The inspiring story behind aerial skier Jon Lillis and his special Olympic uniform

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Mikey’s initials are still inside the collar of the suit. When Jon Lillis’ mom shipped it to him, the equipment handlers stripped away the patches, the sponsor labels, all the trimmings of an aerial jumper’s uniform. Everything except the initials.

When it comes to Mikey, nothing is too trivial. Jon wears his shoes every day. He wore a pendant with his ashes to the Opening Ceremonies of the PyeongChang Games. And at the Olympic aerials competition Sunday night, he donned the suit that Mikey Lillis, his little brother, wore last year before he died in his sleep at 17, the cause still unknown.

“Pretty much everything I have done the last few months,” Lillis said, “is just trying to keep him close to me.”

It would be trite to say that Lillis was jumping for Mikey, because he was jumping for so much more: for his family, for Upstate New York, for his country, for himself. And yet when Lillis found out the U.S. team would be wearing the color hyper blue in the Olympics, the first thing he thought about was the Columbia suit he’d given Mikey as a hand-me-down and how cool it would be to wear it at Phoenix Snow Park as he tried to win Olympic gold.

That didn’t happen. Despite qualifying with the best jump, Lillis botched his second-round effort and finished eighth. Which was fine, of course, because this was the Olympics, and he was here, and that was enough.

“If you asked anyone at the end of October what they thought my year was going to be like, they might say I would have a downward spiral, and I wouldn’t be here, and I would have been too sad to go out and do this,” Lillis said. “I think that the fact I just came out here and I gave it my all is something I can go home and be really proud of.”

Aerials is a fickle sport, as elite jumpers slide down a 50-foot in-run, launch off a ramp 60 feet into the air, flip three times, twist four and sometimes five times, and attempt to land cleanly on a hill below. Tiny drafts of wind wreak havoc. Crashes shred ligaments and splinter bones. At the bottom of the hill Sunday stood Chris Lillis, Jon’s other little brother, still recovering from a torn ACL.

The three Lillis brothers were aerial marvels, always judging one another’s jumps, even as Jon traveled the globe on the World Cup tour. He had pared back his daring instinct in recent years, focusing more on technique, honing his jumps enough that at 23 years old, he placed first at last year’s aerials world championship.

Before Chris blew out his knee, the plan was for him and Jon to participate in PyeongChang, then for Mikey to join them in Beijing four years from now. Then came Oct. 21. Mikey never woke up. Jon and Chris were training in Switzerland and rushed home. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t.

“Sometimes life really sucks. A lot,” Lillis said. “But even when you’re down at the lowest you can get, there’s always things that you’re passionate about that you can use as a ladder to kind of pull yourself out of those dark moments. And that’s what’s really important. That’s what I’d say to anybody in any situation if you’re in the bottom of yourself and the worst time in your life. Just find that thing. And aerials is that for me.”

Jon Lillis in his special uniform. (Getty)

The level of aerials Sunday enthralled Lillis. He loves watching jumps, understanding their aerodynamic eminence. Because he qualified with the best jump the day before, he went last in the first round – and with nine competitors sticking their jumps and only nine advancing to the second round, he couldn’t play safe, so he went with his back full-double full-full: a flip and a twist followed by a flip with two twists punctuated by a flip and a twist.

He nailed the jump, made the first cut and readied for an even harder jump, switching the last two elements and ending with the double twist. His speed down the hill lagged. His launch was iffy. His knees bent in the air, an absolute no-no, and his legs split. Even though he landed cleanly, judges docked him significantly. His score of 95.47 lagged more than 30 points behind his best qualifying jump. He didn’t get a third jump.

Which is a shame, because Lillis was going to try a quint – five twists in one jump. He never had hit one before. So why try it? It’s the Olympics, he said.

Mikey would’ve loved it here. He was a huge Buffalo Bills fan and acted like one, which is to say he’d have been the loudest and proudest at the bottom of the hill. Small pieces of him were there – in the pendants his family members wore, in the suit Lillis wore, in the hearts and minds of those for whom a day doesn’t go by without them missing him.

