Skier Tess Johnson: ‘In some of the best times, there will be the worst of times’ |

Skier Tess Johnson: ‘In some of the best times, there will be the worst of times’

Rejuvenated 2018 Olympian processes difficult season and missing the 2022 Olympics, sets big goals for next winter

Ryan Sederquist
Vail Daily
Tess Johnson smiles at the World Cup freestyle moguls competition at Deer Valley Resort on Jan. 14, 2022, in Park City, Utah. Johnson recently reflected on missing the 2022 Olympics.
Rick Bowmer/AP

VAIL — Henry David Thoreau once said, “If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”

Feeling jet-lagged, depressed and recovering from food poisoning, when Tess Johnson returned from her “time in China” (she was not named to the globe’s deepest Olympic women’s mogul team this cycle), she heeded the great American writer’s words.

“I had to be OK with myself not wanting to ski because I knew that if I was going to force myself to get back out there and go 100%, I would not handle that well,” she said about the week spent mostly lounging in bed, watching on her laptop as her teammates and friends competed in the mogul finals to kick-off the Games.

The “trauma of being isolated for over four months” — a period where her only close contact was one week with her boyfriend — and subsequent re-entrance into society was draining. At one point in February, she debated giving up on the rest of the year.

“I’m really glad I didn’t,” she reflected, pointing to a pair of top-10s in the final two World Cups, the latter of which her family was in attendance to watch.

“My parents were awesome and so supportive. My boyfriend really got me through it as well,” she said of her dark February. “Just all the support I’ve received in the mogul community and the Vail community is really what got me through it.”

Johnson also won both moguls and dual moguls national titles in the season’s final competition at Deer Valley a few weeks ago, a place where her winter’s turmoil reached a pinnacle. After the Jan. 14 World Cup, Johnson, ranked fifth overall in the 2021-22 World Cup standings and the second American at that point, learned of being left off the Olympic team.

It was “the two hardest days of my life.”

She’s happy to no longer be hung up over the 2022 Beijing Games.

“I’m proud of how I gave myself that time to process and how simultaneously I pushed myself to get back out there,” she said.

“Both of those things helped me accept everything that happened. I can honestly say I’ve moved on and I’m really happy to say that because it made the rest of the season a lot more fun and it’s making me excited for this upcoming training season.”

After starting on flats and heading out to freeski some, Johnson was reinvigorated by a return to Golden Peak to practice with her SSCV coaches John Dowling and Philippe Marquis and their athletes.

“It was really fun training that course,” she said of the World Cup-ready venue. “I think that period of time was just about tapping back into my love for skiing and that’s exactly what Vail and the new course provided for me.”

Riley Campbell, a former SSCV coach and Johnson’s U.S. ski team coach until his retirement this year, was there as well.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had — an incredible person.”

Johnson rounded up quotes from dozens of teammates, young and old — from all over the world — into a 30-page notebook as a retirement present.

“It was such a good representation of the legacy he’s left behind,” she described, noting that the coaches unique use of humor in coaching was instrumental in helping her navigate the pandemic and her Olympic disappointment. “He’s touched so many lives in mogul skiing — we’ll miss him.”

Johnson said the “tight-knit mogul community” lends to a coaching collaboration during sessions on Golden Peak.

“That’s what’s really beautiful about coming home and training every now and then,” she said.

“And now that we have this super sweet course up on Golden Peak — I’m so excited to come home and train. I wish I could be home all the time and train on this course. It’s going to be so cool for the younger kids who are mogul skiers here. They are just so lucky to have that facility.”

According to the 2018 Olympian, Dowling is “applying for everything” when it comes to bringing a World Cup to Vail.

“As he should,” she said. “It’s a World Cup-caliber course.”

If it happens, his pupil will be pleased.

“That would be one of the coolest things I could say I’ve done in my career,” she said of a chance to compete on the top stage in her backyard. “That’s a dream of mine.”

Even though Golden Peak provided the spark she needed, the final two World Cups still brought some level of awkwardness, as she embraced her teammates — their first hugs since before the pandemic — in Italy.

