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Culture shift among USA women’s moguls team drives World Cup success

By ‘pushing each other up, not tearing each other down,’ Americans are having unprecedented success, and they expect more to be on the way

Kai Owens, center, celebrates after finishing first in the finals between Hannah Soar, left, who finished second, and Tess Johnson, who placed third, in the World Cup women's dual moguls skiing competition Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Deer Valley, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

United States' Hannah Soar competes during qualifying in the World Cup women's dual moguls skiing event Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Deer Valley, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The saltiness of the wet streaks down Tess Johnson’s face revealed they had not been made by the fat snowflakes flurrying around Deer Valley Resort in Park City.

Johnson had just finished third in last week’s World Cup dual moguls race, ending a two-year medal drought in International Skiing Federation events. But that wasn’t what brought on the waterworks during a post-event interview. It wasn’t even that she had made history as one-third of the first American sweep of dual moguls on the World Cup circuit.

What caused the Harvard University student to crack was that she recognized the sweep as the first seismic payout from a culture shift within the American women’s moguls team. Because of it, she didn’t consider the other two athletes on the podium — winner Kai Owens and runner-up Hannah Soar — as just teammates. They’re some of her closest companions.

“I’ve dreamed about this day and this moment since I got on the team. And these girls are like my sisters,” Johnson, of Vail, Colo., said. “They’re my best friends. So to share this moment is magical, especially at Deer Valley, a place that is ingrained in our hearts and ingrained in the mogul skiing community. It’s a very special special achievement.”

The performance on Deer Valley’s highly regarded Champion course indicates just how much potential Team USA has to bring home moguls medals from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the start of which is less than a year away. Though dual moguls is not an Olympic discipline, points earned in duals competitions count toward World Cup standings. And heading into the World Championships, scheduled for March 8-11 in Kazakhstan, the American women hold spots Nos. 3-6, making it the country with the most athletes in the top 10.

If Johnson is right, that’s the byproduct of a conscious decision members of the team made a few years earlier to be more supportive.

Soar summed it up like this: “At the end of the day, we’re going to get the top by pushing one another, not by tearing the other one down.”

2021 DEER VALLEY FREESTYLE WORLD CUP RESULTS

Feb. 4-6

Moguls

Women’s — 1. Perrine Laffont, France; 2. Anri Kawamura, Japan; 3. Kisara Sumiyoshi, Japan; also, 4. Kai Owens, USA; 8. Tess Johnson, USA; 9. Hannah Soar, USA.

Men’s — 1. Mikael Kingsbury, Canada; 2. Benjamin Cavet, France; 3. Matt Graham, Australia; also, 7. Dylan Walczyk, USA; 10. Jesse Andringa, USA.

Dual Moguls

Women’s — 1. Kai Owens, USA; 2. Hannah Soar, USA; 3. Tess Johnson, USA; also., 17. Olivia Giacco, USA.

Men’s — 1. Mikael Kingsbury, Canada; 2. Matt Graham, Australia; 3. Benjamin Cavet, France; also, 10. Bradley Wilson, USA, 11. Dylan Walczyk, USA; 16. Alex Lewis, USA.

Aerials

Women’s — 1. Danielle Scott, Australia; 2. Winter Vinecki, USA; 3. Kaila Kuhn, USA; also, 11. Tasia Tanner, USA; 12. Ashley Caldwell, USA; 13. Megan Smallhouse, USA; 21. Megan Nick, USA; 22. Madison Varmette, USA; 23. Dani Loeb, USA.

Men’s — 1. Noe Roth, Switzerland; 2. Justin Schoenefeld, USA; 3. Pirmin Werner, Switzerland; also, 7. Christopher Lillis, USA; 9. Eric Loughran, USA; 15. Quinn Dehlinger, USA; 24. Derek Krueger, USA; 25. Nicholas Novak, USA.

The Mean Girls of Moguls

Soar, Johnson and Olivia Giaccio all earned spots on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard national team about five years ago — the next generation of moguls athletes. None older than 15 at the time, each suddenly found herself straddling the line between adulthood and kid-dom. They struggled to balance school and training, international travel and independence. And, of course, they had to contend with social awkwardness.

Most of their teammates offered scant help.

Though immensely talented, they had their own careers and legacies to consider. They had little interest in mentoring the “Little Girls,” as the trio became known among the team.

“We were shocked at how divided and exclusive the team was,” Johnson said. “And I have to say, like, that’s to be expected in an individual sport.”

But it didn’t have to be that way, the trio decided after its first team camp. And they made a promise to each other that when they became the team veterans, they wouldn’t be the mean girls.

As Soar recalled, “We just kind of just said, like, ‘No. This is a new generation and we’re doing it differently.’”

#powHERhouse of unity

The change really started to take root during the 2019-20 season. That’s when NBC decided it wanted to bestow a catchy tag on the high-potential women’s moguls team. The network, which broadcasts the Olympics, wanted something similar to the Magnificent Seven and Fierce Five monikers given to the USA Gymnastics teams that won gold at the 1996 and 2012 Olympics, respectively.

The veteran female moguls athletes, who also included Park City’s Nessa Dziemian and Jaelin Kauf, were all for receiving that recognition. But, they wanted it both for themselves and those who came after them. They got their way when #powHERhouse was born.

“These women were like, ‘We don’t want to confine it to a number because we want it to be for all of the women who are on the team, in the future even, so it’s evergreen,’” US Ski & Snowboard communications manager Lara Carlton said. “It’s not confined to just one group of women, it’s all of the women.”

It wasn’t long before those future athletes were among them.

Park City’s own Sabrina Cass, 16, as well as 15-year-old Kenzie Radway and a 14-year-old Owens were named to the national team for the first time later that year. When they attended their first team training, the original “Little Girls” went out of their way to treat the young prospects like teammates rather than replacements.

Owens already had pegged Johnson as a role model. Both hail from the Vail, Colo., area and Owens had followed the template Johnson — who was also 14 when she made the national team — created for successfully making the jump from the local ski program to elite-level international competition. Owens said she even wore one of Johnson’s Team USA jackets, which she had gotten in a fundraiser, to one of her international competitions.

When Owens made the team, they only became closer.

“It’s been really nice having her as, like, a role model and just kind of helping me learn the ropes of the team,” Owens said, adding that Johnson helped her learn how to cook. “And also having my first start with her and now getting to share the podium with her was really awesome, really special.”

Change is in the air

Owens has already established herself as a future moguls star. At age 14, she became the youngest moguls skier to win a NorAm competition and then became the youngest to make a World Cup start for Team USA. Now 16, her fourth-place finish in the individual moguls at Deer Valley was her best in World Cup competition until she won the dual moguls.

To do that, she had to overcome the memory of the 2020 World Cup at Deer Valley, which she called “one of the worst events I’ve ever skied in.” She also had to overcome two of her teammates. First she topped Johnson in the semifinals, then Soar in the final.

After their run, Johnson and Owens shared a chairlift back to the top of the Champion run.

“I was a little quiet after she beat me, not going to lie,” Johnson said.

But she didn’t harbor any hard feelings toward her young teammate. Owens is pushing her to get better, and inspiring her as much as she inspires Owens.

Owens and her young classmates, meanwhile, have pledged to keep the goodwill going when they become the team veterans. Because, even at 16, she realizes some things are bigger than medals and moguls.

“When I’m an old lady, I’m probably not going to be like, ‘Yeah, this is how I skied and remember like the run,’” Owens said. “But I’m going to remember, like, I did it with my teammates.”

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