Jon Olsson leans on his poles in the finish area in Park City, Utah. After some strong skiing earlier in the day, he feels confident about the upcoming results. That confidence is evident in his face as he chats with friends and chuckles at the random passersby who stop to shout their support into his personal videographer's camera. Jon grabs an official results sheet and high-fives his buddies in obvious elation at his sixteenth-place finish. Those who know Jon would have trouble believing that Jon could be happy with a sixteenth-place finish, but then again, those who know Jon would have trouble believing that he's wearing a skin-tight spandex suit with short and his boots are clicked into short, shaped GS skis. But one doesn't wear fur-lined hoods or twintips when one is racing in a Rocky Mountain Trophy Series FIS race.
It's all part of Jon's most recent career move. After an almost ten-year hiatus, Jon Olsson is getting back in the race course to find out what he's really made of, and maybe to vie for Olympic gold.
Given Jon's credentials, the phrase "16th place" sounds like a typo. Anything off the podium sounds odd, for that matter. His nine X Games podiums include gold medals in both big air (2008) and SuperPipe (2002). He has won gold in both halfpipe (2002) and slopestyle (2007) at the US Open, another event where Jon has medaled eight times. Olsson is a threat in any contest he enters, and has earned a distinct reputation for perfection. "As judges, we've always thought Jon made it look too easy," says X Games Head Judge Josh Loubek. "You kind of wonder, is it easier for Jon than others?"
Is it? In addition to winning him piles of gold, silver, and bronze, the tricks of Olsson's trade have often dictated the future of freestyle skiing. At the 2005 US Open Big Air, competitors marveled at his newfound ability to do switch 1080s in both directions. Today, spinning both ways is a prerequisite for the finals round at every major slopestyle. In 2006, Olsson's new kangaroo flip (a double rodeo 900) won at his own contest, the Jon Olsson Invitational, and cemented his reputation as a trick inventor. Prior to Jon's learning them, the new school skiing community maligned double flips as being aerialist tricks, not steezy enough to be worth learning. Now, several of the sport's top young guns, including Jacob Wester and Jossi Wells, have doubles as their go-to big air trick.
Jon spent the early days of his ski career running gates at a Swedish race academy. As a young racer, freestyle never occurred to him as more than a hobby: "From 10 years of age, I was convinced I was going to win the Olympics in racing." He won the 1997 Swedish National Championships in giant slalom. In 1999, he joined the Swedish national team and won the slalom and placed third in the super g at the National Championships.
In the same year, Jon won The Jump, a big air contest in Åre, Sweden, and finished third amid a world-class field at The King of the Hill big air in Riksgränsen, Sweden. His success in these freestyle events came at a time when ski companies were scrambling for poster children to lead them into a new, fast-growing part of skiing. Jon began receiving entreaties from his sponsors that he leave racing and dedicate all his time to freestyle. Gym and gates, or jumps and powder? Most teenagers wouldn't need a second thought. As Jon says, "Before I knew it, I was getting paid to ski pow, so it was not really a hard decision for me."
After years at the top of freestyle, Jon has decided to look for a new challenge—or, more correctly, resurrect and old one. He is returning to ski racing this year, and plans to participate in as many FIS-sanctioned ski races as he can while concurrently fulfilling his duties as a freestyle icon. What's the point? Jon's ski racing this winter marks the beginning of a very ambitious gambit to earn a spot on the 2014 Swedish Olympic team. But a guy who has won everything there is to win in freestyle won't stop there. Jon Olsson says of competing in the 2014 Olympics, "The more I race, the more I realize that I will not be happy with just making it. I like winning. And even if it is a [crazy] goal that is what I will be going for."
Harald Harb, a race coach who has worked with a host of successful American racers including Tommy Moe, doesn't find Jon's goal so crazy. "Jon showed me he has the natural ability and skiing skills to progress rapidly in ski racing," says Harb. Jon's performance with him in training sessions and FIS races last December have convinced Harb that, "In three years Jon can be skiing World Cup."
Will Jon's Olympic dream spell an exit from freestyle in the near future? "That is not happening," insists Olsson, "there is no way that I am leaving freestyle. I love it!" Jon admits that, as his racing progresses, he will have to make some sacrifices in freestyle. But he maintains that he will not sacrifice the non-racing components of skiing and become a "machine" in order to achieve his racing goals. Rather, Jon wants racing success to complement his identity as a "complete skier" to which he thusly alludes: "The year I go to the Olympics, I want to be able to still do double flips, and ski an AK line."
That ambition might betray hubris, or naïveté, on Jon's part. As the most established branch of competitive skiing, alpine racing has evolved to the point where tiny fractions of a second often separate first and fourth. Over the sport's many decades, no one has ever achieved significant success without giving one hundred percent. While Harb compliments Jon's racing ability, he stops far short of AK lines and double flips. Despite Jon's promise, Harb says that "He is way behind the skiers he has to beat," and that, to make it onto the World Cup, "Jon will have to give up his freestyle competitions and take on racing with full fury."
"At his age, [Jon] needs a very directed and focused coaching program," says Harb. While he hasn't ruled out the prospect of bringing on a full-time coach, Jon is, at least for this season, flying solo. Speaking further of a concurrent freestyle career, Harb notes that "[Jon's] greatest liability for this season is training volume, both physical training and skiing." He says that Jon must "change his training completely," and that "he will need to gain ten to fifteen pounds of muscle on his legs, butt, and lower back." Jon admits that his freestyle career stands in the way of that: "It's really hard to work out while traveling, so that will be more of a mission for the summer."
Perhaps Jon's won't wear an Olympic medal while double flipping into couloirs. But that doesn't mean he won't wear an Olympic medal. Harb says that Jon must "catch up quickly, by being technically more mature and developed than his competition." Jon has thrived on technical maturity throughout his freestyle career. His recent growth to 180 pounds from a boyish 165-pound build is evidence that he's taking ski racing seriously. And his jump from starting 80th to finishing 16th (in which his second-run time was the fastest of the day) at Park City's FIS GS in January shows that there is a racer in Jon Olsson. If Jon fully devotes himself to ski racing at the Olympic level, the question of whether he can will be irrelevant. He can. The only question that remains is that of whether he will.