Ever since October, Team USA Olympic skier Jon Lillis has been dealing with far more than training for the games. On the 21st of that month, his youngest brother, 17-year-old Mikey, also an aerials skier, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. Over the past months Lillis, 23, pushed his way to the 2018 PyeongChang Games — despite his grief — and brought his little brother along with him, the best that he could.
Sunday night in South Korea, Lillis finished eighth in the aerials skiing event, one that he usually shared not only with Mikey but also continues to share with his other brother, Chris. The dream was that all three would end up on the medals podium one day. Chris is currently recovering from a torn ACL and fracture in his right leg, injuries sustained during a World Cup event in China last December.
Instead it was just Jon alone at the Olympics this year. He landed a near-perfect jump in the first qualifying round but didn't do well enough on his second jump to advance to medals — only six skiers advance. His second jump started too slow, he missed the takeoff, and waited too long to flip. That led to his knees bending and then his skis spreading apart. His score dropped by 30 points from one jump to the next.
But, even after failing to advance, Lillis maintained that it was worth it because he felt like Mikey was there with him. "My life the last three months has really been trying to find ways to keep him close to me," Lillis told The Los Angeles Times after his event.
One of the ways he did that was by wearing a glass pendant infused with his brother's ashes during the opening ceremony. And during his jumps he wore a jumpsuit that he had handed down to his brother, only to inherit it when Mikey died. "It still has his initials in the back," Lillis told Team USA. "That’s about as close as it gets."
Lillis told The Washington Post that he's just glad that he made it out given what life has thrown at him and his family:
If you asked anyone at the end of October what they thought my year was going to be like, they might say I would have a downward spiral and I wouldn’t be here, and I would have been too sad to go out and do this. I think that the fact I just came out here and I gave it my all is something I can go home and be really proud of.
As for what his brother's reaction to the competition, Lillis has no doubt that he would have been in the stands cheering. “He would have thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Lillis told The Post. “He would have been a proud little brother, and then hopefully I would have been a proud big brother when I stuck around four more years and tried to go with him. This is the chance that we got, and this is the cards we got. As much as possible, I felt like he was there with me.”
Mikey won't be joining Lillis anymore, but his whole family was there on Sunday night, all of them wearing the same glass pendants infused with the little brother's ashes. Chris, who is just 19, also hopes to make a full recovery and continue competing in future Olympics.
"Team Lillis will keep going, and four years from now, it’ll be a whole different story, and we’ll be out here trying to kick some ass,” Lillis told The LA Times. Perhaps there will be two Lillis brothers on the podium in 2022.