wasn’t exactly planned, but she was in contention for a top-three finish on the circuit at the five-month mark. All she had to do at the season’s final competition was show up, start her run, then pull off.
Except, she started her run and liked how things were going, so she kept skiing to the bottom.
“I’m not really sure how I did it,” she said. “It was my livelihood, though. That’s what I did for a living.”
Skyler was born that June, then Patti was pregnant again with Jaelin before the next season started.
“A lot of those people only saw me in the winter, so when they saw me pregnant the next winter, some didn’t even realize it was a second kid,” she said.
She was active until 1998, then picked up skier cross in the early 2000s, even landing on the X Games podium in 2003. Her children were old enough to join her on the podium — some of their first memories of their parents competing that weren’t related to the trophies in the garage or the pile of VHS tapes next to the VCR.
It didn’t immediately create an environment that pushed Jaelin into moguls skiing. In fact, Jaelin’s first reaction was to the contrary, anything but what one would expect from a potential Olympic medalist.
“I actually hated moguls,” she said.
Hitting the books
After living in Vail for parts of their competition days, the Kauf family settled in Alta, Wyoming, a town on the Idaho border that bumps up against Grand Teton National Park.
They skied at Grand Targhee Resort, a less than ideal place to learn to ski moguls but perfect for what Scott and Patti actually had in mind for their children when it came to skiing.
“My coaching philosophy with young kids and skiing has always been to give them a well-rounded introduction to everything that’s out there, and we really tried to do that,” Scott said. “We’re a skiing family, and we tried to get them into Alpine skiing and big mountain, just anything.”
It snowed enough at the resort — more than 500 inches a year — that building a moguls course was mostly wasted effort.
“Every time we had a competition it would dump the night before, and the course would be gone,” Jaelin said. “Everyone loved coming there because they just went powder skiing.”
Following her older brother around the mountain eventually led Jaelin to learn to appreciate moguls, and both grew into well-rounded young skiers.
Still, as much as they loved the mountain, it wasn’t ideal for bumps skiers, and they couldn’t travel as much as they needed to attending the local school system.
The Kauf kids often ended up in school on Saturdays to make up for days they missed, but even that wasn’t enough.
“You couldn’t miss school, only 10 days a year,” Patti said. “When Skyler was a freshman in high school, they said they weren’t going to pass him if he missed one more day.”
So, the family — Patti and her second husband, Squeak Melehes, and the kids — went shopping for a new place to live, learn and train, and they found it in Steamboat. The local public high school offers a much more cooperative schedule for skiers, and the local training club, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, had a proud freestyle skiing division that wasn’t filled with former friends and competitors of Scott and Patti.
“They didn’t have to be ‘the Kauf kids,’” Patti said. “They could just be a couple of kids who wanted to be better skiers.”
Skyler eventually opted out of moguls skiing and focused on football, where he starred for Steamboat Springs High School before competing collegiately at Ithaca.
Jaelin continued skiing but also played soccer and had plenty of friends. She was a junior in high school when she first earned the chance to compete on the Nor-Am Cup moguls circuit. That’s one step below the World Cup and, for most athletes, the avenue to the U.S. Ski Team.
Shining at Nor-Am events is an important early step on the way to any Olympic dream, but when first given the opportunity, Jaelin declined, skiing in just one of the circuit’s events that season.
She even considered going to college to study architecture out of high school instead of skiing.
“She’s always had this really good balance,” Patti said. “That’s one of the reasons she’s successful. But, once she decided she was going to go do this, she was set on being the best moguls skier in the world.”
That’s what led her to that day in Winter Park with her coach, time and time again hiking up for another go at the jump.
Speed to burn
The middle of a moguls run is where Jaelin Kauf pulls away from her competition.
A typical course features a jump near the top after about 30 meters of bumps, then a long, straight stretch of moguls before another jump near the bottom.
One final, short section of typically smaller bumps awaits before the finish line.
That middle section, roughly 160 meters, is the heart of the event. Most of an athlete’s score, 60 percent, comes from his or her performance in those bumps. A panel of judges watches to see a skier maintain control in his or her turns. Skiers strive to keep their knees and skis together, and they wear off-colored patches on their knees to more easily demonstrate control for judges looking in from the bottom of a run.
Kauf can rip that section and usually does so faster than any other woman in the world.
The only problem is when she hits the bottom air unprepared to compensate for the speed, she’ll over rotate her trick, or fly too far and land lower than she wants.
“She needed a little more air awareness especially because she’s so fast,” Blamey said. “We talked about backing off the speed a little so she could land on her feet every time. That’s not normally an issue. I’ve never told another girl, ‘Slow down! Slow down!”
Both now and in 2015, Kauf uses a 360 heli off the top jump, a big trick in her father’s day but a fairly standard if unspectacular part of a woman’s run these days.
In December 2015 she was going with a back lay off the bottom air, and she hiked the hill in Winter Park nearly 30 times trying to perfect it.
The goal wasn’t so much to check her speed but to manage it.
Finally it started to click.
A week later, competing at the 2015 U.S. Freestyle Selections event, Kauf dominated, placing second the first day, then winning the competition the next day.
That won her several starts on the North American leg of the World Cup circuit. At the second stop, at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah, she earned a spot on the World Cup for the rest of the season by placing sixth in the single moguls event, then third in a dual moguls event.
She was off.
She was on the podium again at Deer Valley a year later, then won her first World Cup in dual moguls last spring. She followed that up with a bronze medal in dual moguls at the World Ski Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, and now this year, has outdone all of that.
She was the first skier from a deep U.S. team to solidify her spot at the Olympics.
She did that in Thaiwoo, China, winning her first single moguls World Cup in one event, then, a day later, placing second in another.
Her father was at home in Park City with some close friends watching.
“We were all screaming, jumping up and down,” he said. “I’m not in disbelief, more in awe of what she’s doing and her accomplishments. I’m not surprised, but I walk around shaking my head thinking, ‘Wow, this is really something.’”
Her mother, now living back in Wyoming, was watching and celebrating with friends, as well.
The second result, the second-place finish, gave Jaelin the two podiums required to be a lock for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, and after collecting her medal and stepping off the podium, Jaelin called her mom.
Both Patti and Scott had already booked flights separately to Pyeongchang, as had many other members of Jaelin’s extended and extensive support group, but Patti hadn’t told her daughter all of that.
She’d booked plane tickets and event tickets and tracked down a rental property within eyesight of the Olympic moguls course. She’d even bought an Olympic flag, then stuffed it in a closet in the summer waiting for a night like that night.
Those she’d celebrated with had gone home, and Patti was alone in the house when a FaceTime video call rang in at 1:30 a.m.
“Did you watch?” Jaelin asked.
She was back in her hotel room but still wearing the yellow bib given to the current World Cup points leader.
“Yeah,” Patti responded.
They stared at each other for several seconds without talking as tears welled.
It had all come together. From her speed and precision skiing in the bumps, ground into her at an early age by her parents’ all-mountain focus, to the strength demanded by coaches and the support offered by schools, to her jumps, so painfully hammered out by hiking the hill back in December 2015, over and over again until they were right.
Jaelin looked into the phone at her mother, nearly 6,000 miles away, and she smiled ear to ear, wider than Patti had ever seen.
“I did it,” Jaelin said. “I’m going to the Olympics.”
Patti pulled the flag in front of the camera.
“We know,” she said.
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