PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Tess Johnson said she isn’t surprised that she’s competing in the Olympics as a 17-year-old.
She said she’s always believed that she could make it to this stage as a high school senior.
But now that it’s reality, she’s shocked.
“It’s kind of one of those things that you don’t think is actually going to happen until it’s happening,” she said after practice here Wednesday night. “So I’m still kind of in shock about the whole thing, but I’m just trying to stay in the moment and enjoy everything and just soak it all up.”
The Vail moguls skier began her Olympic competition Friday at the Bokwang Phoenix Park freestyle venue, competing in the qualification round. She finished 22nd out of 30 in Friday’s qualification, making a mistake on the landing of her top air.
“It was amazing,” she said after her run Friday. “I was pretty nervous and I made a few mistakes in my run after the top air, which I think reflected those nerves, but I still had a lot of fun.”
She didn’t automatically advance to finals — the top 10 skiers Friday did — but she’ll have another shot at qualification on Sunday. She’ll need to place in the top 10 of the remaining 20 unqualified skiers on Sunday.
“It wasn’t until I pulled into the start gate and saw all these people,” she said. “No one ever comes to qualifications, much less finals, at a mogul event. So to see this it was cool, but also my stomach dropped. It was a good kind of nervous, though, because it’s the Olympics. Nothing comes close to that.”
Johnson’s longtime Ski and Snowboard Club Vail coach Riley Campbell said she’ll have a chance to reassess and tune up her approach Saturday before competing Sunday.
“Then she’s got to come out and be in the top 10 on the next day which is going to be very doable for her,” he said. “So I’m not worried about it at all.”
Her family — mom Carol, dad T.J., sister Anabel and brother Tommy — arrived from Vail to cheer her on. It’s probably the first time in four or five years that both parents and both siblings have watched her compete, Tess said.
“It’s spectacular,” T.J. Johnson said. “It’s overwhelming. We’re super happy for Tess. And of course very, very proud of her. Honestly, especially when she doesn’t have her best run and she still comes with a big smile and happy and ready to go back and get it again in a couple of days.”
The Vail community rallied to help send the family, exceeding a GoFundMe goal of $15,000 within days. A well-attended fundraiser at Ein Prosit late last month raised even more. Anabel designed “Team Tess” hats, produced by local company Ski Town All Stars, while businesses around the valley donated items for a silent auction.
“Such a great place to live,” T.J. Johnson said. “Such caring people.”
Tess, who attends Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy in Minturn, has already helped her high school soccer team, Vail Mountain School, win two state titles. But skiing has raised her achievements to a completely new level.
“This is insane,” she said. “I feel like being part of the Olympics is something bigger than all of us — bigger than the sport, bigger than our country. An event that brings together countries and cultures from all over.”
Campbell is at the venue thanks to his coaching of Casey Andringa, another moguls athlete. That’s a special bonus for Johnson. Campbell has been her coach since she was in the seventh grade.
Campbell said Johnson — one of six 17-year-olds on the U.S. Olympic Team — is handling her Olympic debut with poise.
“She’s really come at this with some maturity, and in a lot of ways it’s just business as usual,” he said. “I think she’s enjoying the Olympic experience a lot but on the hill. It feels just like any other event.”
Johnson and her teammates arrived last week. They are among the very first to compete in these Winter Olympics. The qualification round was actually before the Opening Ceremonies itself.
Perhaps the Opening Ceremonies is when Tess — and her whole family, who will also attend — realizes that, yes, this is really happening.
“Everyone says that’s when it really hits you, that you’re an Olympian and you’re at the Olympics,” she said. “I’m just so excited.”