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 on Feb. 5, 2021.
Rick Bowmer/AP photo

“The team was just coming back from the Olympics and they had all their awesome cool gear,” Johnson said. “You know, I’m so happy for them and simultaneously still sad that I couldn’t be there with them. Jaelin Kauf winning a silver medal — I wanted to be there to celebrate with her.”

The sisterhood of the women’s mogul team wasn’t shattered by the events earlier in the year, though.

“We’ve just been through so much together and that doesn’t go away just because of one traumatic thing,” she said.

As she looks ahead to next season, many of her teammates will again provide inspiration for her improvements.

Heading into summer

This spring, Johnson has been hanging out with family, reconnecting with childhood friends on the slopes or over a meal and chilling with her boyfriend in Boulder, even taking in a Rockies game.

“Just kind of living a normal life,” she laughed.

She’s also been helping out with Bob Brandoni and the surging Vail Mountain School girls soccer team, a program she was also a part of.

“They have a spectacular team this year,” she said. “Just a bunch of really talented, hard-working young women, and it’s really cool to see how that VMS culture hasn’t changed a bit since I’ve been there.”

Johnson suited up for her senior season as a Gore Ranger after flying back from Pyeongchang.

“It’s so awesome to be a part of that again, just kind of coming back four years later,” she said of the soccer community, which she loves as much as skiing. “I miss it a lot.”

Earlier this week, she met with her new U.S. ski team coach, Ryan Wilson, to discuss goals for 2022-23. Last year, she changed up her run and her mentality, even adding a new trick.

“This year is not that,” she said. “It’s a sculpting year and a building year. Taking everything I’ve done and continuing.”

She does hope to improve several elements to her top air cork. Her coaches do a deep dive analysis of her scoring on every run from the past year, comparing it to the top five finishers. The main takeaway for Johnson was that she had points to gain in the air and speed department.

“It’s going to be about training at a high speed all the time.”

Johnson said the meticulous nature of the prep season fascinates her, though she’s relieved to not be reinventing herself.

“There’s always something to get better on,” she said. “I think this season is more about the fine-tuning rather than big, huge changes.”

It makes sense. She finished fifth in the overall World Cup standings, tying 2019 for her best career finish.

“Really, I had a great season,” she beamed, noting improvements in her cork, venom and speed goals.

“I don’t want to come across as arrogant, but any professional athlete mostly centers their goals on performance, and if I look at those goals that I set, that I wrote down at the beginning of the season — I met and achieved many of them. By those measures, it was a great season.”

“It really was my best season to date” she continued. “That’s what I’m always learning about in this sport — in some of the best times, there will be the worst of times. It’s very much about perspective and how you deal with things. Yeah, massive learning year.”

Almost as if Thoreau’s quote was sitting in front of her, she added, “So, while there was defeat, there’s also a lot to be proud of and a lot, looking forward I can build upon.”

The well-spoken 21-year-old gets the grind, though, too. “The workouts never stop,” she said of the six-month prep period.

She’ll break that into several three-week intensity blocks, which are followed by a week or two of recovery. A typical summer day consists of 20-25 jumps off the water ramp at the Olympic Park in Park City early in the morning, followed by a two-hour gym session.

Then, trampolining in the afternoon and pilates and stretching to finish things off. She approximates 45 water ramp days will be worked into the summer schedule, along with four separate on-snow camps at Mount Hood, Whistler, possibly Austria and likely Sweden.

Johnson said the 2026 Games are “absolutely still the goal,” and to do so, she’ll “have to keep up with the young guns,” pointing to aerial artists like Ski and Snowboard Club Vail athletes Kai Owens and Liz Lemley.

“It’s pretty cool training with these incredible young jumpers,” she said of Owens and Lemley specifically. “It motivates you and it teaches you how to get better. I plan on being inspired by them a little bit more this year.”

The “compensation” for last year’s “disappointment” should have U.S. moguls fans “quiet and ready,” eager to see what the prolific skier can do.