High-flying Williams all set for Olympic glory bid
McRae Williams ended the pre-Olympic ski slopestyle season as world number one, having won the FIS crystal globe and been crowned world champion. Like his close friend Joss Christensen, who became the discipline’s first Olympic champion at Sochi 2014, Williams hails from Park City, and is aiming to win another gold for the Utah resort at PyeongChang 2018.
Williams grew up on the slopes of Park City-Deer Valley, in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, and fell under the Olympic spell aged just 11.
“I’m quite lucky to be able to say that my first memory of the Olympic Games is actually being there, at Salt Lake City 2002,” he told NBC. “I had tickets for the aerials competition at Deer Valley and I’ll never forget it. I never imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to take part in the Games myself. Dreams do come true!”
And when he does make his Olympic bow at PyeongChang 2018, he will do so as the favourite to win ski slopestyle gold and retain the title for both the United States and Park City, following Christensen’s inaugural victory four years ago.
Two of a kindChristensen was a dramatic last-minute selection for Sochi 2014, while Williams, who was 23 at the time, failed to qualify. “He’s been my best friend since we were children, and we’ve progressed through this sport together from the beginning,” said Williams of his compatriot. “It’s a crazy situation that makes every day both intense and interesting, whatever happens. But he’s also my biggest rival because we’re capable of the same things and our records are similar. As friends, we want each other to succeed, but at the same time we’re competitors because every day we have to improve in order to beat each other.”
While Christensen has endured several setbacks since his Olympic victory – the most recent of them being an ACL tear in May 2017, which has severely hampered his preparations for his title defence – Williams has been flying high. One of the highlights of a superb 2016/17 World Cup season, in which he won the crystal globe in his discipline and was seldom off the podium, came in January, when he won a first X Games medal in Aspen – silver behind Norway’s Øystein Bråten.
Worth the waitTwo months later he claimed that maiden world title in Sierra Nevada, doing so in spectacular fashion. Leading with a score of 88.40 heading into the third and final run, Williams knew he had to produce something special to hold off the challenges of fellow American Gus Kenworthy and Great Britain’s James Woods.
Using all his imagination on the rails, flying high on all three jumps, and executing perfect landings – both forwards and backwards – he sealed the title with an unmatchable 93.80 points. “I can’t believe it!” said the 27-year-old afterwards. “I was already delighted with winning the crystal globe, and with all my podiums this year, which has been by far the most consistent of my career. But to finish the season like this is a great honour. It still hasn’t sunk in.
“There are 16-year-olds who throw themselves at it, but they’re not mentally mature enough; they don’t think, they just do, whereas I’m at an age where I try to stay fit. I’m wiser. I’ve got my feet on the ground. I try to stay positive through the good and the bad times. And it’s paying off. It’s more a psychological battle than a physical one. It’s taken me more than 13 years, but I’ve finally made it.”
Relishing the challengeDuring the course of his remarkable season, Williams had the opportunity to try out the slopestyle course at Bokwang Phoenix Park, the venue for the freestyle skiing competitions at PyeongChang 2018. He was impressed with what he saw: “It’s by far the most innovative course I’ve ever been on. That’s why slopestyle is so great; always fresh, always interesting.” Williams’ journey to the top of the world rankings began early. “I was eight or nine years old when my father signed me up for an aerials selection camp at Park City, and I remember seeing guys doing new tricks, like corks with a grab, and just standing there admiring them,” he explained. “That’s when I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
The battle to qualify!But McRae Williams still had to qualify for the Games, given the wealth of American talent in the discipline. An epic battle which ended only on 22 January 2018. He finally secured his place alongside Nick Goepper and Gus Kenworthy (both of whom medalled at the Games in Sochi behind their compatriot Joss Christensen, who will not be in PyeongChang) and 19-year-old Alex Hall.
“Failing to qualify in 2014 totally gutted me. Thinking that I’d have to wait four years to try again, and wondering if I’d still be at the top of my game was really tough. Feeling that relief today is even more than a dream come true,” he said just a few days before leaving for the Republic of Korea. “I can’t begin to describe the feeling of achievement. It was a particularly tough battle, with lots of unexpected obstacles. But I kept fighting, and it paid off. I still can’t believe it...”
When asked at the beginning of the season: “What would you regard as success at PyeongChang 2018?”, he answered: “Gold. I’m at the top of my game right now, and I’m not just aiming to be in PyeongChang to represent my country and my sport; my plan is to bring home another gold medal for Park City!” Half of that journey is now behind him...