He’ll continue to be with them as Chris’ ACL heals, as Jon perfects those quadruple-twisting jumps and adds the quint to his repertoire, as Beijing beckons and the United States looks to one family for its first aerials medal since 2010.

“Team Lillis will keep going,” Lillis said, “and four years from now, it’ll be a whole different story, and we’ll be out here trying to kick some ass.”

More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Ligety’s son doesn’t care that ‘daddy sucked at work today’
• British short-track skater Christie doubtful for 1,000M after injuring ankle
• Wetzel: Nagasu was once an Olympian hidden in plain view
• Passan: Why Kenworthy’s celebratory kiss is kind of a big deal
• Olympian has sudden, surprising reunion with estranged mom

  • Duchess of Sussex's father releases her handwritten letters and details of first wedding in latest bid to reconcile
    News
    The Telegraph

    Duchess of Sussex's father releases her handwritten letters and details of first wedding in latest bid to reconcile

    When the Duchess of Sussex’s estranged father hoped to resume contact with her after he was caught colluding with the paparazzi, he claims he tried letters, text messages and family interventions to no avail. 

  • I'm A Celebrity 2018 final review: Tedious and unbearably predictable – Harry Redknapp makes for a fitting winner
    News
    The Independent

    I'm A Celebrity 2018 final review: Tedious and unbearably predictable – Harry Redknapp makes for a fitting winner

    Given how tediously, grindingly, unbearably predictable the whole proceedings have been, it was entirely fitting that I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out Here should be won by Harry Redknapp.

  • Strictly Come Dancing: Latest celebrity exit after dance-off with Ashley Roberts
    News
    PA Entertainment

    Strictly Come Dancing: Latest celebrity exit after dance-off with Ashley Roberts

    Roberts had been at the joint top of the leaderboard with Faye Tozer.

  • 'I can't breathe': Transcript of audio recording from Jamal Khashoggi's murder reportedly describes him gasping for air in his last moments
    News
    Business Insider UK

    'I can't breathe': Transcript of audio recording from Jamal Khashoggi's murder reportedly describes him gasping for air in his last moments

    Transcript of an audio recording from Jamal Khashoggi's brutal death reportedly describes him gasping for air in his final moments. A source, who was briefed on the investigation and read a translated transcript of the recording from the October 2 killing, told CNN that the audio suggested a carefully planned execution and not a botched interrogation as previously touted by the Saudis. The transcript also describes "sawing" and "cutting" that could be heard along with screaming.

  • Rivals clash in TV Brexit debate ahead of Commons showdown
    News
    PA Ready News UK

    Rivals clash in TV Brexit debate ahead of Commons showdown

    The debate was arranged after efforts to get Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to go head to head on screen collapsed.

  • Doctor Who season 12 will not debut until 2020, Jodie Whittaker will return
    News
    The Independent

    Doctor Who season 12 will not debut until 2020, Jodie Whittaker will return

    Jodie Whittaker will return as Doctor Who – but not until 2020. The eleventh series has come to an end with an episode that saw the eponymous time-traveller answering distress calls from a battle-scarred planet. Following the New Year’s Day special, Whittaker – along with her trio of companions, played by Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gil and Tosin Cole – will reprise their roles on BBC One in 2020.

  • Brexit has been a load of nonsense so far – and it’s about to get a whole lot worse
    News
    The Independent

    Brexit has been a load of nonsense so far – and it’s about to get a whole lot worse

    Whatever else can be said of Brexit, I thank it for this. After decades of regret about never having taken acid, it gives some sort of insight into the hallucinogenic experience. – Penny Mordaunt, now international development secretary but then armed forces minister, went to Somalia a couple of years ago packing a piece.

