BONGPYEONG, South Korea – Casey Andringa couldn’t really believe it was real.
At the top of the super final of six skiers, the Boulder-born moguls skier moved into the starting gate, saw his friends and family raging down below and started to chuckle.
“That was everything I could have ever wanted right there,” said the 22-year-old Vail-trained moguls skier who wasn’t even on the U.S. Ski Team this time last year and, according to his coach, “threaded a needle in a hurricane” to reach the Olympics.
Yet there he was. The only American in the final six. He dreamed his entire life of skiing in the Olympics. An Olympic medal dangled within his grasp. So … why not try a trick he’s never thrown before? Why not try the hardest run he’s ever thrown down?
(For those uninitiated in the moguls world, that’s not how it works. Skiers only throw tricks they have practiced over and over before bringing them to a competition. And a super final at the Olympics – the biggest contest in all of mogul skiing – is not a common spot to test a new trick.)
“But I knew that if I wanted to get on the podium, I was going to have to land that trick. Right there, I said screw it, I’m going for it,” he said.
He reached for the truck driver grab - that’s a hand grabbing each ski — right in the middle of his already ridiculously difficult corked 1080. He touched his butt down a bit on the landing. In an Olympic super final, that mistake can’t get a medal. He ended up fifth. The best finish for an American man in an Olympic moguls competition since 2010. He couldn’t have been happier.
“It was definitely the hardest run I've ever thrown. And I knew it was going to take that and I’d rather go for it and go for broke and miss it than just lay one up and be sitting in fourth because I had more to give,” he said.
Andringa came to South Korea and quickly was mesmerized by the Olympics, captivated by its spell of severity.
“I felt like I had to feel a certain way, like I had to be moved by every single second of it and I have to feel this seriousness and intensity just pouring through me,” he said.
So when Riley Campbell, his longtime coach at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, suggested two days ago that he needed a break, he jumped in a car with his brother Jesse and a bunch of friends and they had a big night in Seoul. They ate - his favorite new dish, which he only described as a "cheese river" — and laughed and joked. It was fun.
“It just bought back that lightheartedness. That’s why I ski moguls. I love skiing bumps, but it’s about the people and the culture and the places I get to go and I was starting to lose sight of that,” he said, describing how the city trip two days before the biggest competition of his life helped him refocus. “I woke up this morning and was like that's what I want to do. I want to have fun. I decided then and there that my goal I had for today was to have as much fun as possible and ski as many moguls runs as I could.”
Andringa wasn’t on the mogul world’s radar a year ago. He set out to change that last summer, camping in the woods for two months outside Steamboat Springs with his brother, living a simple life and focusing on training on Steamboat’s water ramps, working out, going to bed early and eating right.
Jesse, himself a world-class moguls skiers, said they didn’t talk about the Olympics.
“But it was in the back of our heads and that’s kind of what drove us every day,” Jesse said. “the thought that Casey might make the Olympics pushed us to work out harder than we’ve ever worked out, train harder than we’ve ever trained. But I don’t think either of us thought we’d be sitting here right now.”
In December, Andringa won six runs in a row at U.S. Ski Team selection event at Winter Park, an unprecedented streak that continued right up to Monday night’s Olympic super final in South Korea.
It’s Campbell who called Andringa’s journey from that camper to the Olympics “threading the eye of the needle in a hurricane.” And it’s Campbell who Andringa says is most responsible for his performance on Monday, which included dominating runs in the first two finals to reach the third showdown with the world’s top moguls skiers. (Canadian mogul legend Mikael Kingsbury won gold, Australian Matt Graham won silver and Japan’s Daichi Hara won bronze.)
“Having Riley here … I think that is probably why I did well today,” Andringa said.
That is all part of the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail plan. As the club neared an Olympic year, they saw so many of their athletes contending for the PyeongChang Olympics, including Emerson Smith, Morgan Schild and Tess Johnson. So the club’s freestyle program director John Dowling, who coached Campbell back in the day, made sure either he or Campbell could be a part of U.S. Ski Team training camps. They went to Squaw and Austria and Switzerland with the team, working with U.S. Ski Team coaches to help support the team’s newest members from Vail.
Dowling said he wanted to keep support structures intact for young athletes who were adjusting to the elite level programs of the U.S. Ski Team. He and Campbell had been working with Andringa, Schild, Smith and Johnson for several years. So why not join U.S. Ski Team coaches to ease the transition a bit?
“We saw the importance of this year where the athletes were going to need all the help they could get,” said Dowling, whose program yielded four PyeongChang Olympians.
“We want to make sure our guys are supported and well taken care of so we could get as many as we could in the Olympics and that was our goal and we definitely achieved it,” Campbell said.
Campbell came to South Korea not as a formal coach. He had to buy tickets to events. But he posts up on the fence, where his skiers stop for advice and support. He works closely with U.S. Ski Team coaches. He’s got a radio and helps them however he can. His relationship with his skiers is key. In his bag, he’s got a satchel of crystals and a Matchbox car. Before each contest, just as they have for years, his skiers play with the crystals and run the car along their arms and over their helmets.
“That’s part of my touch as coach. Just having a little humor in it basically. Just some tradition and relics, almost to give it a little levity and keep it light,” said Campbell, posted up on the fence among the spectators.