BONGPYEONG, South Korea — They called it the Viking, a used, $2,000 pop-up trailer the Andringa brothers of Boulder, Colo., parked in the middle of the woods, 15 minutes outside Steamboat and 11,000 feet above sea level.
In May, Casey Andringa had been left off the U.S. moguls ski team, buried under 11 skiers the federation deemed better. He considered quitting at 21 and starting a new life. On Twitter, someone asked him, “Are you afraid?” The question gnawed at him. Rather than walking away, he redoubled his dedication and hatched a plan. He would live with his brother, Jesse, also a moguls skier, and train in near-seclusion.
The unusual training led to one of the most improbable American stories of the PyeongChang Olympics. On Friday morning here, Andringa roared down the Phoenix Snow Park hill, toward a crowd that included Jesse, the rest of his family and a gaggle of friends. They all wore the same white T-shirt, emblazoned with Andringa’s signature below the words “Are You Afraid.”
Andringa’s run, which he considered “not my best work,” left him in 14th place out 30 in the men’s qualification standings, outside the top 10 finishers guaranteed a spot in the finals. Countryman Troy Murphy clinched a spot with an 80.95-point run that left him in fourth place. Along with Americans Bradley Wilson (15th place) and Emerson Smith (22), Andringa can still qualify for the finals Monday by finishing in the top 10 of the 20 skiers still vying for a spot.
“Taking a step back and looking at it all, this is more than I ever could have asked for,” Andringa said. “From this point, I know what I have to do, and I know that I can do it.”
American women Morgan Schild, Jaelin Kauf and Keaton McCargo all qualified for the finals by finishing third, fifth and eighth, respectively, while 17-year-old Tess Johnson finished 22nd and needs a better showing Sunday for a chance at the podium.
For Andringa, making the Games alone is remarkable. At 14, Andringa crashed riding a longboard, fractured his skull and suffered a series of health scares. He spent a week in a Swiss hospital with an infection between his eye and brain. He tore the meniscus in his left knee at age 18 and the other meniscus at 20.
“From the first time he got hurt when he was 14,” said his mother, Pam Andringa, “there have been a number of times we weren’t sure he would ever ski again.”
Andringa had dreamed of the Olympics since he could remember, but his exclusion from the national team last spring felt like a setback too difficult to overcome. He had studied marketing at the University of Colorado and had a keen eye for photography; maybe, he thought, he needed a new direction. Then he saw the message on Twitter, asking whether he was afraid.
“It struck a chord in him,” Pam Andringa said. “He recognized he was kind of afraid that if he puts all his guns in one basket, that he could fail. That was kind of a hard thought. He just kind of said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be afraid of failing. I’m just going to go for it.’ ”
Going for it started with the Viking, where he lived with Jesse and his coach for two months. They ate the same thing every day: plain oatmeal and bananas for breakfast, a piece of bread covered with a can of tuna at lunch and quinoa and salad for dinner. At night, they would build a campfire and stare at the stars. They had no Internet, just each other.
“It was basically the middle of nowhere,” Jesse said. “People would stop by and wonder what we were doing there. People come in for the weekend, and we were there for two months. People were definitely giving us weird looks.”
The singular focus paid off. In the fall and winter, Andringa shot up the standings and showed sudden improvement. He skied with a bumper sticker on his helmet that read “Are You Afraid.” In late January, he learned he had made the U.S. Olympic team.
“I think all of us cried when we found out,” said Andringa’s sister, Heidi. “Because we’ve all seen him get to the point where he’s like, ‘I’m done.’ ”
“His story is pretty cool, man,” Wilson said. “I told him before he made the team, ‘Hey, man, it’s not a matter of if. It’s when for you.’ He’s a good skier. I was just really glad he stuck with it because there was a few times he wanted to quit and start a different life. But I’m glad he stuck on because it’s pretty cool to see the passion, the fire, light up.”
On Friday morning, Andringa glided into the starting gate, looked around and laughed to himself. He could see a crowd at the bottom and a packed set of bleachers, Olympic rings everywhere. He had seen the view so many times — thousands, he estimated — on video. At that moment, the culmination of an improbable path, those scenes flooded his mind.
“I was just getting these weird flashbacks of all these Olympic runs,” Andringa said later. “And I was like, ‘That’s me right now. I’m here.’ So that was too cool.”
Andringa felt frustrated with his run. He skied slower than he knows he can, and he sat down low after he landed his second jump. “That’s the death penalty out here,” Andringa said. Still, when he crossed the finish line, he thrust his right fist in the air, spraying snow as he came to a halt.
He made his way into the crowd and mingled with family and friends, posing for pictures with the track as the backdrop. Because of a hectic travel schedule, Andringa had not seen his parents since he learned he made the Olympic team. When he saw his mother, they hugged, both speechless.
Everyone around them wore the same T-shirt. Heidi had 80 printed, enough for the Andringa crew in South Korea and for friends and fellow skiers to wear back home in Colorado. “We sold all of ’em,” Heidi said.
“You made 80 T-shirts?” Andringa asked her, grinning.
Andringa already started thinking about Monday, still confident in his chances to land on the podium. He had been focusing on technical aspects in training sessions, more intent on a clean run than a dazzling performance. On Monday, still needing a higher score to advance, he plans to change his strategy.
“I think I’m going to open it up a little bit and show everybody what I can do,” Andringa said. “I don’t want to go out laying one up and not getting in. I’m going to go for it.”
The Viking is folded up and covered by a tarp, snow-proofed, out back behind his parents’ house. Andringa is here, with one more chance left, and he is not afraid.
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