Q&A: Tess Johnson talks training rituals, future of skiing and advice to fans and younger self
Special to the Daily
On a Saturday evening this past May, The Inn at Riverwalk in Edwards hosted Tess Johnson, American freestyle moguls skier, for a Q&A and poster signing. Johnson is a resident Olympian for the inn.
Johnson was born and raised in the Vail Valley, and in 2014 she became the youngest moguls skier ever named to the United States national team. She competed for the United States Olympic Team in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and spent this past summer training with her team in Park City, Utah.
Just this weekend, she competed in the Moguls World Cup Ruka 2019, the first stop on the tour, which heads to China next. Johnson said on her Facebook page that she “took a little tumble” in the race, but praised three other U.S. Ski Team mogulwomen for their performances.
Now that we’re fully into the ski season, here is an introduction from Johnson and some highlights from the Q&A, with questions from Melinda Ferris, assistant general manager at The Inn at Riverwalk, along with a few questions from audience members:
“I started skiing right here in Beaver Creek with my parents at 2 years old. I don’t remember, but my parents tell me that I took to it right away, starting carving at a really young age. I remember just loving skiing, anything, the trees, moguls, in the park; I actually wanted to be a slopestyle skier, but when I was about 8 years old I was too young to compete, so my mom signed me up for the closest thing which was “bumps and jumps.” And I remember the first day, skiing pretty much all moguls, we lapped chair 10 in Vail, which is just moguls, and I remember skiing it probably ten times and loving it.
Pretty much the rest is history. I remember the next year I got into competing and decided that I wanted to go to the Olympics one day and represent the U.S. Ski Team. So, ever since I was probably 10 years old, mogul skiing has been the biggest part of my life, it’s my biggest passion, and in 6th grade I went to the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy; I graduated there last year. They help me achieve my dreams, along with my parents and my family and this entire community,” she said.
Melinda Ferris: After your initial introduction to mogul skiing, what would you say was your biggest challenge in getting to where you are, and what do you foresee being one of your biggest obstacles in the future?
Tess Johnson: I remember from my first competition, being really nervous in the start gate, and I think that is something I still struggle with today — the pressure of being up there before my competition run; knowing that everyone is watching me and that the only thing that determines my outcome is judges. And that’s a tough thing about mogul skiing is that it is a judged sport, and no matter how hard you work, and how much time you put into training, it all comes down to what you can do when it really counts. So that’s something that I’ve struggled with and still struggle with, but I think that with a lot of sports psychology and experience, I’ve gotten better at competing under pressure, and I think I have started to compete my best under pressure.
I think it’s always hard to remember that it’s not really the outcome that matters, it’s more the process, and my mom always tells me, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” and not to focus too much on the short term but in the long term everything will work out.
MF: How would you say you approach these high-pressure situations? What do you do to get ready and calm yourself down?
TJ: It’s definitely all mental; that’s what I’ve learned is that everything is mental. My whole game is what happens up here. But I think that what I do to prepare myself is just constantly remember that I love it, and that I do it because I love it. And sometimes that means taking a free ski run, or taking a run in the park and hitting some slopestyle jumps, or just going out and skiing with my family. Because I think it can get so serious — just training on a mogul course over and over again, and it can get really repetitive. I have definitely gotten frustrated doing the same thing over and over again, trying so hard to be perfect.
I think just keeping it light and remembering that I’m here to have fun, and mogul skiing is the most fun thing in my life. Also, I made the US Ski Team when I was 14 years old, so that was a really young age to be dealing with professional athletes and competing at a professional level, so I think I almost had to learn how to take control of my own career. I think I realized at a young age that no one else had control of my career but myself, and that was a really big turning point for me because I stopped relying on others so much and rather I used them as guides. And I think that’s something I remind myself and have to remind myself every day is that it’s all up to me and I can control whatever I want in my training.
MF: A big portion of your fan base is definitely kids and teens. What sort of advice would you share with them to help them achieve their dreams?
