March 04, 2015

The crystal globes sit on countertops at their parents' houses in Connecticut. Kiley McKinnon took home the women's and Mac Bohonnon, the men's.

The audaciously captured trophies were awarded to the elementary school classmates who became the 2014-15 world aerial skiing champions. The rewards speak as much to the talent that came out of Island Avenue Elementary School in Madison, Connecticut, as from America's aerials pipeline, which is producing champions after years in start-up mode.

''This is sort of the first wave of developmental athletes,'' said the 19-year-old Bohonnon, who is among those who got their training in the U.S. ski team's seven-year-old Elite Aerial Development Program. ''The national team is full, the development program is full. People are coming out every summer. It creates bottom pressure. The kids in the development programs, it's inspiring for them to see us winning, to realize they're in the same program we came up in.''

It was at Bohonnon's urging that McKinnon took her first look at aerials - a daredevil sport that demands fast trips down an icy ramp that sends skiers flying 50 feet in the air while they perform a number of flips and twists and hope to stick the landing.

Her background isn't unlike those of the dozens who take up the sport. She was a high-level gymnast who was good on skis and looking for a way to parlay that into something more.

''Mac said, `We're looking for girls, you should come try aerials,''' the 20-year-old McKinnon said. ''That summer, I went to Lake Placid to check it out.''

That trip to the Olympic Training Center, home of the development program, came in 2010, a few months after Jeret ''Speedy'' Peterson produced America's most electric single moment in the sport - landing his trademark, five-spinning Hurricane jump to win an Olympic silver medal.

But Peterson was one of the last in an earlier, successful generation of U.S. jumpers who were slowly being overtaken by skiers in China, Australia and Belarus. Skiing leaders in those countries saw medal opportunities and started luring legions of gymnasts and divers over to the mountain. Outside of Peterson's silver, those three countries have won every aerials medal in the last two Olympics.

Meanwhile, the U.S. only sent three jumpers to Russia, down from eight the previous Olympics. It was the endgame of a messy, bureaucratic selection process in which the U.S. ski team must divvy up Olympic spots among several freestyle events: aerials, moguls, halfpipe, slopestyle and skicross. The ultimate goal is to send people with the best chances of winning medals in their respective disciplines.

Bohonnon almost came through.

The only U.S. man in the aerials contest and only in his first year of doing triple-flipping jumps that are more or less required at the top level of the men's competitions, he finished fifth in the mountains above Sochi.

''It was an eye-opener and a confidence builder for me,'' he said.

Bohonnon kept building through this season. Skeptics will note that the second- and third-place finishers in the race for the crystal globe were both from China, and neither competed last weekend at the season-ending event in Minsk, Belarus.

Still, there's no denying the significance of the moment for a U.S. team that has been trying to restore its standing in a growingly competitive sport.

Bohonnon is the first American man to win the crystal globe since Peterson in 2005.

McKinnon is the first American woman to take it since Nikki Stone in 1998. Stone also won Olympic gold that year. In second place this year was American Ashley Caldwell, a one-time gymnast who was the first aerialist in the development program.

Together, it's the first time the Americans have swept the aerials trophies in 20 years, and the repeat came sooner than expected.

''It's an amazing start to the next Olympic cycle,'' McKinnon said. ''Hopefully, we progress from here.''

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