Story and photos by JOSEPH PARKER
It’s February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Twenty-three-year-old ski jumper Will Rhoads sits on top of the hill, waiting for the right moment to begin his descent down the ramp. The cold, crisp breeze brushes his face as he prepares himself for the moment he has dreamed about since he first began ski jumping. After a decade of training and competition, Rhoads has finally earned his opportunity to compete for a spot on the podium at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Rhoads’ exposure to the Olympics began at a young age when his family moved from Concord, New Hampshire, to Park City, Utah. Rhoads’ father, David, had accepted a job with the Olympic Organizing Committee for the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Unbeknownst to Rhoads at the time, this cross-country move was the first step toward his professional career as a ski jumper.
“I kind of got into the sport by accident,” Rhoads said in a phone interview from Norway while preparing for the final competition of the ski jumping season. “My friend, Colton Kissell, started doing it. I was 5 or 6 years old at the time and he was, like, ‘Hey, I tried this thing called ski jumping, it’s super sweet, you’ve got to try it,’ and we were best friends at the time, so I was like, ‘OK.’”
After his first exposure to the sport, Rhoads was hooked. He began building his skill set at the Utah Olympic Park, located just a short drive from his home in Park City. The Olympic Park had been renovated for the 2002 Olympic Games and provided Rhoads an upper hand to improve his skills on state-of-the-art facilities.
Rhoads continued to progress in the sport throughout his youth, but his career really began to take off as he entered his teenage years. “Growing up, I was always pretty competitive,” Rhoads said. “It wasn’t until I was 12 or so that I realized [ski jumping] was something I could be good at, and that I wanted to be a World Cup-level, or potentially, Olympian ski jumper.”
At the age of 12, Rhoads began working on his professional ski jumping career with guidance from his coach and long-time role model, Clint Jones. “Growing up, [Clint] was the guy I was watching on TV,” Rhoads said. “I wanted to emulate as much of him as I could.”
Throughout his 17-year professional career, Jones was a member of seven World Championship teams and represented the United States during the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. After retiring from competition, Jones began coaching the club team in Park City and would later serve as Rhoads’ head coach on the national ski jumping team. Currently Jones serves as team director for USA Nordic.
“Ski jumping is a pretty unique thing,” Jones said during a phone interview. “We’re looking for guys that are tall and skinny. You also need to have a pretty high strength-to-weight ratio, and most importantly is coordination and athleticism.” Rhoads stands 6-feet-3-inches tall and competes at a weight of 140 pounds, making him a perfect candidate for a sport where genetics play a crucial role in an athlete’s ability.
“Will is a pretty thin guy, but at the same time he’s powerful in the legs and has broad shoulders, which definitely helps him fly through the air,” said Jones. With guidance from his coach, Rhoads began making a name for himself throughout the United States ski jumping community.
After being named to the national ski jumping team, Rhoads was truly able to fly. He has won the Men’s Large Hill U.S. National Championship consecutively since 2015. In addition to his national titles, he has placed top-10 in numerous FIS Cups (International Ski Federation). Rhoads was also a member of the ski jumping team that won the 2015 Junior World Championship in Falun, Sweden. Aside from his official titles and medals, Rhoads became a member of the “200 Club” after jumping 201 meters in Slovenia at the Planica World Cup finals.
However, pursuing a professional athletic career is not always glory and fame; it comes with a few caveats.
During his adolescent years, Rhoads was unable to participate in other sports because so much of his time was dedicated to ski jumping. The time he spent in foreign countries, either for training or competition, kept him away from family and friends for extended periods. Despite the hardships that accompanied his sport, Rhoads has always kept his chin up and mind focused on the next challenge.
After 11 years of hard work, training and competition, Rhoads received the news he had long anticipated. While awaiting a Skype call from the U.S. Olympic Committee, Rhoads received a notification on his phone. He had been tagged in a post by the U.S. Ski Team, congratulating him on being officially named to the Olympic Team.
“To be honest, it was a little anti-climactic to learn I had made the Olympic team via Instagram, but I’ll take it. To see that I had actually made the team was really cool,” he said.
Christine Rhoads, the mother of Will Rhoads, was beyond ecstatic about her son’s Olympic status. “We always knew he could make it,” she said. “He worked so hard to get [to the Olympics] … as a mother there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your child accomplish their dream.”
Unfortunately, Rhoads did not do as well as he hoped on the Olympic stage. During a qualifying jump, the winds shifted, which caused him to lose valuable distance. As a result, Rhoads placed 51st out of a total 56 competitors in the men’s individual large hill competition. Regardless of his performance, Rhoads takes pride knowing he was finally able to fulfil his long-time dream of competing at the Olympics in the sport to which he had dedicated so much of his life.
As the old saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” Rhoads is approaching the age where he may need to leave professional jumping behind in order to pursue a life-long career.
Rhoads said he desires to continue working in an athletic environment. He has considered the idea of becoming a physical therapist or even a doctor, specializing in sports medicine. His former coach, Clint Jones, hopes Rhoads will return to the U.S. Nordic Team as a coach himself, helping to inspire and train the next generation of Olympic ski jumpers.