The Estonian Freestyle Skier Everyone Should Root For

What if Nadia Comaneci tore her ACL five months before the 1976 Olympics?

As part of my non-Gymnastics coverage of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, I profiled Russian high jumper Maria Lasitskene. At the 2022 Winter Olympics there is an athlete with a remarkably similar story who I feel is as equally as compelling. Like Maria, she also hails from an ex-Soviet country. Like Maria, she is considered one of the most talented athletes in the history of her event. Like Maria, she was supposed to make her Olympic debut in the previous quad but was denied the opportunity to do so. And like Maria, the current Olympics will be her redemption to earn the gold medal she was unfairly denied just four years prior.

Kelly Sildaru is a name not many outside the skiing world are familiar with, but it is my opinion that the 2018 Olympics without Kelly Sildaru were empty in the very same way women’s gymnastics circa 1984 was empty without the presence of Olga Mostepanova. In 2018 Kelly Sildaru wasn’t just the obvious choice for a gold medal, she was going to be a gamechanger in the way Nadia was in 1976.

Sildaru was slated to make her Olympic debut in 2018 at just 15 years old. Whereas child prodigies are the norm in sports like figure skating and gymnastics, in Kelly’s sport they are practically unheard of. From its Olympic debut in 1992 through the 2018 Olympics, the average age of all Olympic Freestyle Skiers was 24 years old. At the 2018 Olympics women who won a medal in Freestyle Skiing had the following age demographics.

-26% were 28 years or older

-33% were 26 years or older

-66% were 25 years or older

Kelly was a massive statistical outlier in her sport that when put into a gymnastics context, it would be like watching a 12-year old hold her own against the top seniors. When she was only seven years old Sildaru had secured the support of K2 Skis, one of the largest equipment brands in the skiing industry. Sildaru’s training runs would be featured regularly on K2’s YouTube channel and slowly documented the rise of the promising young novice.

Kelly Sildaru at age 6

Even as a 9-year old in a relatively obscure sport, and despite her status as a European, the biggest American sports media company ESPN had begun covering the Sildaru hype. By the time Kelly was ten years old Nike, Red Bull and K2 had topped the long list of sponsors willing to align with her. One ski magazine called Kelly Sildaru “one of the most famous skiers in the world” and placed her on their list of “The twenty best skiers 18 and under.” Not only did the 10-year old Kelly Sildaru make the list, she was the only athlete included that was outside the 16-18 age bracket.

Note: At #2 on this list was a 17-year old Mikaela Shiffrin.

By this point, the 10-year old Sildaru had a sponsorship income and a skill composition (900 mute) that exceeded most of the top athletes in her sport. She was also beating competitors twice her age in the competitions Sildaru attended. Kelly was too young to compete in the European Winter X Games, but she was invited to recreationally ski the course. Imagine Viktoria Listunova being invited to podium training at the 2017 World Championships because people had so much confidence she’d be a breakout star in the near future.

Kelly Sildaru at age 10 “testing” the European Winter X-Games despite being too young to compete.

It makes little sense that freestyle skiing of all sports would produce such a compelling child prodigy. Besides the demographical obstacles which dictates that Freestyle Skiing is not a sport led by young athletes, there is also the risks involved. The type of fearlessness and mental strength to perform the stunts Kelly has learned at her age takes a sort of composure that even a veteran Olympic gymnast would respect.

Unlike gymnastics, Kelly Sildaru is performing these stunts with a couple pounds of equipment attached to her ankles. While packed snow is not as brutal as concrete, it is far less forgiving than the mats seen in your typical gym. If the stunts Kelly Sildaru is performing already looks impressive enough where she appears to go 10+ feet in the air, the amount of landing force required to go even 10 inches in the air results in a landing far more impactful than what one would expect.

When Kelly Sildaru turned 13 and was able to compete in major competitions for the first time, things went exactly how one would expect. In her first appearance Kelly became the youngest gold medalist in X-Games history, taking a record that had previously been held by Chloe Kim. It was noted by local media that Sildaru was “beating athletes who had been competing for as many years as she has been alive.”

But Kelly also became the first ever from her country to win a medal at the Winter X-Games.

Kelly competes in a mountain sport while being a citizen of one of the flattest countries in the world. The combination of Estonia and a famous skier makes about as much sense as a landlocked country becoming a naval power. Most Olympic-level skiers have a home mountain at least 3,000 feet in elevation, Kelly’s home “mountain” is only 300 feet. This absurd situation has given Sildaru a unique perspective within her sport.

Kelly once noted that never having the benefit of homefield advantage makes her more adaptive to foreign mountains. She never developed a comfort zone with one particular mountain, making her an athlete who doesn’t need a particular set of conditions to perform at her best. Kelly not only won in her first major competition, but had the highest score the sport had experienced in four years.

While Kelly’s point total would be lower in the following year, her margin of victory was actually twice as high. The concept of fluctuating scores in a judging based sport is something that gymnastics fans are more than capable of understanding.

