BONGPYEONG, South Korea — The jumpsuit belonged to Jon Lillis once, before he handed it down to his youngest brother, Mikey. Lillis had become one of the best ski jumpers in America by then, on his way to being one of the best in the world. But he believed Mikey would be even better. He believed, one day, they would compete together at the Olympics.
Weeks ago, the suit arrived at Lillis’s home. His parents had pulled it out of storage and sent it by mail. It was smallish — they both had gymnasts’ bodies, about 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds — and a shade of aquamarine Columbia Sportswear called Hyper Blue. It still had Mikey Lillis’s initials written inside the collar. The trip was going to be different than he expected, different in an unfair and incomprehensible way. Lillis, 23, was taking his brother to the Olympics.
In late October, Lillis and his other younger brother Chris, who is also a world-class aerials skier, were in Switzerland competing. They received an unfathomable call from home. Mikey had died in his sleep, in his bed at the Lillis home in Rochester, N.Y. He was 17. Doctors suspected heart arrhythmia but have yet to reach a conclusive cause of death.
On Sunday night at Phoenix Snow Park, Lillis pulled on the jumpsuit and competed at the Olympics in the men’s aerials finals. His mother and father and Chris watched from the base of the hill, in front of the grandstand. They wore glass pendants infused with Mikey’s ashes, same as the emblem Lillis had worn around his neck at the Opening Ceremonies.
Lillis entered the finals with a chance to win a medal. He had qualified Saturday with the highest score in the competition. He knew, three months ago, some people wondered whether he would be able to summon strength to continue. His jumping actually started to improve. He learned “sometimes life really sucks,” he said, and that when it does, you need something you love to lift you out of the darkness. For Lillis, that was aerials skiing.
On Sunday night, on his second jump, he came into the ramp a little too slow, missed his takeoff just a little bit, didn’t start flipping soon enough. His knees, meant to stay straight, bent. His skis, meant to stay close and parallel, spread apart and skewed. He stuck the landing — he is proud, most of all, of his landings.
It was not the jump Lillis knew he had inside him. Sunday night happened to be one of the greatest shows in aerials history — “insane,” Lillis would say. His score — 95.47, more than 30 points less than his spectacular qualifying jump the day before — placed him eighth, when only six advanced to the final.
“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,” Lillis said. “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.”
He had come to the Olympics. That did not make everything fine or heal any wounds. His kid brother was gone, and that part of life would never make sense and always suck. Mikey would have been in the crowd, cheering like the mad Buffalo Bills fan he was.
“He would have thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Lillis said. “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.”
Lillis moved to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., when he was 14. Aerials skiing bonded him and Mikey, but traveling to competitions kept them apart. Now he wants to keep him close. He wears Mikey’s shoes. He thinks about him every day.
Since Mikey died, Lillis has learned how short life can be and the necessity to make the most of every day. The point is not to eliminate the bad parts — you can’t. The point is to find a way through them.
“Even when you’re down at the lowest you can get, there’s always things that you’re passionate about that you can use as a ladder to kind of pull yourself out of those dark moments,” Lillis said. “And that’s what’s really important. That’s what I’d say to anybody in any situation if you’re in the bottom of yourself and the worst time in your life. Just find that thing. And aerials is that for me.”
Chris would have competed here if he had not torn his anterior cruciate ligament weeks ago. His knee is healing well. On Sunday night, he stood without crutches for the entire competition.
Jon Lillis plans to give himself a break here and there, to keep his body — old for such a taxing sport — fresh. But he wants to keep jumping another four another years. He envisions competing next to Chris at the Olympics.
“He’s a real good jumper,” Lillis said. “So I think that 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 is going to keep going. Late Sunday, as floodlights illuminated trodden snow, Lillis walked toward his family. They had their glass pendants. He wore the Hyper Blue suit with Mikey’s initials written in the collar. All of the Lillises were at the Olympics together.
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