Kelly Sildaru, the world's best teenage skier, is on a winning streak
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. -- To see 16-year-old Kelly Sildaru standing in a crowd of ski and snowboard fans -- a skinny blonde teenager wearing generic black snow bibs with a hand resting on the shoulder of her little brother -- you'd think she were any other kid watching the high-flying spectacle of the Dew Tour.
But she is the high-flying spectacle.
In 2016, Sildaru became the youngest gold medalist ever at the X Games when she won the ski slopestyle event at age 13. She defended her title the following year, embarking on a rampage of success and landing on the podium of every contest she entered. She was a constant force in driving the progression of her sport until last year, when her domination came to a grinding halt.
Last fall, Sildaru was trying a flair (an inverted trick) in the halfpipe and didn't land well, tearing the ACL in her left knee. It sidelined her for the entirety of last season, including the Olympic Games last February.
"It was a really sad time for me in the beginning, just to understand that I would miss it, because I really wanted to go," Sildaru says. "But at some point I realized that actually, it's not that bad. It's not like life is over now."
She motivated herself by watching her 12-year-old brother, Henry, who is also a skier -- and letting herself get a little envious. "He'd go skiing and I stayed home," she recalls. "I saw how he progressed and I wanted to as well. I tried to work even harder to get back faster."
Hailing from Tallinn, Estonia, Sildaru has become her country's most acclaimed athlete. Learning to ski at the age of 2 with the help of her father, Tonis, an avid but never competitive skier, Sildaru started pushing the bar before most kids learn how to build a snowman.
"I skied pretty much all the time with my dad and his friends. I saw them doing jumps and rails, so that was something I wanted to go with it. I tried to follow them. ... I think I was like 4. I wasn't big enough to do the rails, but I really wanted to. My dad had to tell me, 'You can't do it yet.'"
The time came soon enough. Sildaru was hucking jumps and rails by the time she was 6 or 7. She was training in competitive camps before she hit double digits and winning contests not long after that.
These days, Sildaru weighs in at barely more than 100 pounds, and her father still serves as her coach and manager. Henry, also of slight build with long blond hair, travels with her everywhere she goes. The two are both inseparable and competitive, helping each other's ski progression at every chance they get, especially when back home in Estonia, in spite of the limited terrain.
"Our highest slope is about 380 meters above the sea level, so it's pretty small," Kelly says. "At the resort close to my house, there is one really small jump and two or three rails. When I started traveling more, going to the French Alps, you have many different options of jumps, bigger and smaller. I started with the smaller ones and started going bigger. It was step by step."
As the 2018-19 ski season gets underway, Sildaru is going big. She's starting right where she left off before her knee injury -- crushing the competition.
After handily winning her first event back from injury -- the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup slopestyle contest in Stubai, Austria, in November -- Sildaru outshined Olympic gold medalist Cassie Sharpe of Canada to win the Copper Mountain, Colorado, halfpipe contest in early December, proving that her freestyle skills translate to multiple platforms, from slopestyle to halfpipe and everything in between.
A few days later, Sildaru competed in the Breckenridge Dew Tour slopestyle, the site of her first major international victory back in 2015. Again she smoked the field, throwing huge, technical tricks over the jumps and rails, including back-to-back switch 1080s (that's three complete spins starting backward), spinning in opposite directions, all with graceful and flawless grabs. She managed it even with a fresh injury, after a crash on the rails in practice had badly bruised her right leg.
"The level of Kelly's riding, as everyone knows, is un-be-lie-vable," 20-year-old American skier Maggie Voisin said after finishing third in the Dew Tour slopestyle. "She pushes the sport. I think it's something we all needed. Women's freeskiing is bigger and better than ever. Having her back on the scene is going to push it that much further."
For Sildaru, pushing the limits of her sport is not a conscious priority. It simply occurs as a byproduct when she's out there having fun.
"I just love what I'm doing and I'm trying to take the most of it to enjoy as much as I can," she says. "When I won the halfpipe at Copper, I didn't expect that at all. Cassie is so amazing. I had no idea I could beat her. Somehow, it just happened."
Sildaru says she encounters a bit of fanfare when back home in Estonia, but for the most part, she spends her time like any other teenager, doing homework and hanging out with friends.
"Always when I'm going somewhere, I'm taking my books and stuff with me. Before or after skiing, I'm doing my schoolwork. When I'm back in Estonia I'm going back to school like a normal kid," she says.
Staying healthy while performing her best until the next Olympics is Sildaru's ultimate goal. When asked about the greatest lesson learned during the past year of rehab, the teenager takes a moment to deliberate. Her response is a nugget of wisdom for the ages. "If you have the opportunity to do something, enjoy doing that because you never know when it's going to stop," she says. "Never say no to anything that you'd want to do. Take in as many new experiences as you can."