  • Labour ready to form government on Wednesday if PM deal rejected
    News
    Sky News

    Labour ready to form government on Wednesday if PM deal rejected

    Jeremy Corbyn is ready to take over as prime minister of a minority government on Wednesday morning if MPs reject Theresa May's Brexit deal, Labour has told Sky News. A party spokesperson vowed to "reset" negotiations with Brussels and "take the country forward" should the prime minister be defeated in parliament. It came as Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng insisted the crunch vote would go ahead on Tuesday, amid reports it could be pulled to spare the government a large loss.

  • News
    Sky News

    Harry Potter star Rupert Grint says 'I couldn't guess how much money I have'

    Actor Rupert Grint has said he has no idea how much money he has earned and is not really motivated by money - despite being said to be worth £28m. The Harry Potter star told The Radio Times he couldn't even begin to guess, other than knowing he was "comfortable". The 30-year-old appeared as Ron Weasley in eight full-length Harry Potter feature films as well as accompanying games.

  • Barbara Corcoran explains why she secretly 'couldn't wait' for Fridays — the day she fired people
    News
    Business Insider UK

    Barbara Corcoran explains why she secretly 'couldn't wait' for Fridays — the day she fired people

    As the head of The Corcoran Group, which she sold in 2001 for $66 million, Corcoran ran a "mean and lean" business by not being scared to fire underperformers. When Barbara Corcoran headed The Corcoran Group, her New York real-estate firm, she secretly loved Fridays — but not for the reason you might think.

  • SantaCon 2018: Thousands join festive pub crawl in Father Christmas fancy dress
    Yahoo News UK

    SantaCon 2018: Thousands join festive pub crawl in Father Christmas fancy dress

    Thousands of festive revellers got into the Santa spirit this weekend during the global ‘SantaCon’ fancy dress pub crawl. The annual boozy gathering sees crowds of drinkers – all dressed as Father Christmas – descend on city centres worldwide. SantaCon London, which raised cash for the ‘Christmas for Kids’ charity, saw Santas parade through the capital before the traditional end point at Trafalgar Square. There were also SantaCon parades in Glasgow, Madrid, New York, and Los Angeles.

  • Norway plus would unite Britain: leavers and remainers both hate it
    News
    The Guardian

    Norway plus would unite Britain: leavers and remainers both hate it

    ‘Norway Plus would guarantee frictionless trade across the English Channel. If we assume the government does go ahead with the vote on its Brexit deal this week – and loses it – the so-called Norway plus is being pushed as an alternative model. Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland comprise the European Free Trade Association (Efta).

  • Stranger Things season 3: Everything we know so far from cast and plot to spoilers
    News
    The Independent

    Stranger Things season 3: Everything we know so far from cast and plot to spoilers

    It feels like we’ve been waiting forever for a return to Hawkins, Indiana. Unfortunately, there’s still longer to wait, as season three of Stranger Things will debut outside of its usual Halloween slot.

  • SpaceX Christmas delivery arrives at space station
    News
    PA Ready News World

    SpaceX Christmas delivery arrives at space station

    Nasa called off the cargo capsule’s first approach because of trouble with the communication network.

  • May faces Commons showdown as leadership rivals circle
    News
    PA Ready News UK

    May faces Commons showdown as leadership rivals circle

    Prime Minister Theresa May held talks with leaders from the EU and Ireland on Sunday as she battled to save her Brexit plan and her premiership.

  • News
    Sky News

    Transgender boxer Patricio Manuel makes history with fight and says: 'It was worth everything I went through'

    American super-featherweight Patricio Manuel won his bout against Mexican Hugo Aguilar with a unanimous judges' decision. Manuel, from Los Angeles, said: "I wouldn't trade any of it. Manuel was cheered on by nearly 70 friends and family members in Indio, California.

