Park City • Bradley Wilson had only two weeks of practice under his skis when he slid into the starting gate of the moguls course at Deer Valley Resort on Thursday for his first FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup event of the season. Most of the rest of the international field had been competing since early December and training for months prior to that. Wilson, however, had been sidelined by a nervous breakdown that unexpectedly struck him last year as he attempted to ski down a glacier in Europe.
Still, the two-time Olympian felt at peace under the lights at Deer Valley as he began his descent down one of the courses that has been kindest to him during his nearly decade-long career.
That serenity didn’t translate into numerical success, as Wilson joined the rest of the American men in failing to make the cut for the six-person super final. Hannah Soar of Somers, Conn., made the best showing for the United States, collecting fourth place in the women’s moguls, while Salt Lake City resident Jaelin Kauf placed fifth.
Wilson felt he had skied better than his 73.25 score, good for 12th overall, showed. Still, he deemed the outing far from a failure. He made it through the event without a panic attack and he enjoyed himself, his two objectives for the day.
“Obviously all the people and all the media and everything could get to you,” he said. “But you stand in that start gate and you’re like this is awesome. I’m so lucky to be here. This is a blast. And you can kind of see the crowd at the bottom, it’s just kind of a mass of people. It’s so freakin’ cool.”
Appreciation for his unique position as an athlete who not only gets to ski for a living but can do it on some of the grandest and most beautiful stages in the world has been the most noticeable byproduct of his breakdown, Wilson said.
“Now it's kind of it's more about just not taking these things for granted. You know, having fun and enjoying the spot,” Wilson said in an interview Wednesday. “I mean, this place is insane. It's so nice. So, like, if you spend all of the time here just worrying about the course or worrying about, you know, the competition, you're going to miss out on everything else.”
Wilson, 27, said he is the last person on the moguls team anyone would have expected to experience a nervous breakdown, even himself. Mellow, happy-go-lucky and a strong team leader, he seemed to have it all together. Then, he found himself experiencing altitude sickness while at a ski event in Europe.
“Then it turned into a panic attack, and [I] had to get airlifted out,” he said. “And of course, for those people who have had panic attacks, you think you're going to die, you know. You come to terms with your death. And that just kind of opened my eyes to why I was skiing in the first place.”
Wilson, who is still eyeing the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, has openly shared his experience with his teammates. Many feel similar pressures as they strive to achieve perfection on the bumps and on their jumps. He said he hopes his ordeal will motivate them to find ways to deal with that stress before it becomes overwhelming.
Kauf, 23, said she had a panic attack right after she heard about Wilson’s. The two elder statesmen of the moguls team have since talked about keeping things in perspective.
“He's definitely good at always telling me the like, have fun with it because that's all that matters,” Kauf said. “The pressure doesn't matter. Thinking about expectations and whatnot. Just forget about it.”
Not only is Kauf the U.S.’s top medal hope in moguls and dual moguls, she also wants to put on a good show for her family, who came from as far as Wyoming, Minnesota and California to watch her. She said having them on site actually takes pressure off.
She didn’t disappoint them Thursday, turning in the two fastest women’s times of the night. Her finals score put her second going into the super finals behind Australia’s Jakara Anthony, but a disappointing score from the judges bumped her to fifth.
Soar entered the super final in fifth place and moved up to fourth, her best showing in World Cup moguls event. Tess Johnson, 19, of Vail, Colo., reached the 16-skier final and placed ninth.
All three will compete in dual moguls Saturday where they will try to preserve the streak of an American woman on the podium at every World Cup since 2004.
Kauf has her own streak going. She has reached the podium every year she has competed here, including silver last year when Deer Valley hosted the World Championships. She also placed second in the only other dual moguls event held so far on the World Cup circuit this season. Both times, Perrine Laffont of France — who has won every World Cup moguls event this season, including Thursday’s — took gold.
“Looking forward to going head to head with some of these girls that are on the podium,” Kauf said. “So it should be an exciting day for sure.”
Also looking forward to another run on the Deer Valley course is 17-year-old Park City skier Nick Page. After reaching his first final in his national World Cup debut, he placed 10th overall, best among the Americans. Jesse Andringa had the fastest run of the night (22.94 seconds), and possibly the fastest in course history, but placed 11th.
Like Wilson, whom he called his mentor, Page said he just enjoyed the moment.
“I learned to ski moguls on this course, which is crazy,” he said. “And now I’ve been watching this event for as long as I can remember, just wanting to be up there in this final, skiing at night under the lights with all my closest friends. And now it finally happened. It’s a dream come true.”
Competition continues Friday with aerials. Finals both Friday and Saturday start at 7:30 p.m. and will be aired live on NBCSN and the Olympic Channel, respectively.
Perrine Laffont, France, 79.33
Jakara Anthony, Australia, 78.49
Justine Dufour-Lapointe, Canada, 78.14
Also: 4. Hannah Soar, USA, 75.88; 5. Jaelin Kauf, USA, 75.86; 9. Tess Johnson, USA, 74.14
Ikuma Horishima, Japan, 89.17
Mikael Kingsbury, Canada, 87.37
Felix Elofsson, Sweden, 81.18
Also: 10. Nick Page, USA, 74.07; 11. Jesse Andringa, USA, 73.65; 12. Brad Wilson, USA, 73.25