The Zen of McRae Williams: Park City’s freeskiing first-time Olympian does things his way

Ski slopestyle World Champion achieves Olympic dream after heartbreak of coming up just short in 2014

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Freestyle skiing athlete McRae Williams speaks during the Team USA Media Summit at the Grand Summit Hotel in Canyons Village Tuesday, September 26, 2017.

He’s already working on his retirement plan.

Not a plan once he’s done flipping, contorting and grabbing his skis 20-something feet in mid-air. McRae Williams is working on his plan. He got a taste of such a lifestyle the summer before realizing his Olympic ambitions. The Park City born-and-raised freeskier followed through on a longtime wish just a few months after being crowned at the 2017 ski slopestyle World Championships.

Williams wanted to live out of his truck. He wanted a pop-top camper shell. He thought about how he’d manage his long summer, of how he’d fill each day. Summertime offers somewhat of a respite from the jet-lagged, globetrotting lifestyle professional winter athletes endure each season.

“We’re pretty nomadic,” the 27-year-old freeskier said.

Williams and some friends chose Mount Hood, Ore., as home base. Instead of a hotel room equipped with Wi-Fi and cable, he chose the new camping shell. Williams skied the warm snow faces on one of America’s striking mountains all summer. And when they felt like it, they’d pack up and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Oregon coast and surf.

#poptoplife ✌🏼

A post shared by McRae Williams (@mcrae_williams) on

Quite the retirement plan.

Next on the list: Installing solar panels on the roof of his new camper. Stay up to date on proper upkeep of his truck. He owns a snowmobile, too. When the high-flying acrobatic life on various park courses no longer is magnetic to him, Williams’ plan — at least in the short term — goes a little something like this.

His mobile home, with his snowmobile in tow, will trek to British Columbia. There, he’ll search out and carve through rugged backcountry terrain and ski the untracked portions of the north.

“Just cruise around all the time,” Williams said. “The dream lifestyle for me.”

When that time will come and when it dawns on him that his competitive days are through remains unknown. Which is fitting for Williams, whose approach to skiing, life and chasing the ultimate run lies beyond the fast-paced, front-of-the-camera, sponsorship-driven lifestyle facing prospective Olympians.

Even as he sits in a chair being interviewed a few months before being named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic team, Williams nervously rubs his knees on his 6-foot-2 frame.

“I like to be out of the spotlight,” he said recently, “and it’s funny and ironic that I’m at something like this and my manager is like, ‘Perk up! Take advantage! Seize the day!’ I’m just like, ‘Can we go skiing? I just want to go skiing.’ I’m learning. Learning how to do it.”

The mindful skier

A stipulation in the Park City school system allowed young McRae Williams to get out on the snow nearly every day. When he wasn’t in class at Treasure Mountain Middle School, he was slicing through the park at Park City Mountain Resort thanks to an early release program, transitioning his background of competitive trampoline and flying into the pool at the Utah Olympic Park to the jumps and the rails.

There he’d watch eventual Olympic gold medalists like Joss Christensen and Sage Kotsenburg do their thing.

“It’s kind of been a Mecca for park skiing over the years,” Williams said about Park City.

Williams eventually began competing around age 14 in freeskiing back when the pinnacle of the sport was being featured in U.S. Open events and maybe the Winter X Games. What followed was a slow build into a full-time career. Williams eventually won gold at the 2013 Euro X Games and a silver a year later in Aspen, Colo.

Freeskiing, long-rumored to be on its way to the Games as Williams grew up, finally was included and was introduced at the 2014 Games in Sochi. Having been raised in the shadow of the 2002 Olympics, which he attended in his hometown, Williams suddenly felt the need to hit that next career marker.

He charged toward 2014, shouldering what eventually became too steep of expectations on himself. Williams barely missed the cut. He watched from a distance as lifelong friends like Christensen and others won medals in ski slopestyle’s debut.

“Being human, it’s only natural to want that next step, which is the Olympics,” he said.

“It was a big disappointment and thinking four years ahead, it’s a long time, a lot can change, a lot can happen, just wondering if I’m going to be able to stay on it and get another shot at it at 27 years old. I can’t even explain how it feels to get that redemption.”

Flipping the pages of a certain book helped him re-center after 2014 and set him on the path for 2018. In a video produced and aired in late December, Williams credited the book “The Mindful Athlete,” written by sports psychologist George Mumford, who worked with Michael Jordan for years in the mid-1990s, helping the superstar find focus and certain meditation techniques that coincide with sport. Williams took to heart lessons from the book.

“I’m really good if I can focus on one specific thing and take that to the next level,” Williams said. “The second you add too much in there, I get overwhelmed.”

The Olympics, Williams said, will be approached as just another contest. Still, he understands that this accomplishment means plenty — not only to himself, but also to those who might tune in and see slopestyle skiing at the 2018 Games for the first time.

His 12-minute-long video is titled “The Mindful Skier.”

Up in the air

It’s not that McRae Williams is anti-establishment. He just follows his own blueprint that got him here. Instead of going to the gym to train, he drives into the Uinta mountain range east of Park City and hikes. Instead of flying into the giant state-of-the-art inflatable air bag that allows U.S. Olympians to practice jumps with a soft, indoor landing, he’d rather wait it out and board a flight to New Zealand for a training camp on snow.

The idea of lifting weights to improve his ability in skiing, in fact, pushes him away from why he chose his sport.

“I try to keep it to what I love to do — and that’s solely skiing,” he said. “My most productive days are just skiing on snow and hitting a jump.”

Teammate Nick Goepper, who won bronze in slopestyle in Sochi, said Williams is, above all else, unique in his approach to life.

“He’s quiet, he’s humble, I don’t think he’s a fan of the spotlight, but he’s just a hard worker and just a good guy,” Goepper said. “I think he deserves everything he’s got over the years.”

Skier Mcrae Williams, of the USA, jumps during the Big Air at Fenway skiing and snowboarding U.S. Grand Prix tour event at Fenway Park, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

At 27, Williams often refers to himself as “one of the older guys” in freeskiing. His abilities haven’t waned in a sport driven by innovation and fearlessness. Whether it’s sliding onto and flipping off a rail or tucking and spinning four full rotations, Williams has the portfolio of tricks to contend for a medal in Pyeongchang.

“He’s up there, and when he’s up there in his skis, he’s on a mission, I’ll tell you what,” U.S. freeskiing coach Mike Jankowski said. “Once he’s dropping into the course, it’s all business.”

How much longer does Williams anticipate being in the business? When does the retirement plan take effect?

It’s appropriately up in the air.

“I can sit in a classroom when I get older,” he joked.

Williams has more regions of the country to scour with his portable home base, more glaciers to ski down and more terrain to uncover. It might be as an Olympic medalist, it might not. He’s made it to this point and will reassess after Pyeongchang.

“You get used to the easygoing lifestyle living in a truck with friends,” Williams said.