Local Vail Moguls Champs Are Hometown Besties, Too
When Kai Owens made the U.S. Ski Team at age 14, the local mogul skier didn’t have to look far for a guide. She had skied with another team member, Tess Johnson, since she was 6 at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Johnson had also made the U.S. team at age 14. Now the two are 17 and 21, respectively, and favorites to compete together at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
It is rare for one club to produce two of the top four skiers on the world’s best moguls team. It is rarer still for those two to be as close as Owens and Johnson are. They roomed together on last year’s World Cup circuit—Owens finished fourth overall, earned her first win, and was named Rookie of the Year; Johnson finished sixth overall and was the top American at world championships—and challenge each other during training sessions. “I met Tess the first day I joined the mogul program,” says Owens, who lives in Eagle-Vail. “We inspire each other to be better. For a long time, she’s who I’ve looked up to and who’s guided me along my journey.”
Johnson, who lives in West Vail, learned to ski at Beaver Creek when she was 2. She, like Owens, trained under SSCV coach John Dowling and attended Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. In 2015, she became the youngest mogul skier ever named to the national team. In 2018, she won her first World Cup and placed 12th at the PyeongChang Olympics. That experience primed her for what could be in store this winter (the team will be determined at qualifying events in December and January).
“The Olympics are not just another World Cup,” says Johnson, the only woman to throw a backflip venom grab during her runs. “I learned to embrace them for all that they are rather than pretend the pressure isn’t there, because it’s going to be. But that’s the best part.”
Owens is a wild card going into this season: talented enough to win gold, young enough that predictions are meaningless. Her cork 720 sets her apart on jumps, and she’s been working with former SSCV coach Riley Campbell—who joined the U.S. Ski Team the same year she did—on perfecting her turns. No one doubts her toughness: last year, Owens broke a rib two weeks before the first World Cup, in Finland, yet still placed fourth.
Regardless of results, simply qualifying to compete in China will be magical for Owens. She was born in Anhui Province and adopted when she was 16 months old by two skiers from Colorado. The only time she has been back to her birth country was when her parents took her, at age 4, to adopt her younger brother.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Owens says of a potential Olympic return. “I’ve always loved Asian food, but I haven’t gotten to experience the culture or what it’s like in China. It would make going to the Olympics really special for me, and personal.”
A press-time lineup of local Olympians to watch (and hope to see on NBC come February)
Ski racer River Radamus, who grew up in Edwards, is gunning for his first Olympic berth. The 23-year-old SSCV alumnus and GS specialist enjoyed a breakout season last year, scoring World Cup points in five events and placing 11th at the FIS World Ski Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. As America’s second-best GS racer, he figures to have a good chance at proving himself on the Olympic stage.
Expect to see Vail native Sarah Schleper de Gaxiola in the women’s alpine field representing Mexico again, as she did in 2018 after acquiring dual citizenship. This will be Schleper’s sixth Olympics, beginning with Nagano in 1998, a span of more than half her life. The 42-year-old finished 41st in GS at the 2021 world championships, 25 seconds back—but her time still ranked in the top half of the field.
Meanwhile, snowboarder Ryan Wachendorfer of Edwards entered the season ranked fifth in the U.S. in halfpipe, with the top four likely to compete in China. Training independently, the 25-year-old SSCV alumnus was planning to add a pair of game-changing tricks to his run this winter: a Cab double cork 1260 and a front-side double cork 1260. And on the freeski side, current SSCV member Riley Jacobs began the season ranked fifth in America in halfpipe and seventh in slopestyle, after winning the halfpipe national title last winter.
And of course, there’s that other Edwards resident, Mikaela Shiffrin.