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Jaelin Kauf emptied her mind and won a medal in women’s moguls

Jaelin Kauf won the United States’ second medal of the Games, another silver. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
5 min

ZHANGJIAKOU, China — The blue patches on Jaelin Kauf’s snow pants that sit just below her knees bobbed up and down like a buoy in a storm. The blocks of color lifted every time Kauf flew over a mogul, sometimes bucking so quickly and wildly that it appeared as though the skier might lose control and send a knee straight into her chin.

They helped illustrate what a time clock would later confirm: On Sunday night under the lights at Genting Snow Park, the American was moving fast.

Kauf, a 25-year-old from Colorado, rode her speedy skiing all the way to the podium and won the United States’ second medal — both silver — of the Beijing Games in women’s moguls less than 12 hours after snowboarder Julia Marino won the first in slopestyle at the same venue. These freezing mountains may prove to be fruitful yet.

An American woman won a snowboard slopestyle medal. She just wasn’t the one expected to.

Kauf placed second in the final with a score of 80.28, skiing faster but coming up just short of Australian Jakara Anthony, who took gold with a slightly cleaner run of slightly more daring jumps that earned a score of 83.09. Anastasiia Smirnova of the Russian Olympic Committee won bronze with 77.72.

When Kauf saw the score on her final run, her jaw dropped in happy disbelief as she thrust her arms in the air.

“It wasn’t a flawless run, and I just didn’t know what the judges were going to do with that,” Kauf said. “I kind of had a little arm thing on the bottom air, and I didn’t know if I had sold the landing. When it popped up with my score and I realized that I was getting an Olympic medal that was guaranteed, I just was — I don’t know. So proud and just in awe of it all.”

Awe had gotten Kauf into trouble before.

At her first Olympic Games in PyeongChang in 2018, the 21-year-old American arrived as the top-ranked moguls skier in the world and felt the full crush of what it is to be a first-time Olympian — not just the pressure of representing your country but the overwhelming nature of the Games themselves. Off the course, Kauf felt star-struck. On it, she was too much in her own head.

In moguls, skiers fly down a 250-meter-long course covered in bumps and perform two different jumps along the way, racking up points on the technical quality of their run, the performance on their acrobatic jumps and time.

There are three rounds of the final, with the top 12 skiers advancing after the first and the top six advancing after the second. In PyeongChang, Kauf’s strategy was to survive and advance, preserving effort and skiing just well enough to make it to the next round.

It left her on the edge of the bubble, placing seventh and missing out at a chance to go for a medal. In her second Winter Games, she adjusted. Her plan was, essentially, to plan less. Ski fast. Be aggressive. Don’t think.

For Nathan Chen, the Olympics are no longer about fear. He’s in Beijing for the joy.

“For these Games, I was skiing to win every single round,” Kauf said. “I wanted to walk away with absolutely no regrets in my skiing and just put it all out there 100 percent every time. … I think it’s easier to me, skiing faster. Just being aggressive. I’ve always found the less thought goes into it, the faster I go.”

Skiing is second nature to Kauf in part because she grew up in a skiing household. Her mother, Patti, is a two-time champion on the Pro Mogul Tour and a three-time bronze medalist in ski cross at the Winter X Games. Her father, Scott, is a five-time Pro Mogul Tour champion.

But neither has an Olympic medal.

“I was thinking about it going up the lift like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going up for the medal round.’ That was something that I missed out on at the last Olympics and kind of got emotional there at the bottom when I realized I qualified for that final round,” Kauf said. “I knew, definitely, what was at stake, but as I was getting closer to being in the gate I just told myself what I was telling myself every other run: ‘This is your day. Leave it all out there, have fun, and attack.’ And that’s just what I did.”

Olivia Giaccio was the only other American to make it to the last round; she finished sixth.

Teenager Kai Owens missed the opening round of qualification earlier in the week after a crash in training left her with a swollen eye. She qualified for the finals with a single run but was eliminated after the first round.

It ended a significant journey for Owens, 17, who returned to her birth country for the Olympics. She was abandoned in a town square in China as an infant before being adopted at 16 months old by a couple from Colorado.

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