TJ: I think everyone’s path is different, so not everything is going to work for the same people. What worked for me was just remember that I love this sport and that I love skiing and being with my friends outside; so just remembering that it’s your passion, and the minute you stop loving it, find something else that you love, because your passion will drive you to your success. I truly believe that.
Also, I would say believe in yourself, first and foremost, because once you believe in yourself and have the confidence that you can do anything, others will start to follow.
Actually, when I made the team when I was 14 years old, it was definitely a bit of a controversy; not everyone thought that I should be on that team at such a young age. It was unprecedented; nothing like that had ever happened before, and people were questioning it, and I started to question myself because of that. But I quickly learned that that wasn’t going to do my any good, and I just continued to believe in myself and that I deserved everything that I earned up to that point, because I worked hard for it, and everyone started to follow in step as well. And I’m so grateful for the support that I have alongside me, from my family and my sponsors and my community, and I think that just stems from having confidence and believing in myself.
MF: When you travel around the world you have this unique opportunity to be in the public eye. Can you tell us about how you use your public platform and what community events you’re involved in and what organizations?
TJ: I have found a few local organizations that really speak true to my values. Girl PowHER is one of them, it’s affiliated with YouthPower365, it’s a really great program empowering girls physically, mentally and emotionally, and I’m really excited I’ve gotten to work with them a few times this past spring. That whole program just speaks to my values in encouraging girls, whether they are athletes or not, to just pursue their dreams and believe in themselves 100%.
I also work with a company from the city of Denver that promotes anti-underage marijuana use, because that’s something that is very close to my heart as an athlete. I definitely try to stay away from all types of substances that would inhibit my performance, so I promote that on social media as well.
MF: What changes do you hope to see in the competitive ski industry in 10 years?
TJ: I would really like to see more girls in freestyle skiing. I think freestyle skiing can be a little bit scary, to girls especially, because there’s a lot of flips and twists going on, a lot of risk taking, but I’d really like to see more girls join the sport in the future.
I’d also like to see our program, US National Moguls to win the Nations Cup next year; we were really close this past year, we came second to Canada, so I think we’re going to be working hard all summer.
Also, mogul skiing is a really small sport, so anyone who is interested in moguls or aerials or just loves skiing, moguls is an awesome outlet for that. It’s really fun, it’s a great community, so I’m just doing everything I can to grow that sport as well.
MF: What’s your favorite run on Vail Mountain and your favorite on Beaver Creek Mountain?
TJ: My favorite run on Vail Mountain is Highline, Chair 10, it’s an awesome mogul run. And Beaver Creek, Coyote Glade, I skied that run over and over again as a kid.
MF: What do you eat for breakfast before a competition?
TJ: Scrambled eggs. I don’t like to eat a ton before I compete, I normally kind of snack throughout the day, whether it’s power bars or gummies, just because eating a lot makes my nervous stomach turn even more, so I’m more just snacking throughout the day.
MF: What do you do to calm your mind in the start gate?
TJ: I do a lot of deep breathing and mindfulness — just trying to stain the moment and embrace it.
MF: What was the highlight of your career so far?
TJ: It was actually skiing in the Olympics, one run particularly though, it was a two-run qualification format, so I had two opportunities to qualify. I missed my first run, I completely blew it, so I had to do really well on my second run, and I qualified in first after that run. It was probably the best feeling I’ve had in my career, just the feeling of redemption and knowing that I could do it when it really, really mattered at the highest level of mogul skiing possible.
MF: If you have a day off to spent here in your home town, what would you do?
TJ: Well if it was in the winter I would probably ski Vail with my family. If it was in the summer, I’m actually starting to pick up mountain biking, so mountain biking and if it’s sunny tanning with my sister. Pretty much anything outside, I love being home.
MF: What advice would you give yourself as a very young skier? What do you wish you would have known when you were younger?
TJ: That the world won’t end if I do bad in a race. I definitely used to think that the world was going to end if I did poorly or if I failed, but it doesn’t.