Aerials training 2013 USANA Lake Placid Freestyle Cup in Lake Placid, NY. Photo: Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski Team
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Aerials training 2013 USANA Lake Placid Freestyle Cup in Lake Placid, NY; Photograph by Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski Team
Aerials training 2013 USANA Lake Placid Freestyle Cup in Lake Placid, NY. Photo: Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski Team

Mind Over Matter

“It takes a special person to think it’s a good idea to do what we do,” says 18-year-old freestyle aerialist Mac Bohonnon. Aerial skiing is inherently dangerous. Skiers bomb down a ramp at 40+ miles an hour, launch 50 feet into the air, and perform multiple flips and twists before landing on a steep slope. They train first on trampolines and then jump into water pits dozens of times before ever attempting a trick on snow.

So when Bohonnon secured a last-minute spot on the U.S. Olympic team, he knew he’d need to come up with some big tricks in order to be competitive on the global stage in Sochi. He’d have to nail a more difficult jump than he’d ever attempted on snow. It was do or die time for the young athlete. He could either let the pressure get to his head, or use his mind to overcome it.

He pulled through, placing 5th in the men’s aerials, proving he’ll be a flying force for years to come.

At just 18, Bohonnon is on the young side of aerial skiers, who typically peak in their late 20s. But he already has half a decade of experience and comes across as far wiser than his years.

This wasn’t the first time Bohonnon has had to dig deep. He left home at the age of 13 to train at Olympic facilities—first in Lake Placid, New York, and now in Park City, Utah. He’s very familiar with overcoming mental hurdles in order to compete—like early in his career when a coach told Bohonnon he wasn’t good enough and should give up the sport.

Rather than let the coach kick him off the team, Bohonnon dedicated himself to correcting his form. No doubt this determination and resilience has contributed to Bohonnon’s rise to the upper echelons of an unbelievably challenging sport.

Watching it is mind-boggling: It’s hard to conceive of how anyone can learn to perform such stunts.

It turns out, the biggest deterrent is fear. “There’s no middle ground between water and snow,” Bohonnon told me. “The scariest thing is doing something on snow for the first time.”

Who wouldn’t be afraid? One mishap—a botched launch, an arm slightly askew, an unexpected tailwind—can have disastrous consequences. Bad conditions, a crash, even seeing someone else fall can get into an athlete’s head, planting seeds of doubt.

Recovering your mental game after a crash is no easy feat, as Bohonnon attests. During training in Sochi, Bohonnon took the worst fall of his life, which landed him in the hospital, coughing up blood. As he described the experience to me, Bohonnon visibly tensed, still scarred by the memory.

It turns out the injuries were more mental than physical, sapping his confidence. But the wonder kid bounced back, landing jump after crazy jump.

What’s the secret? It’s a mental game.

“In the top ten, there’s not much of an athletic difference,” said Bohonnon’s coach, Joe Davies. “It’s a mental difference.”

Bohonnon agrees, saying the mental side is 50 to 60 percent of the sport.

It comes down to visualization: Envisioning success, eliminating negative thoughts, practicing relaxation techniques, putting mind over matter.

In Sochi, mental focus helped Bohonnon pull out two jumps he’d never tried in competition, which is unheard of, according to Davies. The pinnacle was a full-double-full-full, one of the biggest tricks on the World Cup circuit. It’s a quadruple twisting triple—meaning three flips and four twists—completed in mere seconds. Dizzy yet?

As Davies told me, “No one lands the first full-double-full-full they try.” Unless you’re Mac Bohonnon, that is. He landed not just one but six over the course of the week. And he made it look easy. “He makes everything look easy,” said Davies. “He’s a freakish kid.”

It’s sounds like Bohonnon might be a cat reincarnated, always landing on his feet.

Bohonnon’s fifth place finish in Sochi is remarkable for an athlete who wasn’t even expected to make the team. As the only American freestyle aerialist to compete at the Olympics, he has a bright future ahead of him.

There’s no doubt that podium finishes, medals and accolades will continue to fuel Bohonnon’s fire. But what it really comes down to is, in his words, “It’s so much fun to fly through the air.”

We could all learn a thing or two from Mac Bohonnon. For starters, do what you do because it’s fun, and visualize your success. In many ways, freestyle aerial jumping seems like the ultimate manifestation of intention. What you think, you do. What you think, you become.

Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.