The only thing next was the 2018 Olympics in what would be the third year of her storied career. Estonia only has four gold medals at the Winter Olympics in its entire history, and 14 gold medals in total. Sildaru was a gold medal favorite in one event, with decent podium prospects in another. Sildaru would have been Estonia’s first gold medalist at the Winter Olympics in a sport other than Cross-Country Skiing. And had she won two gold medals, Sildaru would have been responsible for 33% of all Winter Olympic medals in Estonian history, and 12.5% in all of its Olympic history.

But five months before the Olympics, Kelly Sildaru injured her ACL and all of her Olympic aspirations were put on hold. But Kelly has a trait that is common amongst dominant athletes and especially young dominant athletes. They possess humility to a fault and remaining positive regardless of circumstance. The following two quotes were posted to Sildaru’s social media as she dealt with the fallout of her injury.

“Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines”

“Happiness is a direction, not a place”

Kelly Sildaru shares numerous similarities with Nadia-1976. The raw physical talent, the success at an absurdly young age, but perhaps most strikingly, what they represented for their respective sport. Gymnastics can trace its Olympic history all the way back to 1928, but Nadia competed it what was essentially the 2nd Olympic quad of the “Korbut era.” Where dare devil tricksters and acrobatic stunts brought a new dimension to the sport that allowed for its explosion in popularity. The monumental gains gymnastics achieved in the 1970s was in large part thanks to the routines themselves being such a fundamentally new concept.

In 2018 Freestyle Skiing was much the same way. Freestyle Skiing has been an Olympic sport since 1992, but Kelly Sildaru represents a new version of the sport that has virtually no connection to its previous history. In 2018 Sildaru was looking to compete in two events that only made their Olympic debut in 2014. In many ways, Freestyle Skiing in 2018 found itself in much the same position women’s gymnastics was in circa 1976. All it needed was a stellar performance from an athlete who could take the popularity of the sport to the next level.

If gymnastics had lost Nadia-1976, who knows where the sport would be today? Would the absence of Nadia’s famed 1976 performances that were so critical to the future growth of women’s gymnastics create an alternative timeline where gymnastics is barely popular at all? That exact predicament is Freestyle Skiing’s exact dilemma when it lost Kelly-2018.

Freestyle Skiing has long tried to escape the shadows of its more famous sibling sports, Alpine Skiing (Mikaela Shiffrin) and Snowboarding (Chole Kim). The two sports are so easily capable of producing marketable stars, it appeared Freestyle Skiing had little chance of ever producing a comparable athlete. That was until Kelly Sildaru came along.

As soon as news of Sildaru’s injury broke, the numbers “2022” were widely repeated. And considering her talent, she’ll have a viable path towards 2026 as well. Kelly Sildaru lost an Olympics, but she’ll get it all back in future Olympic Games. But unlike the current and future Olympics, there was something inherently different about Kelly-2018.

Her young age.

It is a difficult conversation to have, largely because it is so unfair to the older athletes. In the eyes of fans and the media, a 15-year old athlete winning a gold medal with a score of 93.0 points will always be seen as more impressive than a 19-year old winning the same medal with the exact same score.

When the athlete is younger the general public is far more likely to become attached to their story. The success said athlete achieves is seen as more baffling the younger the athlete is. It resonates deeper with the audience when the athlete they are watching is younger. The bias in favor of younger athletes is as old as the Olympics itself. Nadia benefited from this trend. Her 14 years were as much of a contributing factor to the widespread popularity she achieved in 1976 as the Perfect 10 itself.

Kelly Sildaru will certainly get back the medals she lost out on in 2018. But she will only do so as a 19-year old, where her age won’t be viewed as a statistical outlier which has the effect of automatically triggering coverage amongst the mainstream media. That is the obstacle Kelly Sildaru will try to overcome in 2022. The athlete who should have gone down in 2018 as one of the all-time Olympic greats will make her debut in 2022. Sildaru is one of the safest bets for an Olympic gold medal, but now it is up to fate itself to determine if she will be viewed by the general public as just another Olympic medalist, or whether causal fans will come to learn her name and realize she’s one of the all-time greats.

That is the battle Kelly Sildaru must fight as she tries to take one of the less covered Olympic sports and be its first true superstar. When Kelly Sildaru missed the 2018 Olympics, she came back in 2019 and won a gold medal with 99 points. In the process nearly breaking Freestyle Skiing’s 100-point system by coming just shy of maxing it out in the same way Nadia maxed the 10.0 system. In an event finals with only eight competitors, Kelly’s margin of victory over 2nd place was larger than the gap between 2nd and 5th place.

Kelly Sildaru may very well be the greatest casualty the Olympics have ever experienced when it comes to a devastating injury right before the Games were set to begin. In 2022 Kelly Sildaru is looking to take back what was taken from her. Kelly Sildaru had already proven she is an exception, even amongst Olympic gold medalists. All that is left is for a larger audience to take notice and see her as such.

Kelly Sildaru upon her arrival at the 2022 Olympics before competition has begun.

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