  • Waterfowl Fly Across Lubbock Lake After Heavy Snowfall
    Storyful

    Waterfowl Fly Across Lubbock Lake After Heavy Snowfall

    Lubbock, Texas, saw heavy snowfall during the weekend of December 8, with at least 10 inches falling on the city, according to a report from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. This footage shows birds flying across a lake in Lubbock’s Leftwich Park. Credit: junyao.wang.888 via Storyful

  • Starwatch: a reliable show of shooting stars
    News
    The Guardian

    Starwatch: a reliable show of shooting stars

    The Geminids are one of the most reliable meteor showers of the year, with some 75 bright streaks an hour predicted to be visible from a dark site. Unlike most meteor showers, which come from comets, the Geminids originate from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon.

  • Dynasties, episode 5, review: Sir David Attenborough mixes cute presentation with hard facts about humanity
    News
    The Independent

    Dynasties, episode 5, review: Sir David Attenborough mixes cute presentation with hard facts about humanity

    As the title of Sir David Attenborough's latest series suggests, I suppose all natural history pretty much boils down to the creation and preservation of dynasties – survival of the fittest, and all that. Given that Attenborough celebrated his 92nd birthday this year, and that he has been roaming around the treacherous world of television, mostly unscathed, since 1954, he’s quite a fine example of Darwinist principles himself. One way in which he has managed to protect this branch of the Attenborough dynasty is by helping produce series such as Dynasties, which roars to its conclusion in the company of a majestic and endearing (for flesh-ripping alpha predators) tigers.

  • Grace Millane murder probe: ‘Digital vigil’ posted for missing British backpacker after body found
    News
    Evening Standard

    Grace Millane murder probe: ‘Digital vigil’ posted for missing British backpacker after body found

    A digital, worldwide tribute has been paid for missing British backpacker Grace Millane after a body was found believed to be her. Detectives investigating the murder of Ms Millane in New Zealand said they had found a body believed to be that of the 22-year-old on Sunday.

  • Boca Juniors Fans Sing on Packed Madrid Metro Ahead of Copa Libertadores Final
    Storyful

    Boca Juniors Fans Sing on Packed Madrid Metro Ahead of Copa Libertadores Final

    Boca Juniors soccer fans sang on the Madrid Metro on Sunday, December 8, as they prepared for the Copa Libertadores final against Buenos Aires rivals River Plate. Buenos Aires native Gabriel Faldutto posted footage to Twitter of a large group of Boca fans boarding a Metro train at the Plaza de Castilla station in Madrid. The rowdy fans then proceed to chant and cheer once the train departs. The Buenos Aires derby was postponed in November following an attack on the Boca team bus by River Plate fans. The game will instead take place at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Kickoff is at 7 pm. Credit: Gabriel Faldutto via Storyful

  • UK's Interserve in talks with lenders to convert debt to equity
    News
    Reuters

    UK's Interserve in talks with lenders to convert debt to equity

    "If implemented in this form, the deleveraging plan could result in material dilution for current Interserve shareholders," Interserve said. Proposals were also being discussed to amend Interserve's financing agreements, including extending the maturity dates of existing loans, it said. Support service companies have been under scrutiny in Britain with questions asked about whether private companies should be running essential public services after Carillion Plc collapsed in January, triggering Britain's biggest corporate failure in a decade and forcing the government to step in to guarantee public services from school meals to roadworks.

  • Gatwick 'signage' blamed as airliner takes off with dangerously little runway left
    News
    The Telegraph

    Gatwick 'signage' blamed as airliner takes off with dangerously little runway left

    Pilots have blamed “bad signage” at Gatwick Airport after nearly running out of runway while taking off.

  • News
    Business Insider UK

    Newtown shooter described 'scorn for humanity'

    Documents from the investigation into the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut are shedding light on the gunman's anger, scorn for other people, and deep social isolation in the years leading up to the shooting. The documents that a court ordered Connecticut State Police to release include several writings by Adam Lanza, who gunned down 20 children and six educators on Dec. 14, 2012. Lanza wrote in what appears to be an online communication with a fellow gamer: "I incessantly have nothing other than scorn for humanity," the Hartford Courant reported .