When last year’s World Cup aerials season ended in Belarus, American athletes Mac Bohonnon and Kiley McKinnon stood atop the podium celebrating with their crystal globes.
Now the two World Cup champions are preparing to defend their titles. The U.S. Aerials Team is training on jumps at the Utah Olympic Park ahead of the 2015-16 season opener in Beijing Dec. 19-20.
Though they enter the season as the defending champions, both Bohonnon and McKinnon say they’re not feeling any extra pressure.
“I’d say I’m probably the only one who doesn’t think so,” Bohonnon said when asked if he feels like there’s a target on his back. “I’ve really always tried to disassociate with results and expectations. I know that I can win an event and be on the podium, so I just always try to focus on my jumping and my process. That’s always been what’s worked for me.”
McKinnon added that she’s simply trying to ignore any outside influence and expectations.
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it much,” she said. “I didn’t want to look at this season as being the person that’s on top. I want to come into it like any other season and just try to do my best. Last year, getting the crystal globe was something I never imagined would happen. If I end up winning it again, I would be extremely happy.”
After an injury sidelined McKinnon for the early part of summer training, she said she’s fully healthy and ready to go.
“I hurt my ankle at the beginning of the summer, so I missed our first camps, but I was good to go after that and was able to train the rest of the summer,” she said. “Training is going really well — I just started doing doubles [on snow] a couple days ago.”
The first competition — at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing — is a big one for both McKinnon and Bohonnon. Bohonnon won a bronze medal there last year and McKinnon earned a silver and a bronze.
Bohonnon said the Beijing competition is unique in that the aerialists don’t often compete inside stadiums.
“It’s a really tough event,” he said. “Inside a stadium, the jumps are a lot of work and it’s a little scarier than most events. You go up [to the starting area] on an elevator.”
This year, though, he said he knows what to expect and hopes to perform even better than he did last year.
The 2015-16 winter season doesn’t have any big championships — no Olympic competition and no World Championships — but Bohonnon and McKinnon are still eager to prove last year was no fluke. For McKinnon, standing atop a World Cup podium is goal number one.
“I got second and third a bunch last year, which is what kept me consistent and let me win the overall title,” she said. “This year, I’d like to come out and win a World Cup [competition].”
For Bohonnon, the challenge of repeating as champion is keeping him motivated.
“One of my coaches once told me it’s difficult and impressive to win one, but it’s even more difficult and far more impressive to do it again,” he said. “I know it’s a very select group of individuals [to win two straight World Cup titles]. That would be amazing. I don’t think I could describe how rewarding and satisfying winning the overall title last March was. I felt like I justified all my time doing what I’ve been doing.”
One date that’s circled on the U.S. team’s calendar is the Deer Valley Freestyle World Cup. The aerials competition will be held there on Friday, Feb. 5.
“I got second at Deer Valley last year with an awesome crowd,” Bohonnon said. “We competed on Thursday night [instead of Friday due to travel obligations], which I was bummed about. This year, we’re competing on Friday night again. To be out there under the lights with 8,000 to 10,000 people is probably the most exciting time of the World Cup tour for us. We look forward to that every year.”
“My family is usually there,” McKinnon added. “It’s definitely one of the most fun competitions. That would be fun to do well at.”
Most of all, Bohonnon and McKinnon are looking forward to getting back into competition mode and seeing how their summer training has affected their skills. Bohonnon said he’s also looking forward to seeing how other athletes have changed their styles.
“There’s a group of really good jumpers out there that are equally capable of winning an event,” he said. “I have no doubt they’ve had good summers and that they’re equally as hungry as me to get [a World Cup overall title] of their own. But I’ve proven to myself that I can be at the top and have what it takes, which is really reassuring. It’s tough when you feel like you do your best and you don’t see the rewards.”
Outside of results and medals, Bohonnon said the real joy of the sport comes from spending time with the team and having fun.
“Some of the best memories of my life were last winter with my team and my coaches,” he said. “It’s an awesome group of people. We’re a really close bunch and absolutely love each other’s company. I’m just looking forward to getting on the road and traveling with this group of people again.”
The World Cup aerials season begins Dec. 19 in Beijing. Aerialists will compete in two contests, on Dec. 19 and Dec. 20. For more information on this year’s World Cup schedule, visit www.fis-ski.com/freestyle-skiing/moguls-aerials .