Tess Johnson: Summer of ‘Remarkable’ revival for Vail Olympian, moguls star

Ryan Sederquist
Vail Daily
Tess Johnson at the top of Remarkables Ski Area, where the U.S. moguls team held a three-week camp.
Courtesy photo

VAIL — Breathing room is an important component of every good relationship. With mogul skiing, Tess Johnson realized the best move this summer was to step away briefly in order to step forward definitively.

“I went into the prep season kind of wanting to take a small step back from training just to recover from all the heartbreak and the intensity and really the COVID isolation,” she said. She planned a summer trip to Europe with a childhood friend.

“Didn’t ski, didn’t have a ski bag, didn’t think about skiing, didn’t talk about skiing — it was awesome,” she said. “I love skiing so much, but it’s really important to take a step back sometimes and do something else.”

After hundreds of water-ramping sessions in Park City, an on-snow coaching stint at Whistler, a training camp on Mt. Hood and three weeks on the Remarkables mountain range in New Zealand, Johnson is rejuvenated and revved up heading into the 2022-23 season, which kicks off Dec. 3-4 in Ruka, Finland.

“By the time I was back into full-time training at the end of July, I was feeling a lot more reignited and ready to train hard, and I think I wouldn’t have felt that way if I had just gotten right back into it in May,” the 22-year-old Olympian reflected. “So, I think I definitely made the right decision to take a small step back and then take two big steps forward because I felt so reenergized and excited to ski again.”

Returning to the roots and deconstructing the dream

During the early prep-season stages, mogul stars deconstruct their run — “Isolated jumps, isolated bumps,” Johnson explained. “Then, you put it together in the fall.” In June, Johnson water-ramped in Park City before her European vacation. Then, she transitioned back into ski coaching at two-time Olympian John Smart’s Momentum Camp, which she describes as “the epitome of fun.”

“Even as a coach, they remind me to have fun in skiing, so that was really good for me,” she said. The opportunity originally arose after the 2018 Games, when 2014 Olympian Phil Marquis, another Momentum coach, reached out to Johnson. She coached in 2018 and 2019 before COVID canceled the 2020 and 2021 years. Returning to Whistler reminded Johnson of why the sport hooked her in the first place. It’s a summer tradition the Olympian missed during the pandemic, but plans on continuing for as long as she can.

“It’s so cool to see the young kids coming up and teach kids about moguls who have never even heard of moguls before,” Johnson said. “So it’s just a really special thing.” As far as a career in coaching goes, the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail alumna is content with the opportunities — Momentum in the summer and occasional pop-ins with John Dowling’s crew at Golden Peak over Christmas — she has right now. “I’ll kind of cross that bridge once I get there,” she said.

Her passion rekindled and renewed in Canada, Johnson made her way to Mt. Hood in July to work on adding a new aerial component to her run: a cork Japan grab.

“I brought the cork 720 to snow last year and this year I brought the cork grab,” she said. I’m really proud of that progression in my own career.” The trick is identical to fellow SSCV athletes Kai Owens and Liz Lemley.

“I think they absolutely inspired me and Kai kind of helped me,” Johnson said. Owens, a freshman at the University of Utah, has been attending water ramp sessions while rehabbing from her spring injury, a gesture which is not lost on her teammate.

“Even though she can’t train, she’s there supporting us, which I think is so cool,” Johnson said. “And she was kind of the one who was like, ‘Tess you should try this cork Japan,’ and I was like ‘OK, I will’ … and it went really well and I brought it to snow in Mt. Hood.”

“I love that Kai, Liz and I — all from Vail — do this same trick,” she continued. “It’s kind of this cool little Vail trademark maybe that we have for now.”

Aerial improvements were high on the priority list for the summer; she also spent considerable time perfecting the cork without the grab, which ended up killing multiple birds with one stone.

“I think that work into that top-air trick will translate into the landing, which translates into the moguls,” Johnson explained. “Because it’s all kind of connected for the judges. When they see an athlete perform a top-air, that really affects the turn scores and the speed, because if you’re performing it in a certain manner, it can actually make you slower. So, I think by tackling that top-air, I tackled a lot of other goals I have for speed and turns.”

The one-jump Mt. Hood venue allowed Johnson to explore new heights — literally — but in September, the entire U.S. moguls men’s and women’s A and D teams flew south of the equator to put top-to-bottom runs together.

Totally Remarkable

After a long flight finally came to an end at the south island of New Zealand, the Remarkables mountain range, coming into view along the southeastern shore of Lake Wakatipu, reminded Johnson of home.

“It’s a lot like the Gore, honestly,” she said of the bold, jagged mountains. With springtime conditions and the entire Remarkables Ski Area run to themselves, the American mogul team was blessed with myriad of conditions for their fall training camp.

“One day it would be firm, then powder, slush, fog, then blue sky — we had a whole range of conditions which made it challenging but realistic,” Johnson said. Coach Brian Wilson arrived a few days early so he and a few other coaches could build the entire moguls course, which, is about as exhausting as it sounds. “It’s labor intensive,” Johnson said with a grateful tone.

After using a snowcat to push mounds of snow into piles during the dark morning hours, the coaches have at it with a shovel and skis to step and shape the entire run.

“They really made the camp what it was for us,” Johnson said. “To be able to show up in New Zealand on day one of training on a course that’s ready to ski is such a privilege. That rarely happens, even at a place like Zermatt, where all the mogul teams go. Usually there’s still course maintenance to be done, so the fact that our coaching staff sort of had that all ready for us to go — we could just hit the ground running.”

