Park City • The same letter swarmed near the finish line. Nearly a dozen bobbed up and down throughout the night, the letter “J” hoisted up on poles each time Jaelin Kauf crushed another moguls run.
By the end of the evening, the group of “J’s” filtered into the bottom of the Champion run at Deer Valley Resort as Kauf, the emerging 21-year-old American star, won another World Cup gold, this time in her adopted hometown of Park City. She’s the owner of the yellow bib, the world’s top female moguls skier at the moment, four weeks from the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
She booked her ticket officially Wednesday evening with her second-place finish. The win Thursday night added to her impressive run. And she’ll have one of her close friends and training partners along as company.
Morgan Schild finished third Thursday evening with a World Cup bronze, her second World Cup podium of the season after a third Wednesday night in Park City, which meets the objective qualifying criteria for U.S. freestyle athletes.
The 20-year-old couldn’t hide the immediacy of the moment. She collapsed into her mom’s arms and couldn’t hold back the tears.
“It is a huge relief of pressure now,” she said, “and I’m just on cloud nine.”
For nearly a decade, U.S. moguls skiing relied on the individual brilliance of Hannah Kearney, the two-time Olympic medalist. Kearney retired in 2015 after winning bronze at the Sochi Games in Russia.
“We are more competitive than we have been since we lost Hannah.” Schild said this week. “We have the technical difficulty, we have the depth in our field and we have the hunger to win. As U.S. skiers, you don’t get given an Olympic spot, you have to earn it, and you have to win podiums.”
Before the super final event ThursdayIt’s evident that Kauf and Schild will enter South Korea as the U.S. medal favorites, but the team features four athletes. Before the super final event Thursday, the U.S. has five skiers in the final out of 16.
The star power or established level of consistency that Kearney brought might not be there yet, but the U.S. squad is young. And with the sudden ascent of Kauf and Schild overcoming a devastating knee injury that kept her out of competition for nearly two years, the odds of the U.S. having a strong showing in Pyeongchang is increasing.
After winning gold in Japan at 17, Schild blew out her knee in March 2015 training for the junior World Championships in Italy that year. She admitted Thursday that there were those days in rehab where she doubted she’d ever get back to where she was.
Come Pyeongchang, Schild is “ready to come out guns a blazing,” she said.
Kauf already has the world’s attention with her four podium finishes in her past four outings and keeping hold of the yellow jersey. The rest of the world has her in her sights with the Olympics around the corner. Does she feel it?
“A little bit,” she said, “but I’m gunning for them just as much. They’re just as fierce of competitors, and they’re pushing me every event. It feels like we all have bull’s-eyes on our backs.”
Freestyle World Cup at Deer Valley
1. Jaelin Kauf, USA — 81.37
2. Perrine Laffont, France — 80.38
3. Morgan Schild, USA — 78.76
4. Britteny Cox, Australia — 77.73
5. Andi Naude, Canada — 77.62
6. Marika Pertakhiya, Russia — 65.51
1. Mikael Kingsbury, Canada — 88.80
2. Dmitriy Reikherd, Kazakhstan — 83.66
3. Matt Graham, Australia — 82.37
4. Ikuma Horishima, Japan — 81.72
5. Sho Endo, Japan — 81.68
6. Sacha Theocharis, France — 79.49