Vail’s Kai Owens talks about Olympics and finishing third overall in World Cup moguls
“I can’t wait another four years. I haven’t worked this hard and come this far to just not try.”
Gymnast Kerri Strug’s one-footed vault landing in the 1996 Atlanta Games is immortalized as a symbol of valorous victory in the wake of injury. Often, however, the most heroic Olympic performances come with little fanfare or even outside recognition of the actual battle at hand.
Enter Kai Owens.
On the third day of training, a little more than 24 hours before her Olympic debut in the American’s emotional return to her birth country, Owens caught her ski tip and awkwardly slammed her shoulder and face into the icy Beijing slope. News outlets reported a gruesome eye-injury.
It wasn’t the whole story, though.
“We were training late at night, so we were going to reassess the next morning, and I woke up and couldn’t really move my arm,” Owens recalled. “That was the main reason that I wasn’t able to ski qualifier one. The eye was actually the least of my issues.”
Checking in from the World Junior Championships in Italy, Owens graciously cultivated her mature ruminations on her third-place finish in the final FIS dual moguls World Cup standings, the season as a whole and her once-in-a-lifetime Olympic opportunity, where sitting out was never a possibility.
Much was written about Owens, adopted as a baby from China, in the lead-up to the Games. In addition to the heartwarming homecoming, the 17-year-old entered as a legitimate medal threat and electrifying member of the deepest moguls team in the world — six Americans ultimately finished in the top 10 of the World Cup standings. Thus, when her untimely injury struck, everyone was anxious.
While her eye was very swollen, the most concerning issue was the shoulder, which prevented a normal pole position.
“They figured it was rotator cuff tear. I had some shoulder specialists look at it and they said I could probably compete, and so, we kind of just worked on it the next couple of days,” Owens said.
After incessant dry needling and massaging, as well as sleepless nights enduring excruciating pain, Owen’s persistence in nursing the injury along paid off … barely.
“By the final day, I could get it up just so where I could hold my pole in a mogul stance,” she said. “It was a wild day. I remember just trying to take it step by step,” she said of her Olympic debut.
About an hour before the second qualifier — already pressure-packed since, having skipped qualifier one, she now would have to make the top 10 in a one-and-done scenario — she skied flats for the first time. Then, she snuck in two mogul runs, focusing on harder pole plants “to see if I could take the force into my shoulder; and I kind of passed that,” she said.
Then, it was time for the 30-minute training session before the event started.
“I hadn’t skied in four days, so I was a little nervous for that,” Owens admitted.
First, she skied just the middle mogul section. In her next run, she tried the jumps. When asked if there was any mental hesitation to go airborne, she replied, “Oh, definitely.”
“It was one of the craziest 10 minutes that I’ve had. I was like, ‘Should I be doing this, should I not be doing this?’ I had a lot of doubt, a lot of pain — it was pretty scary,” she said.
“But another part of me was like, ‘I can’t wait another four years. I haven’t worked this hard and come this far to just not try.'”
For someone who isn’t yet able to vote, the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail moguls prodigy talks with a mature tone and outlook, balancing perspective — it is just a sport, and we’re talking about risking the health of a body she’ll keep the rest of her life — with an honest recognition that this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
“To me, that event and that Olympic Games specifically has always been the one,” she firmly stated.
“That’s the one I’ve been shooting for and always known about. And to not even try like wasn’t an option.”
After the crash, those prospects were dim.
“Our plan was actually — the day before the qualification – wasn’t to actually ski a competition run,” Owens said. “It was just to push out of the gate and kind of slide down the course and ‘woohoo I’m an Olympian,’ but I decided to just try.”
After hitting the jumps in training on that nerve-wracking second practice run, Owens was able to squeeze in a third rehearsal, where she pulled out a cork on the top air, all the while making sure her shoulder felt good enough.
“And then I had to go and figure out how to pull it all together for my qualifying and I knew that like that was it — like this was my one opportunity to ski at the Games,” she said.
“So I was really, really nervous for that one, but I was also really happy to just be out there. The day after my crash, it wasn’t looking like I was going to be skiing at all, so I was really excited.”
Dumbing down her degree of difficulty because grabbing her ski was impossible, a monumental tidbit unbeknownst to NBC viewers, Owens bravely pushed out of the gate and performed a run that, for her, was relatively simple.
“It was easy, but I was super nervous,” she said. “Then, the adrenaline helped me for the next run. I was like, ‘OK, I can do this.'”
In her finals run, fatigue finally caught up to the first-time Olympian.
“I was pretty tired,” she said of the last run, which ended with a 10th-place finish. “I pole planted on one of the bumps coming into the bottom air and it hurt my shoulder so I kind of winced and then made some mistakes and almost fell. And kind of survived the rest of that run and called it an Olympic competition for me.”
Through it all, she remained grateful.
“It was so special and just incredible,” she said of the Games. “There were some ups and downs for sure, but everything aside from my crash was amazing.”
Coming home and moving forward
After the Olympics, an MRI showed a partial rotator cuff tear and significant bone bruising. She was cleared to ski the final World Cups, as well as the World Junior Championships.
“It was good, and so the rest of the season I’ve been dealing with it,” she said.
She returned to Vail for a week of classes at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy.
“That was interesting,” described Owens of her return to the humble Maloit Park-based building. “It’s kind of crazy going from the Olympic Village to high school. That was definitely an adjustment. But you know, I was excited. It just was simpler. It was a nice little break.”
Students and staff lined the school’s entrance to greet their Olympian. She got high-fives from everyone and walked into English class, where her teacher asked a few casual questions about Beijing before pivoting class back to their novel study.
After a few weeks in Park City rehabbing her shoulder and participating in a training camp at Deer Valley, it was off to Italy.
At the Chiesa in Valmalenco dual moguls, Owens nabbed fourth. The following week she took ninth in the singles and fourth in the duals at the World Cup Finals in Megeve, France, securing her third-place overall finish in the duals standings.
“I had a pretty good day,” she said of Megeve. “I’m always looking for a win or a podium, but I was happy with my skiing that day.”
Though she doesn’t consider herself a “duals specialist,” Owens recognized that part of the reason her duals results trend higher is because they occur on the second day of competition.
“More often than not, I learn from my singles performance or I have more time on the course, and then I have duals,” she said. “I think duals allows for more mistakes if that makes sense. You don’t really have to beat everybody in that round, you have to beat just the person you’re skiing against. So, it’s honestly a little less nerve-wracking, too.”
Owens then flew back to Chiesa in Valmalenco for World Juniors, where she reinjured her shoulder and hurt her knee in the singles event. Tape, ACE bandages and pain meds — the triumvirate responsible for allowing her to continue competing post-Olympics – wouldn’t be necessary this time.
The season was done.
“I was proud of my skiing,” reflected Owens. “I think I still have some work to do; definitely feeling really motivated and excited for next season.”
After graduating in the spring, she’ll take a gap year before enrolling at the University of Utah, where many of her U.S. ski team teammates study. She isn’t set on a major yet.
“I think I’m doing my dream job right now,” she joyfully proclaimed.