Jon Lillis won last week's FIS aerial title in Spain and more titles, and skiers, are on the way up
Jon Willis grew up like most kids, watching his favorite sport on television.
That led to dreams, which led to getting involved. And the more he did it, the more he wanted it.
“I watched freestyle on TV and thought it was the coolest thing,” the Pittsford native said this week from Park City, Utah. “Then I went out and put a video together.”
It’s been nine years since Lillis left Pittsford for Lake Placid to pursue his dream of freestyle skiing and last week, it all paid off.
Lillis, who calls Bristol Mountain his home mountain, won the 2017 FIS world championship for freestyle aerials in Sierra Nevada, Spain. It’s as big as it gets for freestylers outside of the Olympics, and the 22-year-old Lillis said that’s next on his agenda.
“This is a big confidence booster” for the goal of making the Olympic team, said Lillis. “It’s the same exact athletes competing and the same exact format. I’ve really wanted to go to the Olympics since I was 12 years old. So hopefully I can just stay on track.”
Should the progression remain true, seeing Lillis at the 2018 Games in South Korea isn’t a stretch. At the FIS world championships, Lillis finished 23rd in 2013 and seventh in 2015. It’s an event that’s held every two years.
“I’ll be a world champ for two years,” he said. “That’s not a bad stat to have.”
And to think, it all started at Bristol Mountain more than a decade ago. Lillis has been a fan of the slopes since he can remember, but the draw to the moguls area at Bristol was an urge he couldn’t resist.
“I always excelled there, so we took the moguls out of the scene to see how big I could get in the jumps,” said Lillis. “So it became aerials instead of moguls. It’s just so fun.”
The direction of coach John Kroetz was vital to the development of Lillis, but it went way beyond instruction, he said.
“He’d be out there at Bristol shoveling (the moguls) by hand for my brother and I,” said Lillis. “He was making jumps for us every week and he is so instrumental in what I’ve been able to do.”
When he was 13, Lillis moved to Lake Placid to be part of the Elite Aerial Developmental Program at the Olympic Training Center. By 16, he was named to the U.S. National Team for aerials.
And it is here where the work and dedication rose to a new level. Sure, it’s fun and great to be on the snow doing jumps. But to compete at the world elite level, it takes much more.
Trampoline training. Jump technique training into pools. In the gym. On the snow, and traveling around the world. Sounds exotic, but there’s a ton of sweat and a lot of trial and error that fans watching on TV don’t see.
“We’re always working,” he said. “Fifty hours a week and maybe 45 weeks a year for the last eight years.”
As impressive as the results have been for Lillis, he’s not the only freestyler from Bristol Mountain with a bright future. For that matter, he’s not the only Lillis.
Younger brother Chris Lillis, 19, also is a member of the national A team and was just named Rookie of the Year. Yet another Lillis, brother Mikey, is on the developmental team.
All call Bristol Mountain home, along with freestyle mogulists Morgan Schild (A) and Dylan Walczyk (B). Harrison Smith, another freestyler on the B team, makes it five U.S. Ski Team members who got their start at Bristol.
What’s more, a sixth may be on the way. Bristol Mountain got news on Friday that Emily Szabo, 13, won the U13 Junior Nationals moguls championship. Szabo is from Pittsburgh but joined the Bristol Mountain Freestyle Team to train and compete.
“We are thrilled with the success of Jon Lillis and the other four athletes who grew up skiing on the Bristol Mountain Freestyle Team under the direction of coach Kroetz,” said Drew Broderick, marketing director at Bristol Mountain.
Big credit for this group, said Jon Lillis, goes to Kroetz.
“He knows the pathway of putting athletes on the pipeline so they can succeed,” he said. “He gets us prepared.”
Hard to argue with that, especially with one world champ already in the books. And given the talent and dedication that’s just getting out of the gate, the upcoming success of the U.S. National Team will have an impressive footprint from Bristol Mountain.
Chavez is sports editor at The Daily Messenger. Contact me at email@example.com or follow me @MPN_bchavez