The typical training camp day consisted of breakfast in the morning, a slightly harrowing 30-minute drive on the “wrong” side of the road to the resort, followed by 4-5 hours of skiing. On strength days, the team hit the gym immediately before dinner, which was prepared by a team chef.

“(It’s) just the luckiest thing in the world,” Johnson said of the culinary situation. The team chef also prepared fresh salmon caught by athletes during a rest day.

After dinner, the athletes have no trouble honoring a curfew. “Then we go to bed because we’re so tired,” Johnson laughed. With four hard days followed by a recovery day, the team did have a few opportunities to sight-see as well. They took a jet-boat tour, went fishing on Lake Wakatipu and even went bungee-jumping.

Liz Lemley (left), Tess Johnson (center) and Alli Macuga take a break from training during the U.S. Ski Team’s New Zealand camp this September.
Courtesy photo

“It was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done,” Johnson said, adding that it may have also been more frightening than anything she’s faced on a mountain. “That’s the scariest for sure. It quite literally took my breath away; I didn’t even scream because I didn’t have the oxygen to do it.”

Over the course of the camp, Johnson got closer with Lemley, who burst onto the mogul scene last January with a fourth and seventh at the Tremblant (CAN) World Cup on Jan. 7-8 and sixth– and fifth-place finishes at Deer Valley a weekend later. She also won the World Junior Ski championships mogul and was second in the dual moguls in Italy in March.

“What’s been cool with Liz and I — and really our whole team — we’ve got to know each other better and better,” Johnson said. “I think she’s going to have a great season; she’s skiing so awesome.”

When asked what makes Lemley special, Johnson used only one word to describe the 16-year-old: “fearless.”

“Her jumping ability is really spectacular. She’s got incredible talent for jumping and skiing, but I think her fearless attitude is what’s really going to take her to the next step and it’s really cool to see her push the sport regardless of how old she is because of that fearlessness,” she elaborated.

“And it’s also cool to see how she just loves lapping the park just for fun, which makes everyone on our team really happy — to know that we’re in it because we love skiing, not just mogul skiing.”

Ready for Ruka

After flying back to Park City, Johnson has been evaluating her progress and putting the finishing touches on her jumping. Before she leaves for Ruka next month, she’ll be signing custom posters made by a fellow mogul skier at the Inn at Riverwalk on Oct. 27 from 4-6 p.m.

“They’ve just been really supportive and such a big part of my career for the last three years and we haven’t been able to do another in-person event since COVID started,” Johnson said of the event, which will raise money for Girl PowHER.

“We’re super excited about it. I’m hoping a lot of young skiers will show up.”

Less than two months from the World Cup opener, the time for big adjustments has passed. “You’re sculpting little bits and pieces of your run to get it competition-ready,” she said.

As far as the competition itself goes, Johnson expects things to be stacked.

“I could give you like 12 names that could win a World Cup tomorrow. Pick anyone in any given final, and they could have an incredible run and be on top of the podium. It’s truly that deep in women’s mogul skiing, which is really exciting,” she said.

“But I think at the end of the day, it really comes down to your mentality then because everyone has such deep talent and ski ability; but I think what sets us apart is any given woman’s ability to deal with the pressure, variability, or distraction that day.” 

France’s Perrine Laffont returns as the overall moguls champion, while Australia’s Jakara Anthony, the Olympic gold medalist, was tops in the combined moguls-dual moguls standings. Olivia Giaccio was the top American in the moguls standings in fourth, with Johnson finishing in fifth.

“I think Perrine’s mentality is truly incredible; Jakara has proved to be so consistent as well,” Johnson said. “It’s really tough.”

Of course, several of those 12 women she speaks of could come from the red, white and blue, too.

“I just can’t speak highly enough of our own team because I watch us train every day,” she said. “I mean, we definitely got some tricks up our sleeve and we’ve always been a force and will continue to be a force.”

As far as the calendar goes, Johnson feels each venue offers a unique flair, but the opener will serve as a particularly good initial litmus test individually.

“They’re the most challenging on tour, in my opinion and I think last year I skied really well at those two events,” she said of the Finland event. “So I’m really excited to kind of see how I can beat myself from last year.”

The focal point on paper is the world championships from Feb. 19-March 5 in Bakuriani, Georgia. Though Johnson hopes to make the U.S. team and podium at worlds, she’s not going to allow the target to dominate her vision.

“I will say that after a kind of intense year of outcome-focused and results, I’m pretty excited to just start this Olympic cycle with more process-oriented focuses and incorporate this new trick that I’m doing and kind of just focus on that,” she said. “Yes, every athlete has their outcome goals, but I always have so much more fun and really ski so much better when I focus on the goals I can really control, which are how I ski and how I jump.”

Reflecting on her summer, Johnson feels it was about “healing, and healing by having fun.”

“And honestly, I feel like that applies to a lot of people, not just me in my situation. I mean, we’re coming out of a pandemic — that was destructive for everyone in so many ways,” she said.

Even after the heartbreak of missing competing at the 2022 Olympics, Johnson appears energetic and enthusiastic as she commits to the next Olympic cycle.

“In terms of what’s after that, I always tell myself, as long as I’m happy and healthy, I’ll keep doing what I love,” she said. “That’s what it comes down to for me.”