By Bruce Sayler
The moguls event has changed in philosophy and expectation since 2014 when Brad Wilson last competed in a Winter Olympics.
The freestyle skier retains the enthusiasm to fire up the speed while flashing downhill over bumps and jumps, but also the experience needed to adjust accordingly to newness.
“I’ve been working on some things,” the Butte 25-year-old said in a phone conversation Tuesday evening. “I’ve been working on being more precise on my jumps and my turns, and things. I’ve been working on dialing in and being consistent on my run on the course in its entirety.”
Wilson was only 21 the last time he ventured into a Winter Games. It was in February of 2014 in Sochi, Russia, when he was nearly blinded by the Olympic light. While in training, he flipped a mid-air somersault and was hanging upside down over the slope as an actual comet streaked across the sky.
His view of that upward world was upside down.
The experience of a lifetime had already been soaked. His go-for-broke competitive run a few days later ended in some disappointment with a rolling tumble that took him to 20th place in the final standings of freestyle skiing, men’s moguls. The all-out, caution-to-the-wind effort had gained him a midcourse lead coming down the slope before the crash.
Maybe it was lesson learned, but one has to admire the spunk.
“It’s starting to click, now,” Wilson said. “It’s working and I’m stoked. It’s a pretty different experience from what it was four years ago. I’m a little more focused on what my plan is. Four years ago I was just showing up and skiing.”
Training for the team began Wednesday on the Deer Valley resort course near Park City, Utah. Each day will be like a dress rehearsal until the team flies to South Korea where the Winter Olympics will be held in PyeongChang. Men’s moguls qualifying will be held on Feb. 9, and finalists will advance to the medals competition on Feb. 12.
“It’s usually all day,” Wilson said of the training sessions. “Breakfast in the morning and then on the hill by 10 a.m. Then, it’s practice for about three hours or so, recover, eat and go home.”
The routine is repeated daily.
“We’ll treat training camp just like it was the Olympics and try to emulate what we will do in Korea. We can’t do this (kind of training) in Korea, at the Olympic venue, but we can here when we have one of the toughest courses — at Deer Valley.”
Wilson is a 2011 graduate of Butte Central High School. His older brother, Bryon, graduated from Butte High in 2006 and was the men’s moguls Bronze Medalist at the 2010 Winter Olympics of Vancouver, British Columbia. Brad Wilson was on-site and watched his brother’s medal run live and in person.
The sons of Bryon and Jeanette Wilson, both also Butte natives, began their ski legacies by building ramps on the East Ridge mostly, but not entirely, out of sight of Homestake Pass traffic. Horns honked, occasionally. Skiing skills were honed at several courses in Southwestern Montana, including Discovery Basin, Bridger Bowl and Lost Trail.
“It’s about Butte,” Brad Wilson said. “That’s important, starting out on Homestake. It’s having our roots in Butte and working hard. Whatever happens, happens. Make it a positive. That’s what Butte is.”
“If you’re willing to work hard for it, Butte will support you for it. I think they still see that in us. That’s where it started for us and that’s what it’s about.”
Conversely, he’ll answer the call, as well. The official introductions for the Team USA freestyle contingent were held Tuesday at Deer Valley. Wilson was chatting with an old Butte neighbor, one who is also a reporter, when he had to suspend the call because he had just heard his name called to join the group for the official announcement.
He was literally waiting for the intro, but still took the time to talk to the guy from back home. Then, he apologized for having to leave the conversation.
Wilson is No. 7 in the world and heads the United States men’s moguls team, on which he is joined by Casey Andringa, Troy Murphy and Emerson Smith. Wilson’s best finish this World Cup season has been a third at Deer Valley two weeks ago.
“It’s been very big (being selected) and rewards tons of good work,” Wilson said. “In the beginning of this year, I knew I had to perform and get a result. Deer Valley was my first result. I got a podium.
“Now, I have to work on improving my skiing and prepare. I was waiting for it, but it wasn’t a sure thing until I got the call.”
So, with the commitment and the time spent in the making, more than happiness greeted Wilson’s team validation.
