Q&A with Tess Johnson
Tess Johnson, 17, finished the 2016/17 season ranked 13th in the World Cup standings for women's moguls. She's a contender for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team.
Earlier this year, we sent Johnson a list of questions. Here's what she had to say.
What's your earliest memory of mogul skiing?
My earliest memory of freestyle mogul skiing was one of my first competitions ever. I specifically remember being in the start gate, scared out of my mind to perform a 360. This was my first time doing this trick in a race and I was uncontrollably shaking. I was two skiers out, and I realized I had never felt this much adrenaline, anxiety and excitement in my whole life. I knew that no matter what happened in between the start and the finish line, I was taking a risk and being bold. It then motivated me to not only continue competing, but to strive for success in taking these risks, because nothing is more rewarding than earning that perfect outcome you've worked so hard for.
What's your favorite memory of watching the Olympics, and did you imagine yourself competing there someday?
I remember watching Hannah Kearney win Olympic gold in Vancouver [in 2010]. It was my first winter skiing moguls, and I was only 9 years old. It feels like yesterday I saw her cross the finish line with a huge smile on her face, pumping her fists up and down. I remember thinking, she really wanted that gold medal. In my head, I imagined myself skiing that course and winning the Olympics with a smile on my face. It was exactly what I wanted, and eight years later, I've never wanted it more.
What would people be surprised to learn about training for the Olympics?
People underestimate the sports psychology that goes into training for the Olympics. I think the best athletes are the strongest mentally. Especially in a judged sport like mogul skiing, you need to perform when it counts, and that is one of the hardest things to master.
What’s something about mogul skiing that people don’t normally see?
The athleticism that it takes to ski moguls is unbelievable. A mogul course has two jumps with a sections of moguls sandwiching them. After landing a 12 meter jump, we are right back in the moguls. That is the hardest part: the transition between jumps and moguls. It takes an immense amount of strength, balance and quickness to master this skill, and I think it's incredibly impressive.
Do people have any misconceptions about mogul skiing?
I don't think people realize how many aspects there are to the sport. Mogul skiing is a combination of jumping, speed, and mogul turns. Additionally, the transition between the three is a whole other ordeal. It looks easier than it is, and doesn't receive enough credit. Additionally, the ever-changing conditions and courses add to the plethora of factors that go into our sport.
Even when others did, I never stopped believing in myself.
Did anyone ever tell you that you wouldn’t be able to succeed as a skier?
When I was 15, I was nominated to the US Ski Team as the youngest person ever to do so. I was a discretion spot because the coach saw great potential in me and wanted to train with me. It was an unprecedented situation and created some politics. Although I never heard it in person, I knew people were doubting that I should be on the U.S. Ski Team. I was significantly smaller in size than all of my teammates, and although I did have amazing results that season, I didn't qualify for the team by the book. But it went in one ear and out the other. That season I won the North American Grand Prix (the first qualification for the U.S. Ski Team) and proved everyone wrong. Even when others did, I never stopped believing in myself.
What was the breakthrough moment in your career?
When I was 10, I won every competition I entered. My ego had never been so high. The following year, I moved up to the Rocky Mountain Freestyle Division and as an 11-year-old competing against women up to 24 years old, you can imagine how that went. Many people told me I was talented, and I thrived off of their compliments. But that season, I realized talent wouldn't get me far enough. I started committing to the sport more and began training as intensely as a girl my age could. When I was 14, I was finally eligible to compete in my first FIS U.S. selections. I was the youngest athlete there, and didn't even notice how high the level of skiing was compared to what I was used to. I was so focused on performing my best, and the competition didn't even phase me. I finished third, a rare result for such a young skier. It was this day that I recognized I could compete with any of these girls, no matter their age, if I worked hard enough.
Who are your biggest rivals?
I think of every person who beats me as a friendly rival. This way I'm always chasing someone or something, and it keeps my expectations high.
Any pre-competition rituals?
I write certain key points to myself in my training journal the night before competition and then get a good night's sleep. I have a 20-minute warmup that I complete before putting all of my gear on and then spend 2-3 minutes visualizing the perfect performance. I will do two warmup runs and then head up to the start gate roughly 20 athletes prior to my run. On the chairlift I do a series of breathing and mindfulness exercises. I do a five-minute warmup again at the top of the course just to keep my legs moving and then more visualization. In the gate I secure my gear (goggles, helmet, poles, gloves), stomp my feet, growl a little bit for ferocity and push out!
Are you superstitious?
Yes, I am superstitious about my routine. It has to be the same every time, and when it isn't, I do get a little panicky. I'm definitely working on not being so superstitious because every competition day won't be the same.
Favorite type of workout?
I have the most fun doing speed and agility. It's what I am best at.
Most grueling workout you’ve ever done?
Hill sprints in 85-degree weather with no shade in sight.
Who's your Olympic role model?
What athlete, in any sport, has been your greatest source of inspiration?
Do you play any other sports?
I still play competitive high school soccer, and only recently stopped playing club soccer. I play attacking center midfield.
If you weren't an athlete, what would you like to be doing?
I would be traveling the world as a journalist for Sports Illustrated.
Any hidden talents?
I can do an eyebrow dance to the song "Starships" by Nicki Minaj.
Do you have a nickname?
"The Destroyer." My coach Riley [Campbell] came up with this name when he first saw me compete as an 11-year-old against 24-year-olds. He still calls me this on a regular basis.
Do you have any fears?
Seagulls. Occasionally pigeons.
Do you like to travel?
I love to travel. This past year I got to see so many cool places, but the best was Paris, France. We only had one day to explore and my teammates Mikaela [Matthews] and Jaelin [Kauf] and I biked 13 miles around the city stopping at every must-see destination we could get to. It was the craziest, most culture-shocking day of my life.
Can you tell us something quirky about yourself that people would be amused to learn?
If I don't do something active for a day, I start doing gymnastics on our furniture. It drives my family crazy and they tell me to go do Johnson Olympics (run around the house 10 times).
Do you have pets?
I have a husky mix named Kodiak, and two black and white cats named Lucy and Linus. I am actually allergic to cats, but they definitely bring joy to our home. I tend to ask myself, why in the world do we have two cats when I am severely allergic? It makes no sense, but I still love them. I usually take my dog on running adventures outside, and everyone thinks he looks like a wolf. I think of him as my bodyguard to protect me from dangerous wildlife.
Do you collect anything?
I keep all of my bibs from competitions...I have a lot.
Personal motto or inspirational quote?
Take the road less travelled.
Besides soccer and skiing, I really enjoy taking pictures. I volunteer as a photographer at events around the Vail Valley and take cute, artsy pictures of my sister when she needs a new Facebook profile picture. My family also goes on raft trips a lot where we will camp for five or six days. These trips are always so fun and I like to row the boat through the mellow rapids. We have a kayak and a stand-up paddle board as well, which is always a good time. I also love to write, whether it is for an assignment or just for fun.
Do you have any personal or family connections to South Korea?
My grandfather was stationed near PyeongChang after the Korean War. He was there for two years and is so excited that the 2018 Games are being hosted there. If I qualify, he will definitely come to support.
Karaoke is big in South Korea. Have you ever done it before?
No, but I plan to sing "All the Single Ladies" by Beyonce; I know all the words.
What will success look like for you in PyeongChang?
If I qualify for the Olympics in PyeongChang, I would aim to make the super finals (top 6). That would be extremely successful for me.