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Q&A with Kiley McKinnon

Kiley McKinnon
Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Sports

Q&A with Kiley McKinnon

Kiley McKinnon on the year-round grind of training for aerials and overcoming the doubters

Kiley McKinnon, the 2015 World Cup champion in women's aerials, is hoping to make her Olympic debut in PyeongChang, where she would be one of Team USA's top medal contenders in the event.

Earlier this year, we sent McKinnon a list of questions. Here's what she had to say.

What's your earliest memory of watching the Olympics, and did you imagine yourself being there one day?
I was never the person that watched the Olympics and thought that I would one day be in that position. I grew up watching the Olympics with my family because I love sports and that was really it. I have been doing sports my whole life, but with the sports I played, I just assumed I would continue through college and be done after that. Once I found aerials, my thoughts about the Olympics completely changed.

What's your earliest memory of aerial skiing?
I didn't know anything about my sport until I was 16 years old. I had seen it once or twice in the Olympics, but I had no idea what it was. The first time I ever saw my sport in real life was at the water ramp facility in Lake Placid, New York. I can distinctly remember watching someone go off the single jump and do a back layout. As soon as I saw that, I knew that it was what I wanted to do. The challenge of the sport is what really propelled me until now to dedicate my life to it.

Was there a breakthrough moment when you realized you could compete at a high enough level to reach the Olympics?
My aerials career progressed pretty quickly, which made it very exciting for me. I would have to say that my breakthrough moment in my sport was winning the overall World Cup [Crystal] Globe my third year on the World Cup tour [in 2015]. I had never expected to win the Globe at all in my career and to be able to do it when I was still pretty new at my sport definitely boosted my confidence a little.

Did anyone ever tell you that you wouldn’t be able to succeed in aerial skiing?
Yes. When I first started my sport, I was told that I would never be successful in aerials. I was told that I was too tall and I didn't have the right body type, and the sad thing was that it had nothing to do with my abilities. Because of that, I changed my training location and moved out to the west. I made the national team that year.

I was told that I would never be successful in aerials. I was told that I was too tall and I didn't have the right body type.

Kiley McKinnon

Who was most influential in helping you achieve your dreams?
I always have to say my parents when I am asked this question. Everyone says they would not be where they were if it wasn't for their parents, but it is true. They drove me to and from the mountain every weekend, and I don't live near any mountains. It was a four-hour drive each way. They paid for everything for me and most importantly they believed in me more than anyone else. They are the only reason I am even in the sport of aerials at all.

Any misconceptions about aerial skiing?
One misconception about our sport is the fact that people feel it is really dangerous, but really it is not as dangerous as it may seem. Everything we do is extremely calculated, from the speed we take to the angle of our bodies when we are coming into the jump. We are not just sending ourselves off massive jumps hoping to land. I like to say that we know exactly what we are doing, but that may be a slight overstatement!

What would people be surprised to learn about training for the Olympics?
I think people would be surprised to learn how little time we have off. I feel like people assume that since it is a winter sport that we have a lot of the summer off, maybe some workouts here or there. In reality, our summer training is more intense and grueling than our winter season. We probably only get one or two full months off the entire year, if that. As soon as the winter is over, we have a week or two off and the conditioning starts before it is time to put on our life jackets and hike up the stairs for the summer.

What's a typical training day like?
In the winter, a typical training day is showing up to the jumps at 8 a.m. to prep the hill. This means chopping the landing, which can take an hour or more, stepping the landing, working on the table, and riding the jump. Then we will warm up, get suited up, and jump for two and a half hours. After jumping, we watch video with our coaches. Depending on the day, we will then have a workout for about two hours at the gym. If we don't have a workout, then we are done for the day.

In the summer, a typical training day is showing up to the water ramps at 7 a.m. and warming up with our strength coach for an hour. Then, we get our water ramp gear on and jump for two hours. After our first session, we have a lunch break for about an hour and a half and then we go back to the water ramps and jump again for another two hours. When we are done, we will always watch video with our coaches. Again, depending on the day, we will also either have trampoline or a workout or both!

What’s the most grueling workout you’ve ever done?
During the offseason after the winter and before summer training, we have a conditioning camp that tends to kick our butts. The hardest thing we do is a cardio circuit with a former MMA fighter. I would definitely say that is one of the most grueling workouts I have done.

Have you ever been seriously injured?
My worst injury was when I dislocated my elbow during training for finals at a World Cup in Canada. It happened in 2014 only a few weeks before the Olympics in Sochi. Because of the injury, I was out of the competition and all other competitions of the season. I also lost my opportunity to qualify for the Olympics and I had to watch my teammates compete on the big screen at home. Luckily the injury wasn't anything too bad. I did not end up needing surgery and it only took about two months for me to get my full range of my elbow back and I was pretty much good to go.

What's an obstacle that you've overcome in your life?
A big obstacle for me was moving away from my family when I was only 16. It was definitely hard, but necessary for my sport.

Any pre-competition rituals?
I always like to do things a certain way on competition day. I make sure to do the same warmup that I always do, and I have specific things that I like to wear to compete in because I know I am comfortable with it. I am a perfectionist and I can definitely see that come out in my pre-competition [routine].

KIley McKinnon

Kiley McKinnon placed second at the 2017 World Cup stop at Deer Valley. Credit: Jeffrey Swinger/USA TODAY Sports

Biggest fear when competing?
My biggest fear when competing is disappointing myself.

How do you unwind after a competition?
Competitions can be stressful and because of that, usually right after it is over, I can begin to unwind. Depending on where we are in the world, we either hang out with all of the competitors on the World Cup tour or we begin to pack because we are leaving at 6 in the morning the day after. That is never fun, but it tends to happen a lot.

Have you become close friends with any competitors from other countries?
Because aerials is a pretty small sport, everyone knows everyone and we all get along pretty well for the most part. The team we are around the most is probably the Australian team because they spend their summers in Park City. Because of that, I have gotten to know Danielle Scott pretty well and we have become pretty close friends.

Who are your biggest rivals?
Xu Mengtao and Danielle Scott are both great competitors in my sport. They are also good friends of mine outside of competition, which makes it pretty cool!

Do you play any other sports?
Before aerials, I played soccer and lacrosse competitively and I loved it. Unfortunately, I had to quit those sports in order to fully commit my time to skiing.

Which summer Olympic event would you like to try?
Beach volleyball! I am telling everyone that that is going to be my next sport when I am done with aerials!

Any nicknames?
Sadly, I do have a nickname that has really stuck with a lot of people on my team. They call me "Bean." It came about when I first started doing aerials and I was really thin and lanky. One of the veterans in my sport started calling me "Bean Stalk" and it quickly changed to "Bean," and to this day, almost half of my team still calls me it.

What will success look like for you in PyeongChang?
My main goal is to qualify for the Olympic Games in PyeongChang. If I can accomplish that goal, then that will mean success for me. Of course I want to do well and win a medal, but it is always important to take it step-by-step!

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