Park City's Jaelin Kauf clinches Olympic qualification in women's moguls

United States' Jaelin Kauf competes in the women's World Cup freestyle moguls at Deer Valley on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Park City • Wherever U.S. mogul skier Jaelin Kauf goes these days, she always has her travel companion with her: a plush “Curious George” monkey.

Right now, the woman in the yellow bib is ready to take George Junior to South Korea, with hopes of picking up a medal in her first Olympic Games.

Kauf took home a second-place finish on Wednesday night, the first day of competition at this week’s Freestyle World Cup at Deer Valley. Kauf’s third podium finish this season essentially guaranteed her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and moved her into the No. 1 women’s ranking in the world.

“I feel wonderful,” the 21-year-old Kauf said Wednesday night. “… My confidence is definitely up there. It feels really good.”

French skier Perrine Laffont won first place on the night with a score of 81.88. Kauf (79.57) and American Morgan Schild (78.93) rounded out the podium for the women. For the men, Canadian Mikael Kingsbury set a record with his 12th straight World Cup victory. Park City skier Bradley Wilson finished third.

Kauf, who entered the week as the only U.S. mogul skier to have already met the qualifications for next month’s Olympic Games, and should be a lock for one of the three or four spots on the women’s moguls team. She could also be one of the country’s best hopes for a moguls medal.

For years, the honor of being called the best U.S. moguls skier has belonged to Hannah Kearney. But with Kearney’s retirement, Kauf is the fastest of the U.S. women and one of the up-and-coming skiers hoping to pick up that mantle.

“Hannah was an incredible athlete and an incredible competitor,” Kauf said. “Definitely that is something to strive for. It’s big shoes to fill, but I think it’s kind of fun to push for that.”

Early in her career, Kauf’s strength had been dual moguls. Each of the past two years, she has finished on the podium at Deer Valley in that event. This season, however, Kauf has been able to translate that success into singles competition.

“My main focus all offseason was just trying to be bring my duals runs over to singles,” she said. “… To try to push myself and push the speed and just imagine having that person next to me.”

Kauf has had a strong 2017-18 season. And last month in China she picked up a first- and a second-place finish, making her the first U.S. mogul skier to meet the objective qualifications for the Olympic Games.

“Christmas came early for us,”said her father, five-time World Pro Mogul Tour champion Scott Kauf. “… She’s on a great path now. I think she’s just getting started.”

Kauf’s parents (her mother Patti was a two-time World Pro Mogul Tour champion) helped her start her career in Alta, Wyo., where she grew up skiing at Grand Targhee.

“I don’t think my parents actually really cared if I was a mogul skier,” she said. “Of course now they love it that I am because they can really connect with the sport and know it so well. But they were always so encouraging, pushing me to do whatever I wanted, but to put everything into it.”

As soon as she committed to moguls fully, her father said he knew she would be an Olympian. And after making the U.S. ski team three years ago, she relocated to live in Park City.

“Everything we need as an athlete is here,” she said. “That’s been a huge benefit.”

On Wednesday, Kauf’s family watched her perform live, carrying signs and cheering loudly, as she finished what has now become an Olympic tuneup.

“I think the pressure’s off a little bit,” Kauf said. “The two podiums this season definitely boosted my confidence. I know getting into the gate that I have the ability to win.”

Now the young skier and her family are curious to see how high she can climb in Korea.

“I’m so impressed with Jaelin,” her father said. “She’s just getting started. She’s not new to this by any means, but with her abilities, she’s got a bright future.”