Tess Johnson talks about being left off of the 2022 U.S. Olympic Ski Team
‘This has been the two hardest days of my life,’ skier says
Tess Johnson had been waiting in a Park City hotel room for almost two days, a COVID-caused solitary confinement, when her phone rang at 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 17. It was her coach, Matt Gnoza. Considering her World Cup standing (fifth overall and the second American) and her recent string of top-five performances at the designated Olympic tryout events, including two podiums, Johnson assumed Gnoza would be bearing good tidings of great joy.
“I’ll be honest, I was confident,” Johnson said about waiting to find out if she would be named as the fourth member of the deep U.S. women’s mogul squad.
“I got my hopes up. My whole team — we were feeling really optimistic.”
Instead, Gnoza informed his pupil that the selection committee had rejected all of the petitions for nomination via discretionary methods. That meant the fourth spot would be filled by whomever had the higher FIS Points List ranking, which was Kai Owens.
“This has been the two hardest days of my life and with every passing minute it’s only gotten harder,” Johnson revealed.
“I’m devastated. I’ve worked really, really hard for this. And my team has worked really, really hard for this. To be met with this decision is just crushing. I feel shattered,” Johnson said.
While the first three slots for Beijing were determined by objective criteria, the U.S. Olympic criteria states that “any remaining quota slots will be evaluated under the discretionary selection procedures.”
Pertinent to Johnson’s situation, according to the 21-year-old, is the fact that the document goes on to state that after discretionary cases are considered, any remaining spots will be filled going back to the FIS Points list.
“(The selection committee) told me they decided to use their criteria instead of discretion, but what I think is important to realize, and something I’ve realized by painfully reading the transcription of what happened in that meeting, is that they used their discretion right there to make that choice between accepting a self-nomination or using their criteria,” Johnson explained.
“So discretion was in fact used, just sadly, not to my advantage.”
Johnson was not present at the apparently emotional and lengthy selection committee Zoom meeting which took place before the Gnoza phone call. As for why her petition was rejected, she was told at one point that her resume was just not compelling enough.
“You can imagine that was a tough pill to swallow,” she said. By the U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s own definition, discretionary athletes needed to ”either clearly demonstrate the ability to produce a medal winning result or have demonstrated future medal potential by achieving one of the following criteria: one top eight result within the last 24 months at a FIS World Cup or a top 20 world ranking in the last 24 months.“ With four top-five World Cup finishes in the last two months alone, one can understand Johnson’s bewilderment at the reasoning. She is also the number one American on the most current Olympic Winter Games 2022 Allocation List for freestyle skiing.
After making the original call on Jan. 17, U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s committee reconvened the following evening (ironically, right around the time the Vail Daily published its first story announcing the team) but didn’t budge.
“They came to the same decision, unanimously, twice,” said Johnson, who started an official appeal process shortly the first meeting, but, as of this writing, had elected to end those efforts.
“In the end, my chances were too small for the pain it would cause,” she said about dropping the appeal.
“And I fought as hard as I could, and I think it was the right thing to do to pursue that appeal, but in the end, I’m choosing to start healing,” she said.
Looking back and moving forward
“I want to first and foremost say that everything I have said and will continue to say is only a reflection of my own experience,” Johnson stated before graciously and transparently expressing her thoughts.
“It has really nothing to do with the women who did get nominated to the team. And I know that might sound crazy because our fates are intertwined and we were competing against each other but I really have nothing but respect and love for the women that are going to China, and I will be rooting them on because its more important to me to stay aligned to my values as a human being rather than a competitor.”
With the Olympic criteria known and understood by all of the athletes two years ago, even with the emphasis on all results — even dual moguls — Johnson wouldn’t change anything about her approach to the previous 24 months.
“I’m not bitter about this part of the situation because that’s what our sport is, and the reality is past results mattered for this Olympics,” she said, noting that in the Deer Valley, Utah dual event won by Owens in Feb. 2021, she was also on the podium and barely lost to her SSCV teammate in the round of four.
“Whether that’s right or wrong – I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. But, that is the fact, and I still have absolutely no regrets over the past two years. I’ve been working my hardest for the past two years, every single day. And I’m proud of what I accomplished. No regrets at all.”
Still, the SSCV athlete felt compelled to strive for some level of reform to the system, stating on Instagram, “I’m doing everything I can to make sure no athlete is made to feel this way again.”
While she intends to continue avoiding the political nature inherent to this aspect of her sport, she elaborated on the intent behind her statement, saying, “What I meant by that was that I was exploring a grievance case. And I suppose I always knew, even from the beginning, that my chances of winning that were slim, but I guess it was the principle of hopefully showing U.S. Ski and Snowboard the pain that this has caused and that I hope no athlete should feel this way again.”
Of particular frustration to Johnson was the manner in which the news was delivered to her.
“The decision and politics aside completely – I think something else that has contributed to the heartbreak was the very corporate way this decision was communicated to me,” she said.
“I think it speaks volumes to the mental health in sports movement. Something that (U.S. Ski and Snowboard) said to me in one of those conversations was that they’re an athlete first organization and they pride themselves on that. And, while I think sometimes that is true, I would encourage them and all sports organizations across the country to be a person-first organization.”
As far as the qualifying process itself, Johnson prefers the method used in 2018, where individual moguls results from the seven designated qualifying events were used to determine the team.
“You’re always going to have tough cases and there is always room for controversy, but I think that that gives us the best chance of sending our best skiers,” she explained.
The calculations behind the present system, according to Johnson, grant athletes the opportunity to qualify early in order to spend more time focusing on medaling at the Games instead of just qualifying.
“I understand the logic behind that, but I don’t think it works,” she said.
“I think that no matter what, if you’re preparing to qualify for the Olympics, you’re preparing to win the Olympics. So, I don’t think switching the criteria helped us too much in that regard. It’s tough though. I understand that it’s tough.”
Even though the one heading to China is a close teammate in Owens, the close-knit culture of the team hasn’t fully dulled the pain.
“It’s hard to find the words,” she sighed when asked about how the friendship with her teammates has impacted her handling of the situation.
“I wrote an Instagram post, trying to speak my truth as best as possible while holding a high level of integrity and the response that I got was overwhelming. And I have to say a lot of messages really did lift my spirits, but I couldn’t help but think about my teammates as a lot of those messages came in and it brought me more pain, honestly, because of the controversy of this decision and the criteria that was written,” she stated.
“And I just hope my teammates know how much I do love them and support them. I think that at the end of the day, if you look at us as skiers and people, we’re all deserving of Olympic spots. We all are. Which is what makes this so tough. But I have all of them in my heart throughout this process and I know that they have me in their hearts, too.”
Moving forward, Johnson still has a lot to ski for. In addition to chasing the overall World Cup globe, she is also the alternate for the Beijing team, meaning she will likely be headed to China in case someone were to contract COVID-19. If she’s there, she’ll isolate in a hotel room and wait for another phone call again — this time for over two weeks instead of two days.
“I would absolutely jump at the opportunity to compete,” she said.
“Talk about fighting to the bitter end — I want to fight for myself if that’s what it looks like.”