By Lindsay Rossmiller THE BILLINGS GAZETTE
BILLINGS – It’s been a bumpy ride for Brad Wilson to get to his third Olympics. That doesn’t include the literal bumps his sport requires navigating while skiing down a mountain that he’s made a professional career.
These past four years have included both wins and thinking he’d not ski again, rediscovering joy in his sport, global pauses, more time off snow than he’s had in years, hotel quarantines in foreign countries and finally a chance to say goodbye on his own terms with a final season.
“`I’m ready to move on you know? You can’t ski forever and when we do ski, we don’t really have much time for anything else,” Wilson said during an interview with The Billings Gazette ahead of his trip to Beijing, China.
The three-time Olympian from Butte has been on the U.S. Moguls Team for the past 11 years with trips to both the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia (he finished 20th) and the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea (finished 18th). He’s a five-time U.S. champion and has three World Cup wins with World Championship silver medals in both the 2017 and 2019 dual moguls.
He began the first round of Olympic competition Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022 in Beijing.
Behind all his accolades, Wilson’s relationship with his sport has shifted over the last few years, which is allowing him to approach his final season with new perspective on himself, on how he wants to leave the sport and with his teammates and fellow competitors.
“There’s some kids that are coming up that are just so good and their future is looking very bright. I’m just kind of getting to the end of mine and everything is just lining up really well for me to just call it quits after this year,” Wilson said.
As the sole member of the U.S. men’s moguls squad in Beijing with previous Olympic experience, he’s giving advice when needed about navigating an event like the Olympics and focusing on helping his teammates in addition to his own competitive pursuits.
“There’s a lot of information and that stuff that I’m giving now and I wouldn’t if we weren’t close. We’re really close as a team and we definitely want everybody to do really well,” Wilson said. “That’s the sweet thing about this sport is like we are all trying to beat each other at their best and do what we can to help them and get a lot more satisfaction out of beating them when they do their best runs.”
Unlike many other stops on their World Cup circuit, the Olympic competition will be at a new venue. Previous test events were canceled, so all the skiers will be running the course for the first time.
“I think the biggest thing is understanding you can only control the controllable,” Wilson explained. “Just yourself and managing how you’re able to deal with adversity.”
In a sport where skiers are judged based on both how they navigate the course, the tricks they do and the time it takes them to complete it, many factors are out of their control. Add in factors such as weather, snow, lighting and equipment, competitors have many variables to account for when the lights shine brightest at the Olympics.
Throw in the isolation required due to COVID-19, multiple restrictions, and the possibility that an athlete could test positive and prevent either their trip or from competing even once there and this will be one of the most challenging Olympic Games for the athletes hoping to participate.
“It’s really important to understand that if you just focus on your own performance, then you’re always going to leave happy no matter what the outcome is as far as your finish,” Wilson said. “If you have a really good performance and you’re really stoked on your run, that’s literally all that matters and it’s taken me a really long time to realize that.”
That advice has been hard won. Wilson detailed how in the fall of 2019 he suffered an altitude-induced panic attack at a competition in Switzerland. As someone who had no previous experience with that kind of episode, medical staff had him helicoptered off the mountain certain there was something seriously wrong.
“`It was so scary,” Wilson described. “At that point in my life, I’d never dealt with anxiety before. I was one of those people who thought ‘You’re weak’ if you have anxiety or kind of taught that in a way. Growing up in Montana, it’s just kind of a toughness thing.”
He remembers saying goodbye to the staff who were with him while thinking he was dying.
“Looking at the back of the Matterhorn I was like, ‘This is honestly a pretty epic way to go,’ but it was full on in that moment and it completely changed my life. It worked in a good way.”
But not before it got worse first.
“I had to take time off and I basically quit skiing for two months. I wasn’t going to ski again, ever again,” Wilson said.
He went so far as to get a job in construction which he found he really enjoyed. He did meditation, worked with therapists and focused on treating his anxiety like he would a physical injury like an ACL tear. He realized that he had been so focused on skiing that all other parts of his life were being filtered through a lens of whether it would help or hinder his performance on the mountain.
“You have to focus on skiing when you’re skiing, but you also need that break. When you’re letting the sport that you do take over your life, it’s going to force you into burnout and you’re losing that enjoyment of it so finding that balance is really really key,” Wilson said.
He eventually started skiing again for fun, not worried about what contest was up next or what spending time with his friends would mean for his ability to train or compete the next day. Eventually he rejoined the U.S. team in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and was surprised to find he did better than before, even without two months of training.
“It’s amazing that I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten from skiing, but there’s so much more to life obviously and that took a lot of pressure of performance out of it and it definitely opened my eyes to why I kind of started it in the first place when I was a kid in Montana skiing up at Discovery or Lost Trail and just enjoying it,” Wilson said.
So he returned to competition, this time with a new perspective and appreciation for finding a balance between the different parts of his life and a desire to share what he’d learned.
“The way I look at skiing now is a lot different and it’s a lot healthier and a lot better. Super stoked and so thankful,” Wilson said. “I’m so grateful now that I was able to go and experience all these places and all these successes and failures and all these things through skiing.”
When events around the world were suspended in 2020, Wilson said he spent more time outside hiking and biking and camping than he’d previously been able to. And with his adjusted perspective, he was learning to go with the flow. But even once competition and travel resumed, adjustments were needed on a country by country basis. He and some of his teammates even found themselves quarantined at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 season.
“It was tough,” Wilson said. “You want to get home, it’s the end of the season, all you want to do is be home, but you can’t because you’re stuck in this hotel room in Kazakhstan.”
However, he feels those experiences have prepared him for an Olympics unlike anything he’s previously known.
“Sochi was incredible,” Wilson said. “There was tons of fans there, a lot of people and they were really loud too. It was just a really fun experience.”
“In China, there will be absolutely none of that. We might be able to go watch events after our event, we’re there for maybe two or three more days, but the idea is to kind of get in and get out. That’s what China wants us to do.”
And while there may not be fans this time around, Wilson will have a piece of home with him in the form of his brother Bryon, a bronze medalist from 2010 in Vancouver and current member of the U.S. coaching staff.
“We both understand how cool it is and are super excited about it,” he said.
As for what’s next after the Olympics, there are a number of World Cup events still remaining on the calendar to conclude the season, but Wilson knows that anything could happen yet.
“Now after competing the last two years, it’s very easy to go with the flow now and not be devastated by certain calls and stuff like that,” he said.
So as he prepares to move on to the next stage of his life, he is at peace with both himself and his sport. He plans to take up construction again and some furniture design. He’s also grateful for where the journey has brought him.
“None of this stuff would have ever been possible without my community in Montana and Butte and being able to understand how much sacrifice a lot of other people made for me to be able to be here has been so awesome,” Wilson said. “I’m just beyond grateful.”
And when he thinks back to what he’d tell himself as a kid in Butte?
“If you really love it, go for it 100 percent and don’t doubt it. I wasn’t good when I first started skiing. I wasn’t great and then eventually got better and then eventually got even better and was able to qualify for the ski team and then the world cup team and then the Olympic team and it takes you to a lot of places,” Wilson said. “So no matter what it is, it’s important to go for it 100 percent and understand that it’s a journey and it’s going to be fun no matter what.”