Kendal Johnson was watching the 2010 Winter Olympics on television when freestyle aerials came on. He had never seen anything so crazy -- athletes on skis hurtling downhill, launching themselves off a ramp and doing tricks 60 feet above the snow.
What 17-year-old kid doesn't think that's cool?
"He said, 'I think I could do that,"' said Carol Johnson, Kendal's mother. "I said, 'Sure you could.' And he said, 'No, I really do think I could do that."'
Johnson, then a senior at McFarland (Wis.) High School, had never even been on skis. He was so naive that he fired off a bombastic email to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in which he basically predicted he would be the best aerialist ever, if given the chance.
"I didn't think anyone was going to read the email, so I made sure if anyone read it they would remember it," Johnson said. "It was totally obnoxious."
Someone did read the email. And it led to an improbable series of events that has brought Johnson, now 21, to within striking distance of making the 2014 U.S. Olympic team.
It's a long shot, to be sure. Johnson must finish on the podium in World Cup competitions Friday at Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, and Jan. 18 at Lake Placid, N.Y., in order to represent the United States in Sochi next month. But the fact that he even has a chance is amazing in itself. He has gone from the couch to the flying pan in 3 1/2 years.
"K.J. doesn't have the experience that a lot of other athletes have," said Joe Davies, Johnson's coach with the U.S. aerials team. "But he progresses extremely fast and he's super-talented. If it doesn't work out for him this time around, he'll be one of the guys we'll be watching in four years."
Following a season in which he had a victory and six top-10 finishes on the North American Grand Prix circuit, Johnson finished fourth at the U.S. championships in March and recently was named to the U.S. aerials "C" team.
The "A" team is fully funded by USSA. The "B" team is partially funded and the "C" team receives no funding. Johnson can't afford to travel to international World Cups on his own dime, which is why he must excel in domestic competitions.
What he lacks in experience he makes up for with raw talent, a strong work ethic and the nerve to go where no aerialist has ever gone. The sky, quite literally, is the limit.
"He is one of the best six in the U.S. and for him to get to where he did that quickly is pretty unheard of," said Davies, a former aerials athlete and a Mequon native. "What's amazing is that he is from Wisconsin. He didn't grow up around air sites."
Said Johnson, "We are two people that really don't belong out here. We know cold, but we don't know mountains."
Back in the summer of 2010, Johnson was preparing to attend the University of Nebraska, where he planned to major in physics. He had his class schedule, a roommate and a job lined up in Lincoln as a tiny tot gymnastics coach.
But someone at the FLY Freestyle Club in Park City had read the email from "a punk kid from Wisconsin."
"It was kind of an obnoxious email, to be honest," Carol Johnson said. "He wanted to stand out. He said, 'I don't really ski but I do gymnastics and motocross.' And it worked. They said, 'Put your video where your mouth is.' He put together a video of him dabbling in gymnastics, on the trampoline and doing motocross.
"They said, 'You know what? This is the right attitude we're looking for."'
FLY invited Johnson to a one-week camp in Park City. He was so impressive that the club offered him one year of free training, a sort of aerials scholarship.
There was just one little problem. He was supposed to be on the Nebraska campus in a matter of days.
"My dad is an accountant," Johnson said. "He's definitely not one for 'Let's take a really big risk."'
FLY kept calling. The club wouldn't take no for an answer. So, naturally, Johnson did a life-changing triple flip. He moved to Park City and enrolled at the University of Utah.
His rapid progress as an aerialist has been nothing short of astounding.
"Kendal is a freak, man," Davies said. "In his very short career, he has done things technically that I didn't think could be done. He's an unbelievable talent."
One day, during a trampoline training session at the USSA Center of Excellence in Park City, Johnson, who normally does his twists to the left, started twisting to the right. Because tricks take years to master, aerialists always twist in the same direction. What Johnson was doing was akin to a left-handed pitcher throwing 90-mph strikes with his right hand.
He was so good, immediately, that Davies didn't catch on for 15 minutes.
"He just wanted to see how long it would take me to figure it out," Davies said. "I was getting on him because his landings on the trampoline weren't great. I said, 'Come on, you've got to get your right arm in front of you.' Then I was like, 'Wait a minute. That's not what I'm watching.'
"The fact that he could do it was impressive, but to do it for 15 minutes and fool me is something else."
Johnson took it to another level when, on a whim, he decided to try to change the direction of his twists in mid-air. From a physics standpoint, it seemed impossible. Once an object gains momentum in space, how can it reverse the direction of that momentum?
"I heard Kendall was going to go up and spin both directions and double out in the wrong direction," Davies said. "I said, 'That's never going to happen.'
"He did it on the first try."
There is a YouTube video of the jump. Johnson launches off the ramp, starts twisting to his left while doing a flip, then reverses direction and does two twists and a flip to the right. He lands upright in a training pool at the Utah Olympic Park training center.
"People don't think it's real," Johnson said. "They think it's got to be fake. Nobody's ever done it, so it's got to be something fake."
Said Carol Johnson, "The whole world of physics was on its ear for a while."
Davies attests to the fact that the video was not doctored. He witnessed the jump.
"I think you can even hear me laughing in the background," he said. "A whole bunch of people who know a lot about this sport didn't think it was possible."
Johnson has yet to land the jump on snow and has not named it. Technically, it's a full-in left, double-out right.
"If you do all the motions right it just happens," he said. "It's nothing crazy. It's just dropping your arms in the right places."
Johnson played soccer as a youth and tried the pole vault for two weeks in high school before deciding it "was kind of lame." He credits his background in gymnastics and motocross racing for his rapid ascent in freestyle aerials. It might be the only sport in which back flips and a touch of recklessness is a good skill set.
"He always was a bit of a daredevil," Carol Johnson said. "We never held our kids back from any of that stuff. We always just tried to provide them with the safest environment possible and kept our fingers crossed."
It also helped that Johnson knew how to crash, because there's a lot of that in aerials.
"Crashing well is a very good skill to have," he said. "I make sure if I'm going to crash, I crash well. Just take the hit. It's better to knock the wind out of yourself than separate a shoulder."
Johnson would love to make the Olympic team, but to him it's not the be-all and end-all. He's a bit of a free spirit -- there's a surprise -- and he isn't caught up in the five-ring circus of sponsorship, commercialization and the pressure to win that all-important medal.
"So many people do this because it's their job," he said. "They're not excited about it. They do it because they have to do it. I don't want to get caught up in that. I don't really have any sponsors. I don't have any contracts. I don't get any money from anybody.
"I just want to make sure I have as much fun as I can while I'm young."
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