Kiley McKinnon all but seals Olympic aerials spot with first World Cup win

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Kiley McKinnon was just about the most successful aerials skier without a World Cup win. Until Saturday.

McKinnon grabbed her first gold in her 36th career start after seven previous podium finishes. The 22-year-old’s victory in Moscow all but clinches her first Olympic berth.

In Saturday’s super final, McKinnon landed a triple-twisting double flip for 95.52 points.

She beat a field that included 2017 World champion Ashley Caldwell of the U.S. and 2014 Olympic champion Alla Tsuper of Belarus, a 38-year-old coming back this season after 3 1/2 years away from international competition.

“My strategy was to go out and have confidence in my jumping,” McKinnon said, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “I have been struggling with that recently and I wanted to prove to myself that I could put a solid jump down.

McKinnon won the 2015 World Cup title without any wins that season. She also placed second and fourth at the last two world championships.

McKinnon previously competed nine years in gymnastics, a sport requiring similar acrobatics as aerials.

She was recruited to aerials after the 2010 Olympics by Island Avenue Elementary School classmate Mac Bohonnon, who placed fifth in Sochi.

McKinnon was knocked out of contention to qualify for Sochi with a shoulder injury.

Now, McKinnon and Bohonnon should be going to PyeongChang as Olympic teammates.

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U.S. aerialists, elementary school classmates, sweep World Cup titles

Mac Bohonnon, Kiley McKinnon, Ashley Caldwell
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Mac Bohonnon and Kiley McKinnon, who once shared a first-grade classroom, now share the title of World Cup aerials champion.

The freestyle skiers clinched the crystal globes in Minsk, Belarus, last weekend.

The last time a U.S. aerialist claimed a World Cup season title was the late Olympic silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson in 2005.

The last time U.S. aerialists claimed both men’s and women’s titles was 1995, when World champion Trace Worthington and 1998 Olympic champion Nikki Stone swept.

Bohonnon and McKinnon shared not only Island Avenue Elementary School in Madison, Conn., growing up but also the same feeling of surprise for capturing the crowns last weekend.

“If we had this conversation in November or December, I definitely would not have told you that I thought this was possible,” Bohonnon said.

“I really wasn’t expecting this,” McKinnon said.

Start with Bohonnon, who is 19. He was an upstart qualifier for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team and finished an impressive fifth in Sochi.

Back in October 2011, a U.S. development coach sat Bohonnon down and told him to quit aerials. He hadn’t adjusted well to a growth spurt in this high-flying, flipping and twisting sport and perhaps should return to moguls, which he had grown up doing.

“It was devastating,” Bohonnon said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I thought then and there my aerials career was over.”

Shortly thereafter, 1998 U.S. Olympic champion Eric Bergoust started coaching him and, Bohonnon said, saved his career.

Last season, Bohonnon earned an Olympic spot with his first World Cup podium finish on Jan. 14 in Val St. Come, Canada. The U.S. actually only sent one men’s aerialist to Sochi, due in part to the addition of ski halfpipe and slopestyle, limiting the amount of total freestyle skiers that could be sent to the Olympics.

That meant Dylan Ferguson, the top U.S. men’s aerialist in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 World Cup standings, but who did not make a podium that season, was left out. Ferguson subsequently retired.

“We should have had two [men’s Olympic] spots,” Bohonnon said. “I never doubted myself for a second for why I was there. I was the only guy with a podium that year. … I think this year kind of validates that whole situation, the whole process. I know a lot of people had doubts. I kind of showed up out of nowhere.”

McKinnon also competed in Val St. Come, where she dislocated an elbow to end any hope of joining her first-grade classmate Bohonnon in Sochi.

McKinnon, also 19, said she delayed a transport to a local hospital that day so she could watch the men’s competition. She saw Bohonnon finish second and earn his Olympic berth.

“I was leaving for the hospital, but Mac was taking his final jump,” she said. “I saw him get the second place and immediately left after that.”

This season, Bohonnon and McKinnon both benefited from Chinese stars missing the final two of seven World Cup competitions.

Qi Guangpu, who won the men’s World Championship on Jan. 15, and Xu Mengtao, the Sochi women’s silver medalist, swept the season’s first two World Cups in Beijing, Dec. 20-21.

China sent a B team to the final two World Cups in Moscow and Minsk the last two weekends.

Plus, both 2014 Olympic champions from Belarus, veterans Anton Kushnir and Alla Tsuper, took this season off.

Bohonnon and McKinnon wish they could have competed against the star Chinese and Belarusians all season but felt the absences didn’t diminish their feats.

Bohonnon said he proved himself to be competitive against them last season, finishing second in Val St. Come and fifth at the Olympics. He also beat Qi at a World Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Jan. 30.

“Not having them, it’s kind of easy to say it could’ve been different with them here, but I kind of validated it to them a month ago in Lake Placid,” he said.

McKinnon had three second-place finishes this season, plus a Worlds silver, but is still searching for her first World Cup victory.

“This is the generation I was part of in aerials,” McKinnon said of the athletes whom she did defeat. “It would’ve been awesome to compete against them [the Chinese and Belarusians] more, but I think I’m just really happy that I was able to compete with the athletes who are here.”

Bohonnon and McKinnon also benefited from coming up through the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Elite Aerial Development Program, which started in 2008.

The program’s first member, 2010 and 2014 Olympian Ashley Caldwell, roomed with McKinnon this entire season and won the final World Cup to secure second place in the standings.

Bohonnon joined the program after the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and then recruited McKinnon via Facebook Messenger.

“I knew Kylie was a good gymnast and a good skier; it was a no-brainer,” Bohonnon said (Chinese are so good at aerials because they often have a gymnastics background). “Here we are, four years later, both with crystal globes.”

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U.S. aerialists post best World Championships since 1999

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The U.S. aerials team won multiple medals at the World Freestyle Skiing Championships for the first time since 1999 on Thursday.

Kiley McKinnon and Alex Bowen won women’s and men’s silvers, respectively, in Kreischberg, Austria. Neither McKinnon, 19, nor Bowen, 22, were on the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi.

McKinnon, who came into Worlds second in the World Cup standings, scored 88.12 in her final jump. Australian Laura Peel beat her by .35 for gold after finishing seventh in Sochi.

The 2013 World champion and Sochi silver medalist, Xu Mengtao of China, won bronze, ahead of two-time U.S. Olympian Ashley Caldwell. Olympic champion Alla Tsuper of Belarus is reportedly on maternity leave.

In the men’s final, Bowen won a surprise silver medal. Bowen, 22, had never finished better than 14th in a World Cup competition until last week, when he was sixth in Park City, Utah.

But Bowen tallied 121.27 in his last jump under the lights in Kreischberg, a distant 18.23 points behind Chinese gold medalist Qi Guangpu but 1.36 ahead of the next-best aerialist, Belarus’ Maxim Gustik.

Qi won his second straight World title after placing fourth at the Sochi Olympics. The Olympic champion, Belarus’ Anton Kushnir, is reportedly sitting out this season due to injury.

The last time U.S. aerialists won multiple medals at a single Olympics or World Championships was 1999, when Eric Bergoust followed his 1998 Olympic gold with a World title and Joe Pack won bronze, three years before his Olympic silver. Nikki Stone won women’s bronze one year after her Olympic gold medal, too.

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