“It was just a weight off my shoulders,” he said. “The pressure is gone and the excitement is starting to build.”
Jaelin Kauf, Morgan Schild, Keaton McCargo and Tess Johnson make up the women’s moguls team for USA.
The United States slopestyle women’s ski team includes Montana’s other two Olympians for this year — Darian Stevens of Missoula and Maggie Voisin of Whitefish. Voisin was on the 2014 team, but suffered an injury in a training run and was not able to compete.
Wilson is the veteran on this year’s moguls team, the only returning Olympian and he said he thinks the team is poised to score well.
“We have a chance to go out and show the world how strong and deep we are,” he said.
The Korean site is not unfamiliar. A World Cup meet was held there as a test last season and many of this year’s Olympians were in the competition. Brad Wilson was among them.
“I know what it looks like,” he said. “I know the length and slope. But, no matter, every year the moguls and jumps are different. That’s even the case at Deer Valley, where we train every day.”
The regimen has included some off-the-hill work, too, to keep the skiing stars healthy.
“I’ve been able to work with a strength coach to make me stronger and a little less sore,” Wilson said. “They’re making sure we’re strong and healthy. I think we’re a really strong team. All of the athletes are very good, including the women.”
Bryon Wilson was not chosen for this year’s team and was surprisingly bypassed for the Sochi Games even as a returning medalist. Injuries have hampered both brothers in recent World Cup seasons, and Bryon had just returned from a serious knee injury suffered a year ago.
Still, the team limited his entries to only two World Cup venues out of seven meets before the current schedule break for the Olympics. The lack of competitive slope time hindered his chances of gaining selection.
“Bryon came back and got sixth at Deer Valley,” Brad Wilson said. “He’s stoked. His was such a gnarly injury and for him to come back and place at Deer Valley is something.”
The 29-year-old Bryon Wilson’s positive attitude is restored after the unexpectedly good performances in Utah, Brad Wilson said. Whether the older brother will try one more time in four years for another Olympic shot remains to be seen, but his younger brother likes what he sees in the body and soul of his sibling.
“He’s such a great athlete, very talented and very smart,” Brad Wilson said. “It’s tough because everything seems to have been going against him. Mentally, now, he’s in a good spot.”
Since their teenaged years, moguls have owned the Wilsons’ lives. Both played a lot of other sports growing up in Butte. Their early days as standout gymnasts have played well into their aerial/acrobatic routines on the mogul courses. Bryon, too, settled for a while into baseball and played some second base on Butte American Legion baseball teams. Brad Wilson was a varsity tennis player at Butte Central and both bemoaned somewhat that their world-class ski schedules conflicted with football too much to allow them to tackle that sport in high school. A goalpost once stood in their backyard for use in neighborhood games.
So, it’s skiing and maybe it is forever. Who knows?
“I know everything there is to know about moguls,” Brad Wilson said, talking into a phone linked to an interviewer sitting on a staircase in the Belgrade Special Events Center while trying to overcome the spirited bass drum pounding for the Panthers in basketball competition against Brad Wilson’s alma mater.
“Go, Maroons!’ the Olympian broke to exhort.
“Moguls are my life and the event is really important to me,” he resumed. “Sport is what it takes to get better at things — to compete and it’s pretty cool to know that and pass that on to as many kids as I can.”
“Coaching is often where you can apply that — through management of kids. I want to let them have as much advice and opportunity as I can so that they can experience what I have.”
Those experiences include participation in the Winter Olympics. That, indeed, is a wow.
“The Games are the greatest sporting event in the world,” Wilson said, excitement clipping through the rise in his voice. “The Olympics are something so really great — the world coming together every two years (alternating every two years between Winter and Summer holdings) and being in sport.”
“The NFL and the NBA are important in the U.S., but they’re still not world events. (In the Olympics), you have amateur athletes representing entire countries. I think about that a lot.”
“Sport teaches so much to kids and provides so much in tools to use for the rest of their lives. So, it is important, in my opinion, for the kids to have something, besides good family life, to experience such accomplishment. They need to take advantage of that, if they can. They can take advantage of experiences of sport for what they do in life. I’m really passionate